When Steve Johnson and Maria Milano honeymooned in Napa Valley in the 1990s, the young lawyers from Wisconsin never dreamed they would one day have a vineyard of their own.
Now the couple, which owns Parallel 44 and Door 44 wineries in northern Wisconsin, has been racking up awards and making a name for itself with locally grown grapes.
"People, I think, probably still think we’re crazy – like, what are you guys doing planting a vineyard here in Wisconsin? It’s too cold," said Johnson. "But like we say in our tasting room, the name (Parallel 44) is based on our location, and the location matters because we’re on the same latitude as Bordeaux and Tuscany. So nine months out of the year it’s almost identical to what we have."
This summer, Parallel 44 wines took three out of the four Double Golds awarded at the Wisconsin Professional Wine Competition at the State Fair (the winning wines were Frozen Tundra White, Glacier White and White Door). Parallel 44 was also named the 2012 Wisconsin Grape Growers of the Year.
Lifelong wine lovers Johnson and Milano represent the new generation of Wisconsin farmers. Their local, artisanal product is somewhat unexpected – wine from Wisconsin? But when you think about it, it makes sense. After all, what goes better with cheese than wine?
Wisconsin is home to the recently-named Wisconsin Ledge AVA (American Viticultural Area), a federal designation that recognizes a region’s unique ability to grow quality grapes used in winemaking. The ledge extends north across Door County and west to Lake Winnebago; its southern boundary runs through Ozaukee and Washington Counties.
Johnson said Wisconsin conditions are actually "ideal" for growing grapes.
"Being near Lake Michigan helps a lot with the grapes in the sense that we get a longer growing season than being further inland," he said. "Our soils are loamy limestone and they're really well drained, and that’s what grapes need, to have a really well-drained soil."
In addition, the warm, sun-filled days and cooler nights experienced by areas on the 44th parallel are optimal for crisp, "fruit-forward" flavors.
Johnson and Milano started Parallel 44 vineyard in 2005, 30 miles east of Green Bay in Kewaunee. In 2007 they opened the winery, and last year added Door 44 to the family (the Door County winery does not currently have a vineyard, but Johnson said that is likely to be the next step).
"Both my father and Maria’s father grew grapes in the backyard and made wine for family celebrations, so it’s kind of in our blood. I think that I’m really a farmer at heart," he said.
Johnson grew up in Green Bay and began to make wine in college as a hobby. He met Milano while a graduate student in Madison; the two attended law school together at Marquette, eventually married and practiced law while raising two children, now aged 12 and 10.
Parallel 44 is still a family affair; the couple’s children help out in the summer and their parents assist in the vineyard. They operate with a small staff, including three full-time employees and a part-time staff of six.
Being a parent, businessman and grower is at times "more stressful than being a lawyer," Johnson said, admitting that, ironically, it isn’t often he gets to relax with a nice cool glass of vino.
A lot of the difficulty comes from the fact that Johnson and Milano, as Wisconsin winemakers, are pioneers in their field. In many instances, they have no precedent to look to.
"It is truly farming. The challenge of it, too, is – people ask us, where did you learn that? Well, a lot of it is just going to conferences and talking to other people. There isn’t really a book to go to for this," he said.
"I’ve talked to winemakers in California and Washington and they give you some advice but what they do and what they grow ... the climate is so different that sometimes they lead you down the wrong path. We’re just trying to learn as much as we can and not make mistakes, or learn from the mistakes. But there is no manual to go to."
Parallel 44’s festival season is coming, and it is preparing to host well over 1,000 people at its Fall Harvest Fest on Saturday, Sept. 6 from noon to 6 p.m. The festival will feature a grape stomp, wine sampling, vineyard tours, food, art and live music. Attendees can even make a weekend out of it by taking advantage of a special $99 overnight package available at Fox Hills Resort.
And Johnson is learning that young Wisconsinites in particular appreciate a locally produced wine. He reports that Parallel 44’s events and wine tastings are being attended more and more by a twenty-something crowd.
"They don’t feel the intimidation of people in my generation in terms of thinking they have to know something about the wine," he said. "They come and they’re open to the experience and different flavor profiles. That’s really what we need in Wisconsin, because we grow varietals – so different from California and Europe; we can’t create that same wine expression.
"So it kind of fits with Wisconsin potentially being at the forefront of the younger generation’s appreciation of wine. Believe it or not, the climate and varietals we have fit more with the younger person’s palate than the older person’s palate."
So move over, microbreweries. There may just be a new sheriff in town where specialty beverages are concerned.
"Wisconsinites are very good at knowing their microbrews, but they’re starting to know their wines as well," said Carla Minsky, handles Parallel 44 and Door 44's public relations. "Twenty-somethings and up ... are starting to recognize Wisconsin wines. You don’t have to just pick a Napa Valley wine. Really great beverages aren't just for the microbreweries anymore."
Wisconsin soil and climate results in a sweeter profile, which is popular with the younger crowd. Johnson said he notices many California vineyards using buzzwords like "semi-sweet" to market their wines.
"I’ve said since day one that we want a Wisconsin product from the ground to the glass," said Johnson. "You don’t make wine. You grow wine. If you’re growing it, the area is what the expression (of the wine) is. You can’t hide it. You have to take pride in the regionality in your product. You’re never going to make a chardonnay in Wisconsin – they won’t survive our winters. So let’s do what we do best."
Parallel 44 visited the OnMilwaukee.com offices for a wine tasting, sharing four of their award-winning wines including SunBurst, Frozen Tundra White, Red Door and Glacier White.
The SunBurst ($16) is made with Wisconsin Frontenac Gris grape and has flavors of red cherry and apricot, resulting in a nice blending of dry and sweet. "There isn’t much residual sugar in a lot of these wines; it’s just that the grapes express themselves in a very fruit-forward way, so you’re not tasting sugar, you’re tasting what the grape tastes like," said Johnson.
The Glacier White ($17) is one of the wines that took Double Gold at the Wisconsin Professional Wine Competition. "It has bouquet elements, a honeysuckle/melon aspect, sometimes I get a mineral aspect – but our soil has a lot of limestone so it may be wishful thinking," said Johnson, who calls this wine "Sauvignon blanc-esque."
The Frozen Tundra White ($14) has a sweeter profile, with strong notes of peach and tropical fruit flavors made from La Crescent and Frontenac Gris grapes. "In the summer, it’s probably the No. 1 seller," Johnson said.
The Red Door ($16) is created with Wisconsin Marechal Foch grapes and exhibits earthy undertones and hints of black cherries. "It’s a lighter red, excellent food-pairing wine especially for everyday food like pizza and pastas because it’s enough to make it interesting but not overpower the food," said Johnson.
Parallel 44 wines can be purchased online and at the following retail locations in the Milwaukee area:
Brook Falls Discount Liquor, 14835 W. Lisbon Rd., Brookfield
Café Hollander, 2608 N. Downer Ave.; 7677 W. State St., Wauwatosa
Calico Cottage, 500A Bernard St., Watertown
Discount Liquor, 5031 W. Oklahoma Ave.; 919 N. Barstow St. Waukesha
Gary's Beer and Liquor, 9555 S. Howell Ave., Oak Creek
Mason Street Grill, 425 E. Mason St.
Otto's, N88 W15125 Main St., Menomonee Falls
Ray’s Wine and Spirits, 8930 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa
Woodmans, 8131 S. Howell Ave., Oak Creek; W124N8145 Wisconsin 145, Menomonee Falls
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.