As a Midwesterner prejudiced toward things Midwestern, I was intrigued whena friend reported recently that she'd spent a weekend touring Illinoiswineries with wondrous results. Not only is wine being made in an ever-growingnumber of Illinois locales, she said, but unlike the Midwestern wine of a fewdecades ago, a lot of this is really good.
Our friend rhapsodized over a Merlot and something called "Fred's Red" thatshe'd tried at Lynfred Winery in Roselle, and a "wonderful cranberry wine witha bite" and a "fruity" rhubarb wine (both new to me, though if you can makewine out of tomatoes and dandelions, why not cranberries and rhubarb?) atGalena Cellars in Galena.
Fascinated, we decided to explore a few wineries ourselves. According to mynot-that-old Illinois travel guide, we had a choice of five wineries spreadabout the state. But more thorough research revealed that now there are 14.
Not too long ago when you wanted good American wine (if, unlike my dad, youdidn't make it yourself), you turned to the coasts. Midwestern wineries, slowto recover after Prohibition ended, lagged far behind -- and when their winesdid begin emerging from dank cellars, it wasn't to rave reviews.
But over the past two decades that's changed, and today Illinois wineries(like others in the Midwest) are taking awards even in California.
One problem: the demand for local grapes is outstripping the supply inIllinois, making wine makers dependent on fruit growers in other states. Butthat, too, is changing, says Fred Koehler, owner of Lynfred.
Today, there are more than three dozen Illinois growers, the most sincebefore Prohibition. Ten tons of Illinois grapes are being crushed into Lynfredwines alone each year, said Koehler. But considering his winery uses more than250 tons of grapes in that time, he must also buy elsewhere.
We chose three wineries for our expedition -- Baxter's Vineyards/Winery inNauvoo (the state's oldest, established shortly before the Civil War, and thefirst to get back in business after Prohibition ended), plus Lynfred andGalena Cellars (Illinois' two largest).
Baxter's Vineyards/Winery (Nauvoo)
On a blistering afternoon we were greeted at Baxter's display room byBrenda Logan, who with her husband, Kelly, now runs the business. Nauvoo, oncea Mormon stronghold, is 200 miles southwest of Chicago, just north of where --on the other side of the Mississippi River -- Iowa ends and Missouri begins.
The room is festive with wreaths and "trees" made of stout grape vineshanging on the walls, decorated with clusters of purple-glass grapes and tinywhite lights. Kelly Logan's mother was a Baxter, Brenda Logan explains, and heis the fourth generation to make wine here.
Ninety years after the winery was founded, Baxter brothers Cecil, Fred andEmile reopened in 1947 -- they had toughed out the "dry" years growing grapes,apples and pears for Midwest markets. The Logans took over in 1988.
Today Baxter's grows about 10 acres of grapes, mostly staples likeConcords, Catawbas and Niagaras, although the winery has recently plantedadditional acreage in Vignoles and French Varietal Whites, Brenda Logan said.
"Unlike much of northern Illinois, where winters are too severe, the shoresof the Mississippi are good for growing grapes," she noted. "New York grapestock does well here because the climate is similar -- we can't grow anythingthat grows in California." Baxter's buys additional juice -- or must -- fromother Midwestern states.
With a staff of four, Baxter's produces between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons ofwine each year, and though Brenda Logan doesn't much like contests and rarelyenters them, several Baxter's wines have won awards at the Illinois State Fairin Springfield, she said. Among these is their Concord wine, which is alsotheir best seller.
No pressing or bottling was in progress on the day of our visit -- bottlingbegins in mid-August, picking of this year's crop in September -- but Logangave us a tour, showing off massive fermenting vats that date back half acentury, a crusher that can accommodate 25 bushels of grapes, three2,985-gallon aging casks where the second fermentation takes place, and more.In a 10,000-square-foot building, Baxter's produces 10 different wines -- redand white, table and dessert -- ranging in price from $6.25 to $8.25 perbottle.
Of the several I sampled, I liked the White Catawba, a fruity dessert wine,and the not-too-sweet Concord best. Others I found a little too syrupy withoutmuch edge. But a trip through the winery was interesting, and the historictown of Nauvoo also is well worth a visit.
Baxter's Vineyards/Winery, 2010 E. Parley Street, Nauvoo, IL 62354;217-453-2528 or 800-854-1396. Tours daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas andNew Year's Days 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (from 10 a.m. on Sundays).
Galena Cellars (Galena)
Near the banks of another river --the Galena--and 175 miles northwest ofChicago, Galena Cellars, which produces 40,000 gallons a year, stands in asquaint a setting as you can imagine. Today, the former granary, built of brickabout 1840 on historic Main Street, is used only as a display/tasting room.Galena Cellars' dozens of types of wines are made at a cellar built sevenyears ago on a 14-acre farm half a dozen miles east of town, explainedassistant manager Julie Bruser.
The company, Bruser said, was founded in 1976 by Robert and Joyce Lawlor ofCedar Rapids, Iowa, who sent their daughter Christine to California to studywinemaking. Christine Lawlor and her brother Scott, who's operations manager,opened wineries in Iowa and Wisconsin before starting Galena Cellars in 1985.
"Illinois had laws that were more conducive to wine making, and GalenaCellars was immediately successful, so the family shut down the other twowineries," Bruser said. "When the winery outgrew this building, the Lawlorsbought the farm-country property, where grapes are grown and the wine ismade." With only four acres of grapes, most of what Galena Cellars uses comesfrom elsewhere, all of it as must.
At the vineyard, Connie McDermott, manager of the tasting room, gave us atour. In the cellar (where Christine Lawlor oversees all wine-makingactivity), fermentation takes place in three 1,500-gallon tanks, two1,000-gallon tanks and seven 500-gallon tanks, all brim-full on this occasion.After fermentation, wines are "put back in tanks for marrying, allowingelements to come together," she said, then blended. Red wines are aged in50-gallon oak barrels, some 60 of which stand in a corner of this vast room.
Across the courtyard is the bottling room where, McDermott noted, "threepeople running the bottling machine can do 200 cases in an hour, but rarelyare we in that much of a hurry." Bottling is done year-round "on demand --wine isn't taxable until it's bottled." Fruit wines (cranberry, cherry,blackberry, red raspberry, concord grape and rhubarb), semi-dries and drywines each make up roughly a third of Galena Cellars' production. The wineryalso makes three popular Ports.
In the tasting room we sampled half a dozen of the winery's 28 varieties --and had to agree these were the best Midwestern wines we'd tried. General'sReserve White, Proprietor's Reserve Merlot, General's Reserve Red,Johannisberg Riesling, Cranberry and Port of Galena are all superb. The winesrange in cost from $7.50 to $14.95.
Galena Cellars Tasting Room and Gift Shop, 515 S. Main St., Galena, IL61036; Galena Cellars Vineyard and Tasting Room, 4746 N. Ford Road, Galena, IL61036; 800-397-WINE or 815-777-3330; www.galenacellars.com/. From Memorial Daythrough December (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Days), the in-town shop isopen 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday; the rest of theyear, hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday,9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday (closed Easter and New Year's Day). The vineyard hoursare 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Sunday from June through October, with hour-longtours ($2.50) at 2 p.m. Every fall (Nov. 19 this year), Galena Cellars' holdsa Nouveau Fest that, according to Bruser, "celebrates the harvest and givesvisitors a chance to enjoy a special meal and taste a new wine."
Lynfred Winery (Roselle)
Closer to home, in the northwest Chicago suburb of Roselle, is LynfredWinery. The 24,000- square-foot, three-story tower was built in 1990 inChicago Prairie-style, though inside it resembles the finest of English manorhouses. In the most recent year, Fred Koehler and his staff of 44 (14 fulltime) made 50,000 gallons in 45 varieties.
Most, stressed Koehler, are "varietals, not blends."
The tower includes a wine tasting room, gift shop and all wine-makingoperations. By the end of next year, it also will include fourbed-and-breakfast rooms decorated in the styles of the wine-making countriesof France, Italy, Germany and the United States.
Koehler and his late wife, Lynn, self-taught winemakers, founded Lynfred in1977. "Our first five years were rough -- breweries make things hard onwineries trying to get established -- but we've continued to grow every year,"Koehler said. "We grow no grapes--all we want to do is make wine." Koehlersaid he buys as many grapes as his Anna, Ill., grower can provide and gets afew from Michigan, but he has had to turn to California to survive.
"We import only whole fruit-- mostly grapes, but also apples, pears,blueberries, raspberries, cherries, plums, rhubarb, blackberries, peaches,apricots and red currants--for the wine," he said. "The taste starts in thesoil," so when placing an order for grapes, Koehler requests a certain "totalacid, sugar and pH."
Bottling is done in the spring (white wines in March and April, red winesin May and June). The reds are aged in 50-gallon "toasted" barrels of Frenchor American oak (Lynfred has 400) that "impart tannin and let through smallamounts of oxygen to give the wine character," he said.
Lynfred's winemaker is Andres Aguilera from Chile, who Koehler calls a"young man with an amazing nose."
Dozens of Lynfred's wines have taken awards in competitions across thecountry, though he's proudest of those won in California. We were mostimpressed with Lynfred's Merlot and Fred's Red. Wines range in price from $8to $50.
"Chicago is No. 2 in wine consumption in the country, so it makes goodsense to have a winery here," Koehler said. Lynfred's market includes 14states and Japan, but most consumers, he said, are from Illinois.
"To me, a grape is a lot like a kid," Koehler said with a smile. "You can'tchange it--you can only try to steer it in the right direction."
Lynfred Winery, 15 S. Roselle Rd., Roselle, IL 60172; 630-529-WINE. Tastingroom open daily (closed Christmas and New Year's Days), 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; toursat 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. The winery hosts an annual Oktoberfest thelast full weekend in September.
IN SEARCH OF ILLINOIS WINE
In addition to the three wineries featured in this story, there are 11other wineries in Illinois, according to the Illinois GrapeGrowers & VintnersAssociation. They are:
- Alto Vineyards/Winery, Box 51, Highway 127, Alto Pass, IL 62905;618-893-4898.
- Chateau Ra-Ha Winery, 230 E. Main St., Grafton, IL 62037; 618-786-3335.
- GenKota Winery Ltd., 301 N. 44th St., Mt. Vernon, IL 62864; 618-246-WINE(9463).
- Glunz Family Winery & Cellars, 888 E. Belvidere Rd., Suite 211 & 109,Grayslake, IL 60030; 847-548-9463.
- Owl Creek Vineyard, 2655 Water Valley Rd., Cobden, IL 62920;618-893-2557.
- Pomona Winery, 2865 Hickory Ridge Rd., Pomona, IL 62975; 618-893-2623.
- Schorr Lake Vineyards, 1032 S. Library St., Waterloo, IL 62298;618-939-3174.
- Seminary Winery, 83 S. Seminary, Galesburg, IL 61401-4802; 309-343-2512;www.seminarystreet.com/seminarywinery/.
- Spring Pond Vineyards/Winery, 13772 Spring Pond Rd., Benton, IL 62812;618-439-9176.
- Von Jakob Vineyards Ltd., 1309 Sadler Rd., Pomona, IL 62975;618-893-4500.
- Waterloo Winery, 725 N. Market St., Waterloo, IL 62298; 618-939-5734 or618-939-8339; www.waterloowinery.com/.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun