The calendar may declare it’s summer, but Steve and Maria Johnson of Parallel 44 Winery in Wisconsin are already looking ahead to their possible ice wine harvest and beyond.
As the president of the Wisconsin Winery Association, Steve has a vision for taking the state’s wine industry to levels found elsewhere in the U.S. He admitted, “Right now, Wisconsin-produced wine represents only 3% of all wine sold in Wisconsin.” Steve wants to see that number triple in the next 10 years.
“In my heart I see Wisconsin reaching the status of Oregon and Washington some day but most wine regions take several generations. I probably won’t see it in my lifetime but we are proud to be pioneering the future of Upper Midwest wine in a place no one ever dreamed would be wine country 20 years ago,” he said.
That vision of what a region can be is what drives Steve to not only be creative with his winemaking but to try new varietals and stretch the limits of what a particular grape can produce.
“My favorite part of being a vintner is being 90% Wisconsin from ground to glass. We get to impact each vintage from bud break to the final stage of enjoyment of what is in your glass,” he said. “Every year it’s a new challenge, so it’s never boring because you are always learning how to improve each and every year.”
Parallel 44 Winery is also one of the few wineries in the world capable of producing ice wine, which proves that Steve and Maria are not afraid of challenges. Ice wine is produced from grapes that are allowed to freeze while still on the vine. They are not usually harvested until well into winter to ensure they are frozen solid. Nets protect the grapes from pests and also keep them from falling to the ground, allowing the gatherers to save most all of the harvest.
Since the grapes have to be picked and pressed while still frozen to make ice wine, the process can be brutal. Picking grapes in balmy summer or early autumn is delightful, but to gather ice wine grapes, you have to have a real love for it – and commitment. It is a very labor-intensive process.
Steve said of the venture, “I do not know how many ice wine producers there are in U.S., but it is rare. There are a few of us in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Upstate New York. There are very few areas of the United States that have enough summer growing degree days to ripen the grapes and then also have temps in the low teens by December to literally freeze the grapes on the vines before they can be harvested.”
When asked about the origins of ice wine, Steve replied, “Ice wine (called eiswein) originated out of Germany in the 18th century but now it is very rare for their climate to be cold enough to make ice wine. Ontario, Canada, probably produces 90% of the ice wine in the world. Wisconsin has the climate to match Ontario someday in ice wine production volume.
“At Parallel 44 Winery, we produce ice wine because it is one of the most unique beverages in the world and we are on the perfect spot on the globe to make the best ice wine in the world. There is something about the pain and challenge of it that makes it special.”
In addition to their ice wine, Parallel 44 produces over two dozen types of rosé, white, red and sparkling wines.
With lofty goals and an eye for the future, Steve Johnson is the perfect person to lead the way in expanding the wine growing region. He is a good example of what makes the wine industry such an attractive venture for many entrepreneurs – he is not afraid of hard work and some risk-taking and employs an innovative and creative approach to the entire process, “from ground to glass.”
The Wisconsin wine region is improving and increasing its wine selections every year, and the country’s vintners are watching to see if Steve’s vision will come to fruition.
by Tamra M. Bolton