Despite well-known climate mood swings and recession setbacks, Illinois winemakers are supported by local consumers, pushing the state to become one of the top 12 wine producers in the nation.
“The Illinois wine industry is young – we’re still trying to define what we are,” explains Jill Joyce, director of Brand and Product Development of August Hill Winery in Utica, Illinois. Though the vines are young, the traditions are anything but.
Mark Wenzel, head winemaker of August Hill Winery, describes his family lineage as “steeped into the agriculture,” as he inherited the land from his grandfather. Likewise, Chris Lawlor-White, head winemaker of Galena Cellars Inc., remembers visiting wineries throughout Illinois with her father; he inspired her to study enology and she ultimately became one of the first women to graduate in the Food and Science Department at Fresno State University. Since the 1980s, Ms. Lawlor-White, along with her father and brother, has been on the quest for the perfect grape. Their efforts have produced some of the outstanding white wines in the state; their headline red wine, Eric the Red, was named after her son.
“We want to stay small and unique,” Ms. Lawlor-White says. “We’re creating our own idea.”
Pursuing their own ideas is not uncommon for Illinois winemakers, especially in the north, as they adapt their harvesting techniques to the weather of the Midwest. Andres Basso, head winemaker of Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Illinois, and Ms. Lawlor-White uncover the vineyard earlier in the season; this aerates and exposes the vines to sunshine to combat humidity, rain, snow and freezing temperatures. In contrast, farther south, the milder the climate becomes, a wider range of varietals and naturally riper fruit is created.
“The micro and meso climates can create a uniqueness to the same grape grown in different conditions,” says Paul Renzaglia, owner and head winemaker of Alto Vineyards, located in the foothills of Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.
Despite the polarized temperatures within the state, Illinois wineries have a commonality in what the Illinois Grape Growers Association has called the state’s strong suit: hybrid wines, or grapes grown from vines that are descendents of both European and Native American grapes. Illinois winemakers are recognized for their vin-twist on their winter-hardy wine.
“The French-American hybrids are best suited for our climate, as they tend to be more cold and disease resistant,” Mr. Renzaglia says. “We have taught a lot of people how these French-American hybrids can make world-class wines.”
Lora Meredith, assistant winemaker of Lynfred Winery, experiments with hybrid grapes from other regions such as Illinois, California, Washington and Michigan to create fine varietals. Her winemaking mission is to “create a wine that respects what the grapes have to offer.”
Many Illinois wineries focus on an eco-friendly approach to their philosophy. At August Hill, for example, the viticulturalists use marginal amounts of sprays and chemicals on their vines. “Everything we do in the vineyard is done with sustainability in mind,” Ms. Joyce explains. “We really want to be good neighbors to the rest of the world.”
Making the Sale
With consumers in mind, Illinois tasting rooms offer diversity in both flavor and price point. Peggy Harmston, owner and winemaker of Massbach Ridge Winery outside of Elizabeth, Illinois, says she has a diverse selection of wines for every category of wine drinker from a dry, oak-aged red wine to fruity, lighter wines.
While wineries market to retailers across the country and sell online, the recession has brought change to spirit consumption. “Many consumer preferences are to lower priced wine,” explains Mr. Basso. Likewise, Illinois wineries lost state funding, which led to a depletion of training and advisory state enologists.
But filling the void of government help is a surge of support for local industries. For example, Mr. Renzaglia shares that the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association has helped market the state wine industry by allowing for a global reach of information sharing. Social media has also led to a rise in tourism as wineries create Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to sell their libations.
“I think people in Illinois are simply adventurous,” Ms. Joyce says. “No matter where in the state you live, you can hop in your car and be at a winery within two hours.”
To plan a trip to Illinois’ wineries and tasting rooms, visit www.illinoiswine.org.
By Chiara Milioulis