Door County winemaker says Wisconsin ripe for experimentation

Don’t get Paul Santoriello started on wine snobs.

He had his fill of them in northern California, where he grew up and worked in the wine industry before moving to Wisconsin a decade ago to become the winemaker at Door Peninsula Winery.

The Carlsville-based company is owned by the Pollman family and includes a distillery and a bistro, as well as a brewpub/inn in Egg Harbor. The Pollman family is one of the leaders in the state’s steadily growing winery business. Since the mid-1990s, the number of wineries in the state has increased ten-fold to nearly 100.

Santoriello – whose 40-year-old winery is in a restored, 1868 schoolhouse that’s been expanded to more than 14,000 square feet – said he “despises” people who look down their noses at others they believe are “less sophisticated” and educated about wine as they are.

“I want to choke them because that is incorrect,” he said jokingly. “Status has nothing to do with it. You should find what kind of wine you like and enjoy it.”

And he frowned when he said a Chicago radio host who considered himself a wine and food connoisseur wasn’t interested in talking with him about his Peninsula Red, Chaos Red, Peninsula White or other wines.

The Chaos Red, living up to its name, is an edgy combination of cherry, plum and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, while the Peninsula White consists of Seyval Blanc grapes and apples. The Peninsula Red is made from cherries, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Though his winery makes some wines solely from grapes, more than 95 percent of its production is blended with other fruit. And there’s the rub because many wine aficionados will have nothing to do with wines made from cherries, apples, pears and other fruits.

He says that bias is due to the influence that California maintains on the wine industry.

“They kinda control the market and do a great job of telling us what we should be doing,” he said. “But that’s distorted. You need to drink what you like. And to do that you should tasted different wines and visit wineries to open up your mind.”

“I don’t bash California winemaking, but it can be full of wine snobs with closed minds,” he said. “I understand why they need to have a rigid doctrine, but I didn’t prescribe to it. I wanted to break out and do something on my own, which was unique and different.”

He said leaving the Golden State and moving to rural Wisconsin gave him the chance to experiment.

Santoriello said most people in the Midwest did not grow up drinking wine, as his family did in northern California. He saw vineyards along country roads and his family took trips to the wine country of Sonoma and Napa counties. They drank wine for dinner and celebrated with champagne.

“Most people in Wisconsin grew up with beer and spirits,” he said. “But they are open to new tastes, which I think is exciting. And they like to travel, visit wineries and are interested in food.”

Though explaining the intricacies of tannin, oak, acidity, astringency and fruitiness in wine can be complex, he said many Badger State residents are eager to learn about them.

“What’s exciting is that they are becoming more familiar with these ideas,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing a real growth in our wines and wineries within the state because there is this new recognition in an area where residents didn’t grow up with wine.”

Still, he said, having a degree in viticulture isn’t required to enjoy wine.

“It’s enough for people like what they are tasting,” he said, arguing that blended wines are “absolutely” what most Wisconsin wine drinkers want.

“When all those things — like tannin, acidity and fruitiness — are balanced, wine is happy and tastes good and invites another drink,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to do, extract something with a fruitier acid and alcohol balance.”

Though the vast majority of his production is fruit blends made with wine from California, Oregon, Washington or New York, Santoriello said he continues to work with vines that are adapted to colder, northern climates like Door County’s.

“We tried to grow a vineyard when we first started and it is semi-successful,” he said, noting that Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc vines do not thrive in northeast Wisconsin.

“We are still trying to figure out which (cold climate) grapes grow well in Door County,” he said. “My soil is only two feet thick, then it hits bedrock, limestone.

“Even Riesling doesn’t make it here. Everyone thinks that Riesling is a cold climate grape. They can survive winters, but we just don’t have degree days to ripen them properly. So we stopped.”

Vines that do can do well in the region include Lacrosse, St. Pepin, Marquette and Marechal Foch, several of which were developed at the University of Minnesota by Elmer Swenson, a pioneering grape cultivator who started his work on a farm near Osceola, Wisconsin. He developed a program of crossing French hybrid grapes with selections of the local wild species that can withstand northern winters and have short growing seasons.

“Not many people know these names,” Santoriello said. “Everyone asks me ‘what does your La Crosse wine taste like?’

“Then I have to say like a village wine from Sicily. Because it doesn’t taste like anything you might know. So why don’t we just open a bottle and try it?

“And that’s part of the experimentation. It’s about trying to fit the grape growing in the climate to the style that the customer wants. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

— By Brian E. Clark