More than 100 years ago, Illinois was the fourth largest wine-producing state in the nation. Now the Treasury Department holds Illinois responsible for just 72,000 of the more than 41 million gallons bottled in February of 2010. While other states may have surpassed ours, the industry in Illinois is actually a growing one. Thirteen years ago, there were 14 wineries and 150 growers in The Land of Lincoln. Now, there are 86 wineries and 450 growers. Several new and established vintners have set up shop in and around central Illinois. Their grounds provide many opportunities for budding sommeliers.
Loren Shanle is one of the region’s newest winemakers and also the closest to Springfield. A former insurance salesman (who still works at that part-time), Shanle converted his old Rochester office into The Walnut Street Winery (309 S. Walnut, Rochester). Shanle’s passion for wine started in 2007 when he received a winemaking kit on his birthday. He made several batches before applying for a license and eventually convincing the dry town of Rochester to let him open shop. Walnut Street houses nine 300-litre tanks that each yield almost 30 cases of wine. Visitors to Rochester shouldn’t expect to witness a harvest, as the small property doesn’t have room for vines or crushing. Instead, Shanle imports concentrate, fills his tanks, adds yeast and makes his special recipes. In early May, he finished more than 1,000 bottles of wines like Crantastic (a cranberry shiraz), Blackjack and Pinot Noir. Other popular selections include Rosie Red, a black raspberry merlot named after Shanle’s mother.
Walnut Street has an inviting wine garden with a bocce court (summer leagues now forming) and stage for live music. Two local restaurants provide food, patrons can access free Wi-Fi, and a tasting bar offers three samples for $3. Additionally, Shanle wines are sold at Andiamo and Augie’s Front Burner in Springfield. More information at walnutstreetwinery.com.
Menard County’s Oakford village boasts a population of 309. The rural setting is the perfect place for the Hill Prairie Winery (23753 Lounsberry Rd., Oakford), where Mark and Connie Lounsberry operate in a structure built by J.C. Lounsberry in 1911. The current owners are the fifth generation to farm the site; they offer family favorites like Prairie Dew, Autumn Spice, Prairie Barn Red, and Crimson Moon.
Amidst a flurry of new local wineries and vineyards, Hill Prairie stands out as an experienced operation. The nine-acre vineyard opened in October of 2004. A tasting room and several seating areas, including seating for 300 in a new pavilion, provide a welcome respite for guests. There, the family serves a lineup of 15 dry white, dry red and sweet wines (which Lounsberry says Midwesterners prefer the most). This season, Hill Prairie will offer River Bluff Red, a special reserve wine made with Norton grapes. Popular musicians fill the stage each Sunday afternoon, and Hill Prairie hosts a series of mystery theater shows year-round. Details online at hillprairiewinery.com.
Wine enthusiasts need only travel 40 miles south of Springfield to discover another of Illinois’ most recently opened wineries in Crown Valley’s Wooden Nickel Winery & Saloon (3225 Honey Bend Ave., Litchfield). The site is an extension of the Crown Valley Winery in St. Genevieve, Mo., and sells 36 company wines, 5 sparkling wines, 12 beers, 3 ciders, grape juice, root beer and bison meat. While the Wooden Nickel just opened in mid-April, Crown Valley is a well-established Midwestern label whose land is comprised of houses, inns, a restaurant, a brewery, vines and a herd of 350 bison.
Manager Jared Wirth says his Litchfield facility, built in a 1960s-era barn, is the perfect setting for a weekday jaunt or weekend getaway. “We’re not a bar, we’re a destination. People are welcome to come out to the Wooden Nickel for good live music, great drinks and beautiful scenery,” he says. Back and side patios abut two ponds and hiking trails, and will provide excellent views of vines once they mature. Wirth and his colleagues planted 250 vines that will produce in later summers. For now, he performs aging on-site with four vats, a label maker and a corking machine. By next spring, he’ll be pouring the Wooden Nickel’s first homemade wine. Until then, he sells several varieties, including a Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon released in April.
Crown Valley and the Wooden Nickel are owned by Joe Scott of Scott Properties, who also owns the adjacent Honey Bend Resort, which is opening for limited public use for the first time this year. The campground has made its menu available to Wooden Nickel patrons. The Wooden Nickel is open year round and is available for private events. Visit woodennickelwinery.com for more details.
Long Creek Vineyards (7185 E. Firehouse Rd., Decatur) was launched in 2004 and winemakers Jody Fisher and Brad Warnick continue to produce several wines with homegrown grapes. Fisher and Warnick have planted Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Viognier grapes and are known for producing award-winning Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, and La Crosse. Go to longcreekvineyards.com for more information.
The state of Illinois wine
Although the industry’s state funding has been cut, Illinois stands to benefit financially if local winemaking continues to flourish. Bill McCartney is the executive director of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association (illinoiswine.com), a nonprofit group formed to promote the wine and grape industry in Illinois. While significant funding from the Illinois General Assembly was eliminated earlier this year, the IGGVA still receives an annual $150,000 from the Illinois Department of Agriculture and another $150,000 from the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s Bureau of Tourism. However, $93,000 of the Agriculture money goes to programs at UIUC and SIU, while the IGGVA retains just $13,200. The remaining money is primarily spent on marketing. According to McCartney, the last economic impact study (2007-2008) revealed that wineries contribute $253 million to the state’s economy through construction costs, salaries, equipment purchases and other expenses. Furthermore, McCartney says for every gallon of wine sold, $1.50 of excise tax goes into the Illinois general revenue fund. He estimates that every dollar once contributed by the state was returned to the Illinois budget 10 times.
The budget cuts have not yet affected local wineries, but negative impact is not far off. The IGGVA sponsors seminars, workshops and other events for winemakers and grape growers. Furthermore, the group retains specialists who assist newcomers interested in starting small businesses. If funding remains low, fledgling vintners will instead rely only on the kindness of peer mentors to get their new companies off the ground. While information sharing can work, hired specialists and official seminars speed the industry’s growth. “The wine industry is very good about helping its new people, but we don’t want to go back to that model exclusively,” McCartney says. After losing General Assembly appropriations that once totaled $500,000 per year, the association is putting more money into festivals and events in an effort to rebuild its budget through shared gate revenues.
Illinois wine is different from that produced in other regions. Here, winemakers use grapes like Chambourcin, Seyval, and Vignoles, which are known as French hybrids. These grapes withstand cold weather and can flourish in our fickle climate. The big question, of course, is whether local wines can compete with their out-of-state counterparts. McCartney believes they can. “In my 13 years with the association, I’ve noticed a tremendous increase in quality. We like to ask people what kind of wine they like. Once we find a close match from Illinois, they are usually pleasantly surprised by its flavor,” he says. Harvesting starts in late summer, but the entire season is a ripe time to get out and explore this local industry.
Summer wine events:
Experience the Sixth Annual Wine & Music Festival on May 30 and 31 at the Hill Prairie Winery in Oakford. Sunday is bluegrass day with music from 1 to 6 p.m. while Monday is reserved for blues bands. Doors open at noon. Admission is $5 and includes a souvenir wine glass. Call 217-635-9900 for more information.
The Illinois Grape Growers & Vintners Association is sponsoring the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition held June 7-9 at the University of Illinois campus in Urbana. The contest is open to Illinois commercial wineries and Midwestern amateur winemakers who will be judged on color, balance, aroma, clarity, taste and finish. For information, call 217-244-1042 or visit illinoiswine.com.
On July 16, it’s Pork Meets Cork, hosted by a partnership between the Illinois Pork Producers and the Illinois Wineries. More information will be available as the date approaches.
Visit the Illinois Wine Garden at the 2010 Illinois State Fair for a great selection of local wines. This year marks the group’s third at the fairgrounds. For $1, wine fans can try a taste of any Illinois wine as proceeds are split between the wineries and the IGGVA. Ballroom dancing lasts from 7-9 p.m. daily.