Wine Trails: Harbor Ridge

Solving the world’s problems one sip at a time

The great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.” As I read the tasting menu at Harbor Ridge, I realized that visitors there always arrive at a fork in the road when they’re asked to choose between two tasting flights. 

One – called Popular Choice – includes wines labeled Gimme One Good Riesling and Cracklin’ Rosé, which would seem to indicate that the wines in this flight are meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously. The wines in the second flight, called Premium Choice, are labeled as the traditional varietals from which they were created, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and three Cabernet Sauvignon vintages. The wine flights seem to illustrate that Harbor Ridge offers serious wines but wants its tastings to be a fun experience.

I asked Mary Jo Gustafson, the winery’s general manager, what makes Harbor Ridge distinctive in a county that’s home to 10 wineries, and she was ready for my question.

Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Harbor Ridge is one of the only wineries on the peninsula that uses Italian Garbellotto barrels to age its reserve reds, which are available only to members of its wine club, appropriately named the Barrel Club. Members receive three shipments of three specially selected, barrel-aged wines a year, so wine-club membership creates a third choice for Harbor Ridge visitors.

Gustafson said she believes the winery’s emphasis on entertainment, along with exceptional wine, encourages customers to spend an afternoon sipping wine and enjoying Harbor Ridge’s atmosphere.

Then she took me outside to the patio to show me another notable aspect of Harbor Ridge, which she referred to as “the globes.” These geodesic domes are small enough to be heated by an electric heater, but large enough to keep up to six visitors warm while they enjoy a wine tasting during the colder months. They can be reserved on Sundays for a wine-and-bagel brunch.

Gustafson is proud of the winery’s ability to go beyond offering wine tastings by also providing a fun, relaxed atmosphere where visitors can solve the world’s problems one sip at a time. Live music, the patio and domes all play a role in creating that ambience, but the greatest contributor to fun is the wine.

Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Harbor Ridge’s extensive portfolio ranges from a traditional Door County sweet cherry wine to bold reds produced from California and Washington Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah grapes, and it includes a variety of wines ranging from sweet and semi-sweet to semi-dry and dry.

Gustafson is also proud of the relationship that Harbor Ridge has with von Stiehl winery, with whom it partners with in the sourcing of grapes, as well as the creation, aging, and storage of  the wines offered at Harbor Ridge. This allows both wineries to focus on their special skills and competencies and to share the benefits of the other’s expertise.

After my visit to Harbor Ridge, I began to better understand the unusual situation that proprietors of Door County wineries find themselves in. Tourism provides a seasonal stream of customers who have a wide-ranging set of wine-style preferences. Each Door County winery must make key choices about the seriousness and variety of wines it offers, as well as a focal point to highlight: its wine making, atmosphere, educational opportunities or the overall experience. And, in addition to creating and managing all of these operational aspects, the wineries must also find a way to maintain economic viability.

As Gustafson gave me a tour of Harbor Ridge’s tasting room, patio, domes and the room where the special wines were aging in Garbellotto barrels, I realized that the success of a winery depends on the same two critical factors that all businesses must address. 

The first and most obvious is the ability to provide a high-quality product and excellent service. The second is management expertise that supports creating excellent wine and matching it to the taste preferences of a customer base that’s a blend of local residents and a large influx of seasonal visitors.

With my new knowledge about Harbor Ridge, I concluded that Yogi Berra had a point: Whichever wine flight a customer chose was going to lead to a positive wine experience. The only choice that mattered was taking the fork.

Jim Schnaedter describes himself as a wine appreciator, but not an expert. “I love drinking it, pouring it, talking about it and writing about it, but the more I do of each, the more I learn of what I don’t know about it.” He sets out to discover Door County wines and their makers in this series.

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