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Door County Wisconsin – Wineries In An Autumn Paradise

March 18th, 2009-- by Jim Hofman

Money Magazine has consistently named Door County as one of the top 10 vacation destinations in America.  Door County is known for its natural areas, parks, golfing, lodging on sandy beaches, historic lighthouses hugging rocky shorelines, and boating on lakes teeming with fish.  The arts, galleries, festivals, shopping, fine wines and restaurants await you in this historic peninsula area.

We had the opportunity to visit Door County for a brief 3 day weekend, primarily to attend Autumnfest in Baileys Harbor, one of several picturesque towns dotting the landscape here.  With a little pre planning and research, we learned that wineries flourish here.  In fact, Door County is perched on the 45th Parallel North, the same parallel as Tuscany and Bordeaux, both great European wine producing areas.  The climate is somewhat moderated by the close proximity to Lake Michigan, and even though winters are cold, they are somewhat less harsh than other parts of Wisconsin.

Door County has long been known as a premier four season destination.  Back in the 1950’s, my grandfather camped and fished near one of Door County’s small towns, Fish Creek.  The rural element is still prevalent here, with farmers markets and roadside produce stands the norm rather than the exception.  And while tourism is big business in Door County, it hasn’t overstepped its bounds.  The pace is relaxed, the scenery abundant, and pleasant discoveries are always just around the bend.

It’s easy to navigate Door County.  There are two main state highways, Route 57 which traces the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula, and Route 42 which hugs the bay side.  Door County itself is about 60 miles in length, and depending upon traffic it’s about an hour from our starting point, Sturgeon Bay, to Gills Rock, the tip of the peninsula and gateway to Washington Island.

Sturgeon Bay and Two Door County Wineries

After reaching Door County mid morning, it was a short drive to the largest city on the peninsula, Sturgeon Bay, and the Red Oak Vineyard.  You’ll find Red Oak Vineyard in the midst of downtown Sturgeon Bay, appropriately in Winery Square.  Red Oak features Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Riesling, Chardonnay, and several other styles to tempt you. Most of the wines noted above are made from grapes from California or Washington and then hand crafted on site.

We wanted a taste of Door County on this visit, so we decided to focus on Red Oak’s wines made with local fruit.  We were steered to the Cherry Beaujolais, which reminded us of a really rich, traditional beaujolais, except with a bit more fruit flavor.  Exceptionally smooth and aromatic, this wine and Red Oak’s Ruby Cherry were prime examples of successfully using fruit other than grapes to produce a stellar wine.  Stack this one up with your favorite beaujolais – we think you’ll be impressed.

Also, if it’s available, be sure to try Captain Nick’s Port.  This wonderfully smooth port has a palate of vanilla, nutmeg, and a bit of toffee in our estimation.  One of the better ports we’ve had recently, add it to your collection if you visit.

Just a few short miles up Route 42 from Sturgeon Bay is Door Peninsula Winery, the oldest and largest winery in Door County.   An all natural fruit winery, Door Peninsula Winery produces over 50 types of wine, depending upon the year and season. Two of the newest offerings, and both made with Door County grapes, are Marechel Foch and LaCrosse.

Marechel Foch is a red wine made from cold climate French hybrid grapes.  Bold and slightly spicy, it stands up well to any meat or pork dish.  The LaCrosse, a white wine, is an easy sipper with a pleasant citrus aroma and slight grapefruit tang at the finish.

You can also taste and buy all sorts of interesting specialty fruit wines at Door Peninsula.  We took home a bottle of Blackberry Merlot and loved it.  Best of all was Peninsula White, a blend of syval blanc and apple wine that gives the feel and flavor of autumn in the Midwest.

Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, and Lautenbach Orchard and Winery

Egg Harbor is located in the center of Door County and is well known for its numerous shopping options, including many unique and one of a kind shops. There are over 100 shops in town, making Egg Harbor a great place to stroll and explore.  A prime destination are the Liberty Square Shops, where you’ll find specialty boutiques and galleries.

Downtown Egg Harbor is a delight.  Here you’ll find restaurants in restored historic buildings right alongside small parks brimming with colorful flowers.  Egg Harbor in particular is a walking community, so park the car and set off on foot.

In Fish Creek, a few miles north of Egg Harbor, you’ll find a thriving artists community and access to some of the finest views in Door County.  Fish Creek boasts a picturesque harbor and city beach, both easily accessible from town.  Restaurants and shops beckon, and bed and breakfasts blend seamlessly into the residential and business area.  Of note, Fish Creek was recently voted the #1 Small Town Getaway by Midwest Living Magazine.

Just 1/2 mile south of Fish Creek is Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery, a perfect late afternoon stop for a bit of wine tasting.  You can pick your own fruit here at this family orchard and winery, or take a 30 minute narrated tour through the orchard and vineyard.

We really enjoyed the wines here.  First on our list was Autumn Harvest, a blend of Wisconsin cranberries and Door County apples. The mix of cranberry and apple made for a taste tingling balance between sweet and tart.  Another wine to savor is Audrey Grace Red, a light red wine made with grapes from the Lautenbach vineyard.  This wine is made from red grapes of the Foch and Frontenac varietal. It’s light in tannins, with a just hint of cherry for a soft, slightly dry finish.  Also try Celebrate, a blended wine made with white grapes, apples, and Door County cherries.  It’s a fun wine that’s light and fruity, with just a kiss of sweetness.

Ephraim and Two Door County Wineries

The village of Ephraim is another picturesque community to explore.  Named Door County’s Most Scenic Village, Ephraim boasts a picture book harbor and waterfront beaches and parks.  The quaint business area is adjacent, so plan for a few hours here to take everything in.  Don’t miss the City Farmer, a home accent and garden accessory store, and Pet Expressions, a gourmet gift store for your best friend.

And if it’s sweets you crave, an absolute must stop is Wilson’s Ice Cream, open since 1906.  Try a house brewed root beer on tap, sumptous banana spilt, or an extra thick cherry milkshake.  Wilson’s is right downtown, directly across from the harbor.

Now, on to our last two Door County Wineries.  First was Simon Creek Winery, home of the largest vineyard in Wisconsin and one of the most modern winery operations in the state.  The rural location, actually adjacent to a quiet pond, sits exactly on the 45th Parallel.  Sunday afternoons bring live music, and on this particular day we enjoyed the sounds of guitarist/singer Mickey Grasso.

We recommend several offerings from Simon Creek.  The first actually isn’t a wine, but rather Peninsula Gold, a cream sherry that pairs very well with cheese.  An excellent wine is Untouchable Red, an award winner, in the cabernet style.  It has a deep red color and is pleasatly off dry.  Also try the Simon Creek Gewurtztraminer,  with just a hint of sweetness, balanced with the good spicy characteristics of this style.

The setting here is as peaceful as it gets, absolutely perfect for a Sunday afternoon.  Don’t miss Simon Creek when you’re in Door County.  You’re welcome to enjoy a picnic here as well.

Our final winery visit for this trip is Stone’s Throw Winery, located in an 80 year old stone barn at the exact center of Door County peninsula.  Stone’s Throw offers a full range of wines from both California grapes and grapes from their on site vineyard.

We especially liked Field Blend White, a great value at $10.  This wine is a complex yet very drinkable white wine blend that owns the characteristics of a Riesling.  The counterpart, Field Blend Red, also impresses.

The winery is something of a celebrity as it were, having been featured on The Food Network not only for its wineries, but also their gourmet line of pasta sauces and olive oils, all created from old family recipes.

Note: All photos courtesy of Simon Creek Winery.  Author Jim Hofman travels and writes about wine. For more stories, see Wine Trails USA.

Tags: Jim Hofman · United States - Other

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