Whitecap Winery: A Taste of Real Door County

On a wall in the Whitecap Winery in Ellison Bay was a large map of eastern Wisconsin depicting the Wisconsin Ledge AVA (American Viticultural Area) – a designated wine-producing area. All of the wineries in the region were listed on the map. As Don Grasse pointed to the map, my eyes focused on the top of it as I searched for his winery, the farthest north wine producer in the region. As I stood in a small space that served as a production, storage, bottling and tasting room, I already had the theme of the article I was about to write: Whitecap Winery – the Wisconsin Ledge’s smallest, and northernmost winery.  

As Don pointed to the map, a different focus emerged. The theme to my article changed: Whitecap Winery, where all wines are produced using only estate grapes. Don also wanted to make it clear that all of his estate wines were dry or semi-dry.

Don was answering the central question that had led me on my adventure: could a winery in Door County produce quality wine using only grapes from their own vineyard? The only way to verify the answer was to taste the wine, and Don was eager to provide proof. I’ve noticed that quality winemakers always insist that you taste their creations. Don poured the wines for me to sample, explaining the essence of each as he filled three classes.  

He started with a Petite Pearl, which was a lighter, fruit-forward, dry red with soft, mild tannins. I had tasted an estate Petite Pearl at Parallel 44 winery a few months previous and was reminded of a nice pinot noir.  Whitecap’s version conjured the same comparison. Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape used to make world-class wine in places like Burgundy, France and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Petite Pearl was Door County’s response.

The second wine was a St. Pepin, a cold-climate, white grape grown in most vineyards in the region. Cold-climate grapes, due to the shorter growing season, tend to retain acidity, leading most winemakers to leave residual sugar in their wines to balance the tartness. This practice supported the perception that wines produced from cold-climate grapes needed to be sweet. Don challenged this assumption and produced a white wine resembling a dry Riesling from Germany that my brother offered me a week earlier. The first thing I noticed was the tartness of the wine which, somehow, became smoother and more balanced as it worked its way through my mouth. Whitecap’s St. Pepin would fare well against a quality dry Riesling. Don pointed out that a little oak and additional age will balance the acidity in a gentler way than residual sugar.

It was obvious that the third wine was the one Don was most proud of and it was the first time I tasted a Brianna. White wines made from cold-climate grapes also tend to be highly aromatic and floral. Whitecap’s Brianna took this characteristic to another level. Even with my muted sense of smell I could sense the tropical overtones. It was light and semi-dry and as good as any Pinot Gris I had experienced.  Whitecap’s portfolio also included two dry reds varietals, Marquette and Frontenac; a red blend; a white blend of the St. Pepin and Brianna; and a Petite Pearl Rosé.   

Don’s wife, Lynne, joined us in the production/storage/bottling/tasting room and made sure I was getting the entire picture of a small family winery producing excellent estate wines using sustainable practices. 

Don and Lynne were committed to only producing wines from grapes he grew in his vineyard, which he gave me a tour of after the tasting.  Lynne raises Nigerian dwarf goats, which provide all of the fertilization, when mulched, that Don’s grapes require. The vineyard consists of two acres of cold climate grapes and produces slightly less than 200 cases of estate wine per year. Don told me that he could produce more if he applied commercial herbicides and pesticides but he values sustainability and eco-friendliness more than he values  production. He shared a quote his father would often recite in reference to any form of agriculture: it all starts with the soil. Don has based his agricultural practices on his father’s words.

As we walked, Don talked about his relationship with another Door County wine pioneer, the late Bob Lauterbach of Lautenbach’s Orchard County, who Don regards as a mentor. The two men felt the same commitment to keeping the “Real Door County” in their products, and both men shared the belief that true local flavors can only be made from local fruits.

Whitecap Winery of Door County’s story began with Don’s love of growing grapes. Devoting his time and effort to his vineyard led him to developing grapes that could be used to produce quality wine. The wine making was the final part of the story. Don ended our conversation explaining how much work is involved in turning Door County soil into outstanding wine, even for the county’s smallest winery, and said he couldn’t do it without the help of friends and family who support his efforts, especially at harvest time.  

Don and Lynne share a lifestyle that I envy, one built around family, commitment, respect for the environment, and the creation of something unique and wonderful. I look forward to my next opportunity to taste more of the real Door County.