I had heard the theme previously: respect the past while building the future. It seems to be a common mantra in Door County, a county that is blessed with a rich history and filled with pioneers who shared the natural beauty of the peninsula with visitors through the vehicle of tourism, creating a destination for travelers. Door County is now filled with a new generation of young pioneers who are building on the history and tradition of their forefathers, while creating an atmosphere and environment filled with energy and new ideas that is slowly transforming the county into a destination for a new generation of travelers.
Melissa Joppe and her husband, Chris, are two of the new generation of Door County business owners. They recently opened the doors of Lake Fire Winery, transforming a building rich in history – and former location of The Yum Yum Tree – into a wine bar, tasting room, cider house and new destination for visitors to Baileys Harbor.
Melissa shared with me that many of the winery customers speak fondly of the Yum Yum Tree, a former Baileys Harbor landmark, and while paying their respects to the former candy and ice cream store, the new owners of the building realized that many of the new generation of visitors to the peninsula prefer a glass of barrel-aged Cabernet Franc to vintage candies and gelatos.
But Lake Fire offers more than wine, is far from pretentious, and welcomes families and children of all ages. The menu includes dry-to-sweet grape wines, sparkling and fortified wines, fruit wine and hard ciders, bloody marys, mimosas – even wine slushies produced from what appears to be a former Slurpee machine that would have been at home in the Yum Yum Tree. There are also nonalcoholic beverages, locally made cheeses, charcuterie boards and desserts.
Melissa said that they want to encourage families to visit the tasting room, but most pick out their beverage of choice and head to the large patio overlooking Lake Michigan and enjoy time together. Lake Fire even encourages customers to bring food in from local restaurants and food trucks and have a picnic on the grounds.
I wasn’t completely sure I understood when Melissa, a Door County native who grew up in Brussels, talked about each town on the peninsula having its own personality, and how Baileys Harbor’s fit the best with her and her family’s. But as she showed me around her establishment and talked about the present and future plans, it began to make sense.
Lake Fire is open until 8 pm and offers an accompanying choice for the town’s diners and evening strollers. And when Melissa described her winery as a family business, she was not speaking figuratively. She said that everyone involved with the winery were related and part of her extended family, and I immediately thought of a mission-statement candidate – a family serving families.
The bar and tasting room is well designed, classy, yet welcoming, but when she showed me the former kitchen, which is being converted to a small production and aging room, I became even more interested in the future of Lake Fire. Being a wine nerd, I hope for an invitation for future visits to watch quality Door County wines being produced one barrel at a time. Lake Fire wines are currently produced at Forgotten Fire Winery in the Peshtigo-Marinette area – also owned by Melissa and Chris – but future plans include producing small-batch wines and ciders in the Baileys Harbor location later this year. The support from the staff at Forgotten Fire – which is, in essence, part of one extended family – and the partnership between the two wineries will continue to play a critical role in the success of each location.
Melissa and I continued our discussion, reflecting on the challenges that all wineries in the county face. Yes, you have to produce great wines, but that is only the first bar that needs to be conquered and in some ways the most achievable. The bar then is raised by the need to be unique and being able to express that uniqueness. There are a dozen wineries on the peninsula, so both locals and visitors have options on where to taste and buy their wine. A winery, to have success, must create an atmosphere that customers feel drawn to. They must want to immerse themselves in the entirety of the wine-drinking experience. Without that immersion, wine becomes merely a beverage choice, no matter how well made. The backstory behind the wine, the winemaker and the place where it is tasted play a role in the experience.
Melissa, through her words, expressions, and something else that I can’t quite explain, has convinced me that the building which was home to the Yum Yum Tree for so many years will provide a wonderful place to sit overlooking Lake Michigan, taste wine and spend time with family. Melissa finished our conversation with a paraphrase: “It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a family to run a business.”
That seems to capture the uniqueness and atmosphere of Lake Fire Winery.