As a Midwesterner prejudiced toward things Midwestern, I was intrigued when a friend reported recently that she'd spent a weekend touring Illinois wineries with wondrous results. Not only is wine being made in an ever-growing number of Illinois locales, she said, but unlike the Midwestern wine of a few decades ago, a lot of this is really good.
Our friend rhapsodized over a Merlot and something called "Fred's Red" that
she'd tried at Lynfred Winery in Roselle, and a "wonderful cranberry wine with
a bite" and a "fruity" rhubarb wine (both new to me, though if you can make
wine out of tomatoes and dandelions, why not cranberries and rhubarb?) at
Galena Cellars in Galena.
Not too long ago when you wanted good American wine (if, unlike my dad, you
didn't make it yourself), you turned to the coasts. Midwestern wineries, slow
to recover after Prohibition ended, lagged far behind -- and when their wines
did 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 in
Illinois, making wine makers dependent on fruit growers in other states. But
that, too, is changing, says Fred Koehler, owner of Lynfred.
Today, there are more than three dozen Illinois growers, the most since
before Prohibition. Ten tons of Illinois grapes are being crushed into Lynfred
wines alone each year, said Koehler. But considering his winery uses more than
250 tons of grapes in that time, he must also buy elsewhere.
We chose three wineries for our expedition -- Baxter's Vineyards/Winery in
Nauvoo (the state's oldest, established shortly before the Civil War, and the
first to get back in business after Prohibition ended), plus Lynfred and
Galena Cellars (Illinois' two largest).
Baxter's Vineyards/Winery (Nauvoo)
On a blistering afternoon we were greeted at Baxter's display room by
Brenda Logan, who with her husband, Kelly, now runs the business. Nauvoo, once
a 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 vines
hanging on the walls, decorated with clusters of purple-glass grapes and tiny
white lights. Kelly Logan's mother was a Baxter, Brenda Logan explains, and he
is the fourth generation to make wine here.
Ninety years after the winery was founded, Baxter brothers Cecil, Fred and
Emile 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 like
Concords, Catawbas and Niagaras, although the winery has recently planted
additional acreage in Vignoles and French Varietal Whites, Brenda Logan said.
"Unlike much of northern Illinois, where winters are too severe, the shores
of the Mississippi are good for growing grapes," she noted. "New York grape
stock does well here because the climate is similar -- we can't grow anything
that grows in California." Baxter's buys additional juice -- or must -- from
other Midwestern states.
With a staff of four, Baxter's produces between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons of
wine each year, and though Brenda Logan doesn't much like contests and rarely
enters them, several Baxter's wines have won awards at the Illinois State Fair
in Springfield, she said. Among these is their Concord wine, which is also
their best seller.
No pressing or bottling was in progress on the day of our visit -- bottling
begins in mid-August, picking of this year's crop in September -- but Logan
gave us a tour, showing off massive fermenting vats that date back half a
century, a crusher that can accommodate 25 bushels of grapes, three
2,985-gallon aging casks where the second fermentation takes place, and more.
In a 10,000-square-foot building, Baxter's produces 10 different wines -- red
and white, table and dessert -- ranging in price from $6.25 to $8.25 per
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 without
much edge. But a trip through the winery was interesting, and the historic
town 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 and
New Year's Days 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (from 10 a.m. on Sundays).
Galena Cellars (Galena)
Look out, Napa
Illinois wineries are making their marks
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