This summer, Parallel 44 winery has earned several big accolades for their wines.
At the Wisconsin State Fair, Parallel 44 took home three out of four Double Gold medals at the annual Wisconsin Professional Wine Competition. How do you win a "Double Gold"? It takes a unanimous decision by a panel of six judges evaluating a wine in a blind tasting.
Both Parallel 44 and Door 44 wines won more medals for Wisconsin grape wines than any other winery in the Badger State.
Then at the 2013 International Cold Climate Wine Competition in St. Paul, Parallel 44's La Crescent won Best in Show in the white wine category.
This competition, hosted by the Minnesota Grape Growers Association and the University of Minnesota, included nearly 300 wines from wineries in 12 states and Canada.
"It was exciting to see these judges, who evaluate wines from around the world, pick up on the particular nuances of this area," Steve Johnson, owner of Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery, told me this week. "It gives me energy to keep focusing on what we can do best in this part of the world."
Both wineries happen to be located on the 44th parallel, the northern latitude which not only inspired the name of the business, but is shared by storied wine regions like Bordeaux and Tuscany.
If you don't believe me, do what I had to do in wine class during culinary school, take a ruler and find a flat, world map. You'll also notice that it's in line with some tremendous wine regions in the Pacific Northwest.
Just put this together in your head; Wisconsin is the Dairy State. We're home to some of the finest farmer's markets. Does it stand to reason that the state could grow great wine?
Sure, but it has to be sub-zero grape varietals that can stand up to harsh winters. That's where grapes like Frontenac, St. Pepin, La Crescent, La Crosse and Seyval Blanc come into play.
"If you walk into any significant wine store, how is the store set up? By region, and that's because those who enjoy wine know that a certain region gives you a certain profile," says Johnson. "To me, that's what has always drawn me to the business of wine. Every part of the world can put their spin on something and make it interesting."
That's why Johnson tells people that he, "doesn't make wine, I grow wine."
It matters so much in this New New World of wines, that the Wisconsin Ledge AVA is its federally-recognized growing area. The government allows that pedigree to be placed on wines from this part of Northeast Wisconsin because of the Niagara Escarpment landscape, which has unique topography, soil type and climate.
The victories this summer, according to Johnson, will help put Parallel 44 and Door 44 wines on the map. He believes it'll help drive online sales of some of the award-winners to states where they can legally ship the vino.
As for if the Wisconsin Ledge AVA designation has turned into gangbusters, Johnson is a little more reserved about it.
"The reality is that few of the wineries here yet have produced wines from this region, in terms of actually growing the grapes from this area," Johnson says.
The bump in visitors to the winery has meant more of an interest in what's in the glass.
"That has led me to expand my resources in contracting with as many growers as I can," Johnson says. "Because I want as much product from this area and it takes quite a few years to develop the inventory to meet the demand."
Johnson says he's up to 5 or 6 growers that he's contracted with to buy grapes from.
"I'm encouraged by the competition and the curiosity of the customers that I'm continuing to expand my vineyard, but then also work with as many growers as possible," says Johnson. "It's a work in progress...it's probably going to take several generation, but this is usually how it starts and put your best foot forward and hopefully create enough demand that others will want to join the industry."
Johnson hopes wine merchants and others nationwide will take a chance and carry some of their wines. He would like to expand to the Minneapolis and Chicago markets, while growing through the Midwest.
"It is a game where you need to get your product into as many stores as possible," says Johnson. "You kind of build it brick by brick, you start at your home base and continue to expand outward as far as you can."
Later this week, we'll talk about the upcoming harvest and how the growing season has been going. Stay tuned.