WINE TRAILS: The Confidence of Steve Johnson of Door 44

“Would you like a glass of wine while we talk?”

I wasn’t sure whether the question was meant to be rhetorical. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I answered in the affirmative. 

I was about to meet with a man whose name I had heard numerous times during my meetings with Door County winemakers. Steve Johnson is the owner of Door 44 Winery in Sturgeon Bay and Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery in Kewaunee, as well as the president of the Wisconsin Winemakers Association.

Steve Johnson pruning vines at Door 44 Winery. Photo by Len Villano.

When I asked other winery owners about the potential of making nationally recognized and respected wines from Wisconsin grapes, Steve was mentioned as the person I should be talking to. I quickly learned why.

He poured me a glass of his Petite Pearl, a varietal made with a cold-climate grape that grows well in Wisconsin. Had he not told me what I was drinking, I would have guessed he’d poured me an excellent Pinot Noir.

The wine answered the question I hadn’t yet asked Steve: Is it possible to make a Wisconsin wine that rivals excellent wines produced from California grapes? The acidity was present but balanced. The tannins were detectable but softened. I knew it was hyperbole, but my first reaction was that I had found the holy grail: a wine made from a Wisconsin varietal that could match up favorably with West Coast wines. 

In an email from Steve scheduling my visit, he told me that his mantra is, “Wisconsin from ground to glass.” Writing that he is passionate, optimistic and driven would be like saying that Michael Jordan is good at basketball. Steve’s winemaking résumé includes 109 awards for individual wines, and 28 wines rated 90 or more points. His Petite Pearl was named best wine in Wisconsin, and the winery was named the 2022 Winery of the Year at the International Cold Climate Competition and earned several more Best in Show awards. 

But Steve was more interested in discussing the future of Door County winemaking and answered my question about its potential directly and without hesitation.

“There [is] no reason that Door County and the Wisconsin Ledge AVA [American Viticultural Area] can’t earn a reputation as a world-class wine region,” he insisted. “All it would take is for the producers in the county to continue to produce great wines from local grapes, keep learning from the past experiences and vintages, and [keep] working together to show shared successes.”

Various Door 44 wines made from grapes grown in the area. Photo by Len Villano.

Steve believes the confidence of the peninsula winemakers is trailing their accomplishments, and he highlighted three trends that have the potential to lead to increased success:

  • New region: Door County is beginning to be viewed as the next interesting wine region.
  • New varietals: Thanks to Elmer Swenson, the man who was instrumental in developing many cold-climate wine grapes; the University of Minnesota, where Swenson’s efforts have been continued and expanded; and cross-breeding efforts, new cold-climate varietals give Wisconsin (and other northern regions) grape vines that can withstand harsh winters and shorter growing seasons while producing quality grapes for serious winemaking.
  • New customers: A generation of wine drinkers who know only Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot is being replaced by a new generation that’s learning about the joys of wine without the traditional assumptions and biases.

Steve said it’s up to Wisconsin winemakers to take advantage of and support these trends through educating this new generation of wine drinkers and by telling the stories behind each wine – sharing the culture, art, science and history that come together through tasting each vintage. 

It’s the job of winemakers and their colleagues in the tasting room to highlight the wines’ distinctive qualities and reduce the intimidation factor that many new wine tasters face. It’s not about imitating Cabernets and Chardonnays; it’s about introducing Frontenac Gris and Petite Pearl. 

Rather than reading the book and then producing the wine, Steve believes in writing the book as you go, and I couldn’t help being brought into the fold and sharing his vision for Door County winemaking. He appears to be on a mission to revise the mindsets of all the doubters who think that if the vines are not West Coast, then the wines can’t be taken seriously. Wisconsin from ground to glass.

I took another sip of the Petite Pearl Steve had shared with me, and any doubts I might have had fell away.

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.

Door 44 wine barrels and tanks. Photo by Len Villano.

Related Organizations