Parallel 44 Winery Masters the Frozen Tundra
February in northeast Wisconsin is bone-chilling cold, but that doesn’t stop Steve Johnson and Maria Milano, owners of Parallel 44 Winery and Vineyard near Kewaunee, Wis., from throwing an outdoor winter wine festival. Last year, about 2,000 hardy souls bundled up to drink wine on the patio and appreciate the past bounty of the snow-covered vineyard.
As the winery’s name implies, the property is at 44 degrees north latitude, a latitude shared by the wine regions of Bordeaux and Tuscany. Milano notes that their Wisconsin vineyard has similarities to those regions regarding growing degree days, annual rainfall and length of daylight, but unlike the European locations, the Parallel 44 vineyards endure subzero temperatures. ‘This inspired the name of our Frozen Tundra wines,” she said.
From Law to Grapes
In 2000, while working as attorneys in Green Bay, the couple started searching for a piece of ‘tundra” that would fulfill their dream of running a winery. Five years later, they bought 35 acres of farmland on the southern end of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. Johnson makes the wine and oversees the 10-acre vineyard; Milano handles the marketing, distribution and financials. They reside in Green Bay with their three school-age children.
See related story May 2013: Petite Pearl Now in the Bottle at Parallel 44
Johnson describes himself as a largely self-taught grape grower and winemaker. The couple attended conferences in Minnesota and Wisconsin to learn about growing cold-climate grapes, and both their fathers were home winemakers. ‘Steve’s dad had experimented with growing grapes in this part of Wisconsin,” Milano added. ‘He is a master gardener, and he helped establish the vineyards here.”
Currently 7,000 vines have been planted and the goal is to eventually grow grapes on 25 acres. The first vines of Marechal Foch and Frontenac were planted in 2005; since then the couple has added Louise Swenson, Seyval Blanc, St. Pepin, Vignoles, St. Croix, LaCrosse and Petite Pearl. They also use grapes from New York growers and from other Wisconsin vineyards. For example, the fruit for Parallel 44’s new Frontenac Gris comes from Southwest Wisconsin.
See related story: Grape Production Expands in Vernon County
While Johnson said that he loves the flavors of Vignoles and Seyval, he is considering ripping them out. These vines are in a low spot in the vineyard and are hampered by the cold, he said. Possible replacements include Frontenac Gris or Swenson White, he said.
Johnson is optimistic about the 1,500 Petite Pearl vines planted in 2010. ‘They already have a good fruit load and we’ll have our first vintage this year,” Johnson said. ‘I think Petite Pearl holds the best potential for a red varietal in this climate.”
Milano and Johnson had their first harvest at Parallel 44 in 2007, and the winery, with its eye-catching exterior designed in a Tuscan style, opened Memorial Day weekend that year. In the beginning, the offerings included Chardonnay and Merlot made from Washington and California grapes, but now Parallel 44’s wines feature cold-climate grapes.
‘We want to celebrate our area and emphasize regional wines that are an authentic Wisconsin product,” Milano said. ‘However, because we want to stay true to making regional wines, my concern is not enough grapes are being grown in Wisconsin.” She noted that one local grape grower they use has plans to become a winery.
Parallel 44 is part of the Wisconsin Ledge American Viticultural Area. ‘We’re on the Niagara Escarpment,” Milano added, ‘which has sandy, rocky soils and rolling hills. Wines made from grapes grown in this climate have the ideal balance of fruit-forward expressions and crisp acidities.”
Parallel 44 doubled production in the first two years and has continued to increase production at a fast pace. In 2007, 24,000 bottles were produced; in 2011, production was 140,000 bottles with about 28,000 of those made from 26 tons of estate grapes. ‘Last year we handled a total of 70 tons of grapes,” Johnson said.
The winery was expanded in 2007, doubling its size, and last summer the production space was enlarged again to make room for three 2,000-gallon stainless steel, jacketed Criveller tanks with temperature controlled fermentation. Also in 2011 they installed a larger Enoveneta bladder press and crusher.
Milano says the wines in Parallel 44’s Frozen Tundra line — the White is made from LaCrescent and Frontenac Gris; their Red and a lighter red called Original are made from estate Frontenac grapes– are consistently strong sellers, as are their estate blends, Glacier White and Glacier Red. A blend of Louise Swenson and LaCrosse makes up the white, and the red is a blend of Foch, St. Croix, Frontenac and wild grapes.
The winery uses a distributor, Legacy Brands in Green Bay, with most of the retail outlets located in northeast Wisconsin. ‘We need to grow in Milwaukee and Madison areas, but it’s a tricky thing. It’s about building relationships,” Milano said. Last fall, Parallel 44 started its Wine of the Quarter Club with shipments of three bottles sent four times a year; she and Johnson select the wines, emphasizing first releases, new wines and others with quantities not large enough for full retail distribution. Milano estimates that 45% of their sales are through retailers and restaurants, and 55% through their tasting room. ‘We would like to boost that tasting room percentage,” she said.
Milano and Johnson believe on-site events are important for their business. In addition to the outdoor Frozen Tundra Wine Fest, they plan summer concerts at Parallel 44 every Saturday evening (last year, concerts were held every other Saturday with about 450 people attending each one.)
Parallel 44 is part of the Fox River Valley Wine Trail and its location between Interstate 43 and U.S. Highway 42 helps attract travelers heading to nearby Door County, Green Bay and northern Wisconsin. ‘We’ve had visitors from all 50 states and from out of the country,” Milano said. The free tours include walks through the vineyard, and to promote other regional foods, the tasting room sells locally made cheeses and chocolate truffles. Although Parallel 44 opened during a difficult economic period, Milano said the timing has been good for their winery. ‘People seem to want to enjoy the simpler pleasures, like a good wine and authentic, regional foods,” she said.