KEWAUNEE — Steve Johnson and his wife, Maria Milano, savor the summer nights spent strolling through their vineyard, sipping wine amid the backdrop of a setting sun.
If only it were that easy.
Truth be told, neither Johnson nor Milano remember the last time that romanticized scenario unfolded. As the hard-working owners of Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery near Kewaunee and Door 44 Winery near Sturgeon Bay, they’re busy juggling the many components of their highly successful business — especially during the harvest season.
“That’s certainly the romantic notion of life as a winemaker,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “But the reality is that this is farming — it’s 99 percent work and 1 percent play. Mother Nature is the boss here, so it’s a lot of physical work keeping up with the changing conditions. And it’s a lot of mental stress being in a competitive market like this. You have to be willing to shift gears a lot, put in a hard day’s work and get your hands dirty. It can be very rewarding, but I can assure you it’s never easy.”
That hard work continues to pay off. Since officially opening its doors 10 years ago, Parallel 44 has received countless accolades, including a trio of prestigious honors this summer.
At the Ultimate Wine Challenge in New York, Parallel 44 earned a Chairman’s Trophy as one of the top 40 wines in the world; its 2016 Frozen Tundra White distinguished itself from 1,200 wines worldwide.
At the Wine is Wisconsin competition in Madison, Parallel 44’s sparkling wine Sparkler brought home Best in Show recognition, beating out more than 90 wines.
And at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition in Minnesota, Parallel 44 received Best in Class White Wine (Lacrescent) and Best of Show Specialty Wine (Icewine) en route to top honors as Winery of the Year.
They’re the latest in an impressive string of awards that solidify Parallel 44’s status as one of the premier operations in the Midwest — and the world.
“We didn’t know much about this business when we started, so for a small business like ours to surprise a lot of people and do as well as we have, it’s a big achievement for us,” Milano said. “It’s a sign our community is excited about these local grapes. And it’s a sign the entire wine community knows we are focused on producing great wines.”
Johnson, who oversees the grape growing and wine making, said he and Milano were committed from day one to using locally grown grapes to produce quality wines.
“I think a big reason for our success is we pay a lot of attention to detail in the winemaking process,” he said. “We’re always out there looking for information to help us get better and better. We’re not resting on our laurels. We’re always striving to produce quality, well-balanced wines — because quality comes through balance.
“We just truly want people to realize that this part of the world has a chance to be a world-class producer of wines. People see us as the land of cows, snow and beer, but wine has great potential here and we’re proving that.”
Parallel 44 grows about 7,000 vines on 10 acres, with a yield of about 4 tons per acre. It produces about 130,000 bottles of wine per year, with at least 22 wines expected this fall. The harvest will begin in mid-September, triggering the start of 12- to 15-hour workdays, seven days a week for the couple, who employ six full-time and 10 part-time employees. Bottling commences in December, and they’re back out in the vineyard pruning in February.
It’s a process they’ve grown accustomed to since the business started.
Johnson, a Green Bay native, and Milano, raised in Stevens Point, each saw their fathers dabble in growing grapes and making wine. So, instead of continuing down their career paths as successful attorneys, the husband-and-wife duo took a leap of faith in 2005 when they bought land in rural Kewaunee County for the purpose of developing a vineyard.
At the time, the land was nothing more than a cornfield and former gravel pit. And there were only a few cold-climate grape varietals available for commercial planting.
“It was difficult to make that kind of change in our lives,” said Milano, who serves in the general manager role. “People were looking at us like, ‘What are you thinking?’ As part of my (law) practice I advised business owners. I always admired business owners who were entrepreneurs, big-picture thinkers — that was exciting. I wanted to be part of that too.”
Undaunted, Johnson and Milano marched forward, immediately planting vines and continuing to learn everything they could about the wine business. A year later they started construction on the winery and tasting room for Parallel 44, which officially opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2007 (a sister operation, Door 44 Winery, opened in 2013 near Sturgeon Bay in Door County).
Today, all of the wines produced by Parallel 44 and Door 44 are made with grapes either grown in Parallel 44’s own vineyard or at one of the vineyards the wineries contract with throughout Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. About 40,000 people per year visit the two wineries.
Johnson and Milano consider themselves wine pioneers, since their grape varietals, known as cool climate grapes, are relatively new to the wine world. They possess the hallmark qualities of bright acidity, fruit-forward aromas and flavors that are unique to this region. Some of the varietals include Marechal Foch, Frontenac, Louise Swenson, St. Pepin and Petit Pearl (they’re genetic cousins of well-known varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir). Cool climate grapes can withstand temperatures as low as minus-30 degrees in the winter and flourish in summer.
“Our mission has been to give people a true Wisconsin wine from ground to glass,” Johnson said. “Not just something that people locally can appreciate, but wines that are recognized in international competitions.
“We need to drop our Midwestern modesty. We can compete against the other wines of the world. We have the right soils and climate here to produce world-class wines. My hope is that other wineries across Wisconsin and the Midwest take that to heart and focus on the tremendous potential we have to get this entire region on the world map for wine.”
If you go
What: Harvest Fest.
When: Noon to 6 p.m., Sept. 9. A traditional grape stomp starts at 3 p.m. Vineyard tours are every half-hour from noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 5 p.m.
Where: Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery, N2185 Sleepy Hollow Road, Kewaunee.
Cost: Admission is free. Wine sampling is $6, which includes five samples and a tasting glass.