Wine Trails: A Life Better Lived

As I get older and the newness of not working for a living is replaced by the acceptance that the term “short-lived” probably was created to best describe the phenomenon of retirement, I have a greater appreciation of simple yet rewarding experiences. Tasting wine is one of those simple pleasures. Talking wine is another. Doing both with a great winemaker makes for one of life’s greatest experiences. I had come to my meeting with Steve Johnson, owner and more importantly, winemaker for Door 44 and Parallel 44 wineries, with the intention of researching an article for this series. I quickly realized that I was in the midst of one of life’s most enjoyable moments.

I had met Steve several months earlier and remembered him as a passionate man who made great wine and released everything inside him when he discussed the possibility of Door County being recognized as a quality, wine-producing region. I was a skeptic before our first meeting and a believer of possibility after it. After the first several minutes of sampling his wine for a second time and listening to his words, Steve made me a true believer. 

I sampled a dry Frontenac Blanc which would easily match-up, and probably over, a typical California Sauvignon Blanc. I tasted his Petite Pearl, his Marquette as well as his Vintner’s Blend of the two grapes. They were as good as any dry red wines I have tasted from California, Washington state, Italy, or France. As I tasted and listened, I remembered something I had learned in my previous career as a quality improvement consultant – reputation follows quality. The problem for Steve and for the Door County wine industry in general, is that progression from quality to reputation can take a long time.

As we tasted our discussion moved from the characteristics of finer wines to the visceral, intangible, unquantifiable nature of drinking wine. We shared our thoughts about the influence of time, place and fellowship on the experience. Steve has proven that great wines can be made from cold hardy Wisconsin varietals, and has yet to prove that Door County wines can gain a reputation that should follow its quality. But he’s a man on a mission, and I was thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to hear about it while tasting a variety of the results of that pursuit.

Each grape brings a unique characteristic to wines produced from them, and those characteristics are influenced by where they are grown and by the weather the year they are picked. The vineyard care and the when and how of picking also play a role. 

But after all influences are finished influencing, it is up to the winemaker to create the best wine. Steve talked about how aging, oak exposure and blending are some of the many options a winemaker can use to match the grape’s natural characteristics with the style of wine and flavor profile the winemaker is looking to achieve. I thought of a winemaker as conductor of an orchestra, and Steve deserving the title of Maestro.

I went to Door 44 to taste wine but I got caught up in the energy and excitement that Steve brings to a tasting. He is a Door County pioneer when it comes to making exceptional wines from local grapes. I have heard his name many times by others who participate in the Door County wine scene, and it is always spoken with respect and generally includes phrases such as ‘true genius,’ ‘highly passionate’ and ‘super person,’ but the phrase I hear that seems concrete and appropriate at the moment is: great winemaker. His frustration of trying to get the peninsula’s wines the respect they deserve is easily apparent but it is also a driving force in his life. Steve is also a philosopher, and I try furiously to keep up with the words of wisdom he shares about wine: drinking fine wine is part of living well; wine brings people together; and drinking wine says that I’m enjoying life to its fullest.

And my favorite: Wine is symbolic of a life better lived.

Despite all of the knowledge, experience and observations that Steve shares with me; despite all of the great wine that he pours for me; despite all of the passion and hospitality that he shows me, I realize that there is something even bigger influencing the wonderful experience I am enjoying sitting across from him in the production room of Door 44 winery. The fact that I am spending this time with someone my father would label as a good guy – the highest compliment he could give any man – made all of the other aspects of my visit seem almost irrelevant.  

I began to understand and share his concern about the length of time it was going to take for his wines’ reputations to catch their quality.  I thought about how wine brought people together and is a ritual for people living well. I vowed to join Steve on his mission to show the world that very good wine is being produced on the Door Peninsula and as Steve and the other winemakers continue to orchestrate their grapes, the finished product will only get better.  

I vowed to myself to spend my remaining years tasting and appreciating the wines of Door County at every opportunity. My commitment certainly seemed symbolic of a life better lived.