Not only is this writing an account of my experience with the wineries of Door County, but it is the story of how an effort to help some Green Bay wineries in the midst of COVID-19 led me to uncover a relatively hidden vein of rich Wisconsin wine history.
The Back Story
In the fall of 2020 I reached out to the Green Bay Convention & Visitor’s Bureau to see how I could help local businesses in Green Bay during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. They mentioned showcasing the Green Bay wineries, so we produced this video for them.
While filming at these wineries in Green Bay I was keyed in to a new world. This new world connects Wisconsin to some of America’s most interesting wine history. Getting to know the wineries and interested in helping the local businesses, we then launched “Wine Tags.” A product that gives people deals to explore local wine businesses in Northeast Wisconsin. Surrounded by the culture and this new history, my interest in the wine industry deepened.
At Venture Wisconsin we’re actually working on a documentary on the untold story of Wisconsin wine because of this journey and exploration of the wine scene in Northeast Wisconsin. It turns out Wisconsin has a fascinating wine history with roots entangled with California’s wine industry! Anyways, on to the Door County Wine Trail.
The Door County Wine Trail is a route through Door County that that gives you easy access to beautiful scenery and eight unique wineries, all in about an hour of driving. I had the pleasure of exploring the whole trail in a two day period, one day in the fall of 2020 and one in April of 2021.
Quick Definitions – Wine Dialect 101
Having essentially “dove in to the deep-end” of the wine world, I learned a few words quickly that I had never heard before. Here’s a Wine Dialect 101 lesson:
- Viticulture – Pretty much anything related to wine making.
- AVA – American Viticultural Area. Is a geographic area designated as productive for distinct wines.
- Vinifera – The well known species of grape cultivated in Europe.
- Terroir – The spirit, culture, or unique characteristics of the land in an AVA.
Door County Wine & Geography
On Door County’s website, the 16th word is water, the 26th word is orchard, and the 36th word is wine. Ignoring the 6s, this is worth exploring before we jump in. The geography of the Door peninsula is where Door County generates it’s unique culture, from agriculture to tourism to wine. Surrounded by over 300 miles of shoreline, lake views and bay views are part of the allure. The other factor is the “Niagara Escarpment” that is literally the bedrock of the county. The limestone and dolomite bedrock that stretches from Northeast Wisconsin through the great lakes in an arch and ending just East of Niagara Falls in upstate New York creates great conditions for growing fruit. This is why the American Viticulture Area (AVA: A distinguished grape growing region) in Northeast Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Ledge, more or less outlines the Niagara Escarpment in the region, which encompasses all of Door County.
Moving to words 26 & 36, “orchards” and “wine.” Two big things to do in Door County are fruit picking and wine tasting. Orchards and fruit growing, especially cherries and apples, are very prominent agricultural exports for the county. This also has an influence in the wine. All the wineries, with the exception of Stone’s Throw Winery, sport their own take on a cherry wine. Some of the wineries work a lot with ciders and non-grape based wines or fruit-grape hybrid wines. That being said, let me tell you about my connection to Door County and we’ll get to the fun of exploring the wines!
A Little About Me
What are my credentials?
I’m a wine novice, so this blog will be accessible to beginners and intermediates, and perhaps a bit thin for experts, but I’ll try my best.
I was born in Appleton, WI in 1994. When it comes to Door County and travel, I’m pretty seasoned. As it turns out I spent a summer living in Door County as a kayak tour guide with Door County Adventure Center the summer before launching Venture Wisconsin (if this link still works, here’s my take on the job from their website), so I know a thing or two about DoCo. As for travel, I’ve been writing and filming around Northeast Wisconsin since 2016, hence the website you’ve landed on! I also have some extensive road trip experience around the US. My most significant being six weeks on the road touring the American West.
Stop 1: Von Stiehl
The furthest South and the oldest winery on the trail, Von Stiehl is located in Algoma, WI. Von Stiehl is the oldest licensed winery in Wisconsin, starting in 1967 with founder Doc Stiehl’s cherry wine. Note: Don’t hate me, but I haven’t tried their cherry wine. What I did try was their dry reds.
As I arrived, I was first struck by how charming of a community Algoma is, and then by how special the grounds at Von Stiehl are. The building is beautiful, very historic, and rests on the bank of the Ahnapee River. Interestingly enough, the building was also the original home of Ahnapee Brewery. When I arrived on the grounds I was met by Molly Schroeder, the winery’s marketing manager.
As Schroeder and I headed towards the wine cellar, she explained, “we jokingly call ourselves the door of ‘The Door.’ We’re not technically in Door County, but our vineyard is, and it’s the oldest in Door County, and our winery began with local cherry wine.”
Since the humble beginnings in 1967 when Dr. Charles Stiehl launched the winery, the cherry wine selection has grown. They now have a cherry hard cider and dry cherry wines. “We still try to bring in local fruit for production.” Schroeder informed me. Von Stiehl sources a lot of grapes from California & Washington state for their reds. The Midwest grape varietals they use are Marquette, St Croix, Marechal Foch.
What I sampled is the Sierra Foothills Sangio Vece Grosso and 2017 Clarksburg Old Vine Merlot. This trip was separate from my main trip and took place in early 2020 when I took a tour of the “Greater Green Bay Wineries” to help the Green Bay Convention & Visitor’s Bureau in the midst of COVID-19. I only share this to explain that I don’t think my palate for dry reds had developed until I started drinking more of them in the winter of 2020-2021.
The Merlot was distinctly enjoyable for a beginner, very balanced and flavorful. Very smooth and tasty even for a novice in the world of dry reds. From there I closed my conversation with Schroeder, I asked why Von Stiehl stays involved with the Door County Wineries & “The Trail.” She explained that “We’re all in this together.” So I next headed 30 minutes North to the next nearest winery, Door 44…. about 8 months later in April of 2021.
Stop 2: Door 44
Door 44 is a clean winery, with a modern feel. If you’ve been there before, you may not have visited their new location. They moved a few miles North on Hwy 42 (one of the two main highways that spans the door peninsula). Their new location has more space, a beautiful tasting area, and a vineyard. The entirety of the surrounding area will one day be all vineyard.
When I arrived at the winery I was pleasantly met by a helpful staff member, Claudia. She walked me through a tasting of 8 wines, of which I will highlight a few. I later spoke with Steve Johnson, the owner over the phone about Door 44 and their sister winery, Parallel 44.
Johnson and his wife Maria left the legal world in 2007 to open Parallel 44. It was three years later that the Johnson’s decided they wanted to be a part of the epicenter of the Wisconsin Ledge AVA, Door County. “If we want to promote Parallel, we need to be among other wineries, telling the story.” he explained over the phone.
One of Johnson’s core messages, which in part inspired my pursuit of this Wisconsin wine history documentary, is, “wine from Wisconsin isn’t always fruit wine.” The message is in opposition to the pervasive perception that cherry, apple, blackberry, and other fruit wines are representative of the wine industry in the state. Johnson believes that Wisconsin, and even Northeast Wisconsin’s AVA has its own ‘terrior.’ Terrior is a French concept that the environment in which a crop is grown has an impact on the style and unique characteristics of the said crop.
Johnson, quoting an anonymous, historical wine figure, summed it up, “Wine should represent the soul from the land it came.” Wisconsin has been growing cold climate hybrid grapes since the 1970s. A dairy farmer named Elmer Swenson spent decades developing wine-ready grapes by cross pollinating French wine grapes with grapes native to the United States. Some recognizable varieties are Marquette, La Crosse, and St. Peppin. These hybrids have led to a growth in the Wisconsin wine industry starting in the 1990s and a whole new culture developing around the new flavors in the region.
All of Door 44 wines are made using Wisconsin-local grape varieties. My favorite was Itasca which had a slight, crisp dryness or bitterness to it. The overall sensation of the semi-dry wine was clean.
My next favorite was a rosé called Pink Door. The flavor reminded me a little of Sangria but smoother. I agree with the description of Pink Door, “brilliant acidity… unlike any wine you have had before.”
My third favorite (at the time) was Nouveau Rouge, a semi-sweet red. Very light body and very drinkable. I took a bottle of Petite Pearl Reserve home which is a dry red. It really grew on me as a unique a easy to drink flavor.
The last thing to note is Ice Wines. I tried a dessert wine and an ice wine before leaving. Ice wine is extremely unique in general and something that most climates cannot create. The wine is created by leaving the grapes on the vine over the winter and letting them freeze and thaw to remove moisture from the grapes and concentrate the sugar and flavors. This process is very specific (learn more here), but it’s something not many places can do because you have to pick the grapes while they’re frozen. The flavor is dense, with a warm after taste. Very sweet and very satisfying.
Stop 3: Red Oak
Next on the trail, you’ll run into Red Oak Winery which recently moved to Carlsville, just North on 42 of their original Sturgeon Bay location because the Carlsville is slower and quieter.
The owners, The Wageners, started making wine a couple years before starting. The Wageners planted vines a couple years before opening their tasting room on July 4, 2004. Andy Wagener explains the impetus of Red Oak. “When Gigi (his wife) and I were new parents, I just came back from law school in Washington DC. It was difficult to get babysitters. WineSpectator.com has a class to bottle to compare wines. We’d do that to get a break on Friday and Saturday nights.”
Their approach has changed over time. They initially wanted to make big red wines. Overtime they started making more fruit and semi-sweet wines. “The market has changed. People are more interested in experiences with the wine tasting. The consumer wants a good time. It used to be people went out to simply buy wine.” Andy shared with me. They are also expanding into flights and cheese trays to improve the experience.
Red Oak’s flagship wines are Cherry Peppin and Mystic Red. They also have a wine series called Captain Nick’s with a very unique story. The Story behind Captain Nick’s, original wines. It’s a ruby port. It’s named after Andy’s grandpa, one of the youngest captains on the great lakes. He transported (floated) the supports for the Mackinaw Bridge from Gary, Indiana.
I confess that I was not able to stop at Red Oak due to scheduling. This is the only stop on the trail I can’t fill you in on personally. I conducted an interview to find the history and style of the winery over the phone. You can find their wines online here.
Stop 4: Door Peninsula
The next stop, Door Peninsula, is essentially across the street from Red Oak. You’ve likely heard of Door Peninsula, they’re the fifth oldest winery and a top 5 wine producer as well. They have a very nice tasting room and a distillery attached to the winery.
Door Peninsula is a widely distributed brand around Wisconsin. They produce a wide variety of wines made with traditional wine grapes, Wisconsin wine grapes, and fruits as well. Things like Cabernet and chardonnay, but also blends like “cranbernet.”
The winery is a family business and operates with ties to their roots in “the schoolhouse” of the original winery. The winery started with fruit wines and evolved into creating all sorts of unique styles and blends. They also serve specialty oils and distilled spirits.
When I stopped by Door Peninsula, I tried their Dry Cherry wine. It was very pleasant. A floral wine that wasn’t too sweet, but certainly full of flavor and enjoyably sweet with a little crispness. I didn’t try many wines due to timing sake, but I always enjoy stopping in the winery when in Door County.
Stop 5: Simon Creek
Next up to the would be Al Capone hideaway, Simon Creek.
Simon Creek is a family business established in 2003. A quaint winery tucked into the property giving it an off the beaten path and a farm vibe. A nice creek runs through the property giving the winery its name. Al Capone solicited to purchase the farm where the winery is located as a hide out, but was turned down. This history plays into some of Simon Creek’s wines.
I tried Simon Creek’s most popular three wines. Untouchable Red, Door County Cherry, and American Gewurztraminer. The Untouchable Red is named for the Al Capone story. When I asked if it was true that Al Capone’s lawyer was from Door County and facilitated the would be sale of Simon Creek, Lance replied, “None of us are smart enough to make that up.” The Untouchable Red is described as a medium sweet ruby Cabernet. It was a very smooth wine with a very pleasant woody flavor.
Their second most popular wine is the Door County Cherry. Which I found to be very enjoyable. It had a great presence on the tongue. It felt right and it hits your nose with a fruity, clean, Koolaid scent before delivering a clean, sweet well crafted cherry flavor.
Stop 6: Stone’s Throw
Just a Stone’s Throw away from Simon’s Creek is, well… Stone’s Throw Winery.
Started by Russell Turco, the goal of Stone’s Throw is to give someone, “everything you need in one place.” There’s food, there’s wine, and there’s a place to rest your feet and socialize. Turco retired at 50 and realized, “I’m a shitty golfer.” The newly retired blinds salesman decided to start up a winery. He believed, “They needed something different in Door County.”
Stone’s Throw is known for real zinfandel and Italian varietals. They have a strict policy to only make wines using the traditional vinifera wine grapes. No American hybrid grapes, (which are the only ones that currently survive the Wisconsin winters,) and no fruit wine or blends. The winery has a very nice grounds that feel like a complex of businesses. They have a gorgeous bar Vino!Vino! and also a pizza spot next door called Bocce with oak barrel fired pizzas. Turco is also working on a wine project in Italy and plans to import the products to the Door County winery.
While at Stone’s Throw I tried their 2018 Viognier, a new release. It’s a white wine described as a “totally dry beauty.” The bite reminded me a bit of church wine. It had a great color and aroma and was overall pretty good.
Next I tried the 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvingnon. An oakey wine with a coarse back-end which had a char flavor to it. Very smooth and enjoyable. It’s also their best selling Cabernet.
Staff Pick: Michael, the staff member serving the tasting said his all time favorite is the Petite Verdot from Sonoma Valley.
Stop 7: Harbor Ridge
Harbor Ridge is a comfortable winery. The Owners Chris & Betsy Folbrecht describe the winery as, “fun, family friendly and laid back.” Which you’ll feel the same way when you arrive. “We want everyone to feel at home,” They told me.
The winery was purchased from some friends. The Folbrechts visited the winery, but never planned to take over. It was fear of regret that caused the couple to take on the winery and as they put it, “the pipe dream came true.” Harbor Ridge has a lot outdoor seating to enjoy. It feels like your own little hideaway even thought you’re right off a highway (HWY 42). There’s also a stacked gift shop inside the winery and a cheese shop next door. Harbor Ridge
I had the opportunity to try their Knockin’ Heads Red which is a red blend, semi-dry. It wasn’t too dry. The wine had great flavor, a very smooth and light red with a fruity base. (Pictured Below) This is a best seller for them.
I also tried their best selling white, the Gimme One Good Riesling. A semi-sweet which was very bright and smooth. I loved it. It was very palatable.
Stop 8: Lautenbach’s Orchard Country
Last Stop and the furthest North on the trail, Orchard Country or “Lautenbach’s Orchard.”
Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery is another oldie, founded in 1985 it’s the 7th licensed winery in Wisconsin. When I walked through the door I was greeted with the sweet aroma of their bakery. It’s a 5th generation family business as Carrie Lautenbach explained, “great grandma helped my grandparents start in ’55.” Carrie grew up on the farm planting trees in the orchard and in 1975 they established a farm market on the property.
Unfortunately much of the original buildings were lost in a 2005 fire. Everything is essentially new and they added on in 2015. The winery found their niche in fruit wine and fruit wine blends. You can also pick your own fruit in the orchard when it’s in season.
I grabbed a tasting flight and tried Rockin’ Hard Cherry Apple Cider, Lauren Elizabeth White, Ashlyn Sophia Red, and Honey Crisp Apple Fruit Wine. The red and white are named after the youngest generation. I found the honey crisp apple to be very sweet, crisp and flavorful. The Rockin’ Hard Cherry Apple was probably my favorite and a good novelty to end the day.
While Exploring the DC Wine Trail
In conclusion, you should know some things about Door County. It is a popular destination that on a normal year is visited by over 2,000,000 people from spring to autumn. Other than tourism, much of the economy is based on agriculture. Actually, one third of the apples consumed in Wisconsin are grown in Door County (according to our tour guide training, I haven’t been able to verify this.) There are many ways to plan a trip to Door County, but building your trip around wine is tried and true.
I recommend checking out the Door County Land Trust sites for unique hiking (make sure to drop a few dollars in the suggested donation cans at the parking lots). Eagle Trail in Peninsula State Park is the trail that leads to Eagle Bluff, and is a great trail with great views.
What is your favorite winery or activity in Door County?