Recap – the 2012 Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association Annual Conference

The conference is finally over!  Months and months of planning and organization go into making this one of the best small conferences for grape and wine producers out there.  I recently wrote a piece for the Midwest Wine Press which contains all the nuts and bolts, but I thought I’d share my experience here.

Photo by M Ganchiff

My roles in the conference are, as always, numerous and varied.  This year, I delivered a technical presentation on oxygen management in wine production, a guided sensory evaluation session regarding the impact of site upon Frontenac and Chambourcin wines, organized a special food and wine exercise with Lincoln Land Community College, and put together the food and wine pairing for the annual awards banquet.  I also served as “specialist for hire” at the friday night trivia competition, which involved an extensive amount of sensory work (aka “drinking”).  Additionally, I had a major hand in the development of the enology day lineup of speakers and topics.

Getting all of that together probably sounds like a ton of work, correctly so!  However, I am lucky enough to have excellent people who can shoulder some of the burden.  They are:

  • Joe Taylor, Sleepy Creek Vineyards – Joe really took the lead on conference organization, and lined up several top-notch speakers, including Paul Wagner and Tim Hanni.
  • Megan Pressnall, IGGVA Director of External Relations – Megan does everything for everyone, but really helped me with the banquet and Lincoln Land events.
  • Jay Kitterman, Lincoln Land Community College – Jay facilitates culinary events at LLCC, and helped us pull off a great night.

Overall, the event was a huge success, for a few specific reasons.  First, the content we provided was first-rate, covering the spectrum of vineyard, winery, and marketing topics without requiring too many concurrent sessions.  We brought in great speakers from other sates, including Fritz Westover from Texas A&M extension and the aforementioned Paul and Tim.  Next, I was concerned that attendance might be low, but it ended up being consistent with past years (over 250).  I tend to have an “if you build it, they will come” attitude regarding conference lineups/speakers, but this year I had some doubts due to both the perceived sagging economy and the development of a new, regional conference taking place around the same time in a nearby area.  Lastly, we were able to pull off a three-day conference, complete with lectures, lunches, tasting exercises and a six course banquet dinner at a fraction of the registration fee required for other conferences.  I’m really not trying to take a shot at other conferences, but we did it great, and on a shoestring budget.

Again, check out the Midwest Wine Press article for more details.  I think most had a great time, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with the other speakers, the IGGVA board and staff, the LLCC culinary staff and students, and the hotel staff and chefs.  I really look forward to contributing to this conference in the future.  Cheers!

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Has anyone read this?

I’ve just added it to my list, though it may take a while to get to it. The subject is very interesting, and probably ties in with my last post.  I love the idea of being a “hands off” wine maker, but the opportunity does not present itself very often.  Just curious.

Anyway, if any of my wine making colleagues care to comment about the book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

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The Winemaker’s “Art”

Portrait of Galileo 1636

One of my favorite things about making wine is the constant interaction of art and science; the interplay of data and fact with style, aesthetic, and yes, even romance.  Unfortunately, it seems like the promotion of wine to consumers relies pretty heavily on the aesthetic and romantic side of the equation.  Old world wineries have become masters at this!  Whether or not they truly believe in their own rhetoric is not for me to decide, but every time I hear a reference to the famous Galileo quote, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water” to customers, I cringe at the simplification of such a wonderfully complex process.  Give your winery some credit!  Give your grape growers some acknowledgement!

So, without getting too rant-y, I’d like to discuss the complexity of wine making by breaking it down into its basic components.

1: Grape Growing and Vineyard Management

Wild Grape Meets 9 Yr Old

If Galileo’s quote fits anywhere in the process, it is here.  However, to simply plant grapes and let the heavens do the rest is a terrible plan for producing high-quality wine.  If you doubt this, take a walk in the woods.  The grapevines you’ll encounter will be growing to the top of the forest canopy!  Little to no fruit will be found anywhere, and chances are you wouldn’t want to eat/drink it anyway.  However, they do make great swinging ropes for kids.  The point is that all kinds of decisions must be made in the vineyard to produce the best wine.  Based on the example in the image above, this grapevine would present a number of problems commercially (other than that is was cut at ground level by the forest management service).

Bordeaux Vineyard

Namely, it is not a very good selection for wine, and it’s growing on an undesirable site with no trellising or canopy management.  These are issues growers and wine makers have to solve from the very beginning: which cultivars to plant on the given site, and how to train and trellis it.  Once those issues are resolved, growers and wine makers must then determine which canopy management strategy, pest management program, crop load, and harvest timing will produce the best quality wine.  This, on its own, is no small undertaking!  Most growers will spend a lifetime fine-tuning their practice.  As it is commonly put in the wine industry: great wines begin in the vineyard.

2: Style Choices

The next big decision is what kind of wines to make from the grape varieties to be processed.  This may seem simple on the surface, given that most consumers will have a certain expectation of most traditional varietals.  For example, a California ‘Chardonnay’ is expected to be a dry, white wine aged in oak.  In the Midwest, however, we are generally free of these restrictions.  We are currently determining which styles work best for different grapes, as well as which grapes work well in a variety of sites.  We have found in Illinois that several of our grapes are quite versatile.  ‘Chambourcin’, for example, seems to work well as a dry, oak-aged red, sweet red, rosé, and fortified dessert wine!  The decisions on style are largely determined by consumer demand (which styles sell best) as well as the grape variety and site.  However, since most of our grape varieties are still pretty new, this will take a long time to fine-tune to the point of industry consensus.  This is one of the reasons I personally find Midwest wines so exciting.  You can taste five ‘Seyval blanc’ from different producers that are distinctly different from one another.  You never know what’s coming up next!

3. Cleaning and Sanitation

Here comes the romance!  Ask any reputable wine maker, and they’ll tell you they spend as much (if not more) time cleaning and sanitizing tanks, equipment, and surfaces  than actually making wine.  The fight against spoilage organisms never ends.  Failure to adhere to strict cleaning and sanitation practices can result in wines that smell like barnyard, plastic bandage, fingernail polish remover, and vinegar.  Yum.

4. Conducting Fermentation

From this point forward I tend to think of the role of a wine maker as steward, rather than creator.  We don’t make wine.  Yeast do that, by converting sugar into alcohol.  However, we can help them do the best job possible for the resultant wine.  Factors that can be manipulated by the wine maker include yeast strain(s), yeast nutrition, pre-fermentation treatments to juice and must, and competition from other microorganisms.  Specific issues that arise include skin contact time for reds, cold-soaking for reds and whites, and the use of pectic enzymes, oak products, and other additives.  Each of these decisions is made with the grape variety and desired style in mind.

5.  Chemical Analysis

Data must be collected during the entire process, starting in the vineyard.  Wine makers learn to measure sugars and acids, yeast-available nitrogen, sulfur dioxide concentrations, alcohol, and volatile acidity with equipment and processes that are typically new for producers who lack an academic background in wine production.  All of this information is important to help construct a concrete picture of the wine, which aids critical decisions to be made down the road.  A great example is the measurement of pH, which is a reflection of wine acidity.  Generally, the lower the pH, the higher the acid in the wine.  However, the number you receive is not an accurate reflection of the sensory attributes of the wine.  A wine with a pH of 3.5 may not necessarily taste more acidic than one with a pH of 3.8.  What wine makers know is that pH affects the form in which sulfur compounds will be expressed.  Sulfites are added to wines to prevent oxidation and unwanted microbial growth, and are in a more effective form at lower pH.  That is, a given amount of sulfite added to wine will do more work at a low pH than at a higher one.  So, with this information, a wine maker can decide whether a pH adjustment is necessary, or if they should alter the amount of sulfur dioxide added to the juice or wine.  Not knowing the pH could easily result in shortened shelf life of the wine and/or poor quality due to faulty aromas.

6. Sensory Analysis

A Wine Sensory Analysis Course

Thankfully, it takes much more than chemical analysis to make the perfect wine!  It is very possible to make a terrible wine that exhibits perfect chemistry.  The wine maker’s job is to ensure that the appearance, smell, and taste of the finished product is aesthetically pleasing.  Most faults that show up in wine have some sensory impact, whether it shows up as a haze, foul odor, or bitter flavor.  Additionally, the senses help us fine-tune the aging process for a wine, particularly for reds.  The type of barrel and time the wine spends in contact with oak are largely determined by smell and taste.  Every barrel is a little different, so aging times will vary depending on wood source, toast level, and how long the barrel has been used in production.  Wine makers constantly experiment with blends, whether it’s related to selecting barrels of wine to blend together or blending multiple varieties together.  Blending is wine making, for both red and white wines.  It is common for any wine with a varietal label (i.e. ‘Chardonnay’) to have a small percentage of something else blended in to add complexity and balance.

7. Finishing The Product

The chemical and sensory analysis that are conducted help the wine maker make final decisions with the wine.  For example, if a white wine is bitter on the palate, the wine maker can add something to pull the bitterness out of the wine.  This act is referred to as “fining”.  Different fining agents can be used to remove bitterness, astringency, hazes, and undesirable color and flavors.  During this final phase, the wine maker will correct faults if possible, and ultimately, make the decisions that result in the final product.


A French Filling Station

So, the goal here was not to completely suck all of the romance and mysticism out of wine, but perhaps to add a little something more to all of that.  Wine is an amazing beverage, but one that rarely gets there accidentally!  I think that there is room within the industry to expand a little on the romance of wine while adding value to the product.  I guess the challenge is to balance the romance with just enough to enhance the customer experience without turning the tasting/tour into a long-winded lecture.

Cheers everybody, and congrats to all my wine friends out there on surviving another season!


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Feature on Midwest Wine

A radio program in New Orleans called “The Wine Show with Tim McNally” aired yesterday.  It featured winemakers from Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, and Minnesota.  Here are the links:

Part 1:

Party 2:

Missouri is at the end of part 1, and the rest of us were featured in part 2.

Thanks to Tim McNally and Paul Gospadarczyk for setting it all up.

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Notes on Harvest 2011

We’re currently in the home stretch for 2011 in central IL, so I thought I’d share a few observations.  First, our grapes have ripened EARLY this year!  It seems like things are

Leon Millot

about two weeks ahead of what I would expect in a typical season, not that we ever get a typical season in central IL!  We picked Leon Millot, a red Kuhlmann variety, on Aug 15th, kicking the harvest season off with a 6AM harvest party!   We had an eager group of staff and volunteers to help  get the fruit out in a timely fashion.  In the hot summer months, it’s critical to keep the fruit as cool as possible in order to preserve optimum quality.  In some locales, they will only harvest the fruit at night, using huge flood lights to guide them!

Illinois has several regions, and each has had its own challenges this year.  I’m only speaking for the central region, but we really had optimal conditions for grapes this year.  The challenges mainly came early in the Spring with lots of rain, but those who remained committed to strict fungal management programs should have been rewarded with beautiful fruit later in the season.  Most people don’t realize that fighting early infection is critical to producing a good crop of grapes, and ultimately excellent wine.  In Manito, July brought extreme heat and very dry conditions, which lead into the first part of August.  Grapes, unlike most crops, are typically fine with this.  Take a look at California, Washington state, Australia, and many other commercially important grape producing regions – mostly desert.

Our grapes endure even more extreme conditions than most in Illinois.  Our soil is sand, with limited water- and nutrient-holding capacity.  We use supplemental irrigation as necessary, but really try to keep it to a minimum.  Lots of water produces lots of leaves and shoots, but we’re not in the business of harvesting leaves and shoots!  With irrigation, you can really fine-tune the size of the grapevine, providing just enough shoot and leaf growth to successfully ripen a crop without causing excessive shading.  Dense, heavily-shaded canopies lead to high-pH, acidic wines with lower sugar and increased vegetative aromas and flavors.

So, all in all, it’s been a pretty good season, thanks in large part to the efforts of new vineyard manager Doug Abbott.  In his first season, he quickly adopted the high level of paranoia and fear essential to successful vineyard management!  Think about it – fungal problems, insect damage, nutrition, pruning and canopy management, birds – certainly enough to drive anyone a bit crazy.  In fact, if you’re a grape grower in the Midwest, and you’re not a little nuts, you just aren’t trying hard enough!

Once the fruit comes in, then my work gets started!  As a winemaker, you have to have the

Leon Millot Maceration

plan in place before the fruit arrives, then adapt the plan as necessary.  For example, the above-mentioned Leon Millot is going to be made into a dry, oak-aged red. This means the fruit will be crushed, and then fermented on the skins for several days.  I knew this, in addition to malolactic fermentation, would raise the pH to levels unsafe for long-term aging, so I made an acid addition up front to lower the pH a bit.  Anyway, the plan and adjustment changes for each variety as it comes in.  The pressure is really on with this one – it seems to be a local favorite, so I really need to deliver the goods.  Luckily, the fruit quality was excellent, so all I need to do is not meddle too much.  Hopefully, by next summer, we’ll have some great products to show for all of our efforts this year!

In other news, the Illinois wine industry was recently featured in a segment on the Today show.  I wrote the proposal, and was excited to discover that it was accepted.  The end result was not anything close to what I was wanting (mostly boring, academic, informative stuff), but was still great for the industry.

Back to work now.

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The LocalPour Manifesto, pt. 2

It’s been a while since pt. 1 was posted.  Sorry for the delay.  New baby plus two jobs equals no free time to write!

Illinois Wine History

Wine making in Illinois dates back as far as its modern history, first noted at the French settlement La Ville de Maillet in the late 1600’s, now known as Peoria.  Wine making throughout most of the pioneer days was a common part of the subsistence farm, but little documentation exists verify acreages and gallons until the mid-1800’s.  By that time, commercial wine making in both Eastern and Western America was off and running.  In the East, the wine boom was created by a few new varieties of grape, namely Catawba and Norton.  The history of Norton is well-documented; if you are a Norton enthusiast, check out The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman.  The Catawba grape is a little less-heralded today, though it was clearly the most economically important grape in the eastern US by the mid-1800’s.

In Illinois, the commercial industry revolved around a little town called Nauvoo, first established by Joseph Smith of LDS, and later became a French Icarian community.  This Utopian commune planted 100’s of acres of grapes and certainly brought a culture of wine to the area.  Much like the Mormons before them, the Icarians were eventually run out of town.  One member, Emile Baxter, returned at a later date, purchased some land, and planted some grapes.  This is the start of the oldest commercial vineyard and winery in lllinois.  Baxter’s Vineyards, still in Nauvoo and operating in the same cellar today, has more detailed information regarding this history.

Burying the Barrel 1945 Baxters

The success of Nauvoo grape and wine production ultimately led to rapid growth of the industry.  In the years leading up to prohibition, Illinois became the 4th largest producer of grapes and wine in the US!  However, prohibition set us back, and the commercial industry really didn’t gain much momentum until the early 80’s, when Alto Vineyards, Galena Cellars, and Lynfred Winery joined Baxter’s Vineyards as the pioneers of this industry.

Where Are We Now?

The Illinois industry is in great shape – we currently have around 95 wineries throughout the state and two federally-designated American Viticulture Areas!  This rapid growth brings a lot of challenges, but we have been dramatically improving quality, and I think we’re ready for the spotlight.

Myth #1: Illinois Wine Isn’t Very Good

Whenever I present IL wine to a new audience, there is almost certainly a percentage of people who bring this concept with them, whether they share it outwardly or not.  Sometimes this is based on past experiences, but more often it’s just something they have heard from others and bought into.  There is an interesting sociology around the world of wine.  It is a subject so vast and intimidating that most casual consumers tend to rely on the “experts” to tell them what to buy rather than trust their own palate.   Just look at the success of the wine magazines and their (cough cough, ad-driven) ridiculous scoring systems!  If every wine reviewed is better than 80 pts on a 100-point scale, then is the scale really necessary?  I get it – you shouldn’t have to be a professor of wine to enjoy a glass.  The truth is there are tons of good wines out there.  Find ones you like in your price range, drink, and be merry.  Even in direct person to person communication – parties, wine tastings, etc. – somebody within a group of winos tends to take the lead role – typically by regurgitating info read in the previously-mentioned rags.

I guess the question is, what does “good” mean?  I think for a lot of people, it at least partially means “familiar”.  Ask any IL winery tasting room employee how many times they’ve been asked for a Chardonnay, and I bet you get a dirty look.  My definition of “good” is probably a little different:

A wine, free of faults, that pleasantly displays characteristics of the grape from which it was made and the site upon which it was grown.

U of I Students Working With Sensory Standards

Therefore, if you only like wines that taste like Chardonnay, only drink Chardonnay!  Don’t expect Seyval blanc to exhibit those same characteristics.  Likewise for reds – Chambourcin will never taste like Cabernet Sauvignon.  Thank goodness for that!  Not that there is anything wrong with Cab, but there is already so much of that variety available, why would we insist on jumping on board?  One of the great things, in my opinion, about the Midwestern wines is that they offer something new and different for consumers; a new avenue of the world of wine to explore.  There is still a strong vinifera bias among older generations of “serious” wine consumers, but this is completely changing with the Millenial generation.  These young people are completely open to new wine varieties and styles.  I taught an introduction to wine class for five years at the University of Illinois.  We would taste about 50 wines over the course of the semester, and students would then score each on a scale of 1-10 in terms of their own preference.  They would taste and score the wines prior to knowing anything about variety, region, etc.  We covered most of the major wine regions of the world, including France, Spain, Italy, California, as well as Illinois.  Most semesters, an Illinois wine would end up in the top five overall by the end of the course!

As for the “free of faults” part of the definition – that is the one gripe I can understand.  The Illinois (and rest of the eastern US, for that matter) industry has a lot of challenges to overcome as it rapidly expands.  Most of the new winemakers and grape growers have zero commercial experience, nor formal training.  The learning curve is steep, and most wineries will have problems in their first five years as they fine-tune their process.  However, commercial experience, paired with educational opportunities provided by people like myself, have greatly improved quality across the board.  Look at the most recent wine competition results from my earlier post.  80% of the wines entered received a medal!  In more recent news, the International Cold Climate Wine Competition just awarded one of our wineries – Illinois Sparkling Co. – the top prize for specialty wines.  That’s great news for consumers.  If you had a bad experience with IL wine 3-5 years ago, it’s time to give us a second look!

Myth #2: Illinois Doesn’t Have the Right Soil/Climate for Wine Production

Well, we’re certainly not that traditional.  If you look at many of the world’s growing regions, they are either Mediterranean or desert environments, with dry hot summers, mild winters, some elevation/slope, and light soils.  We have hot, humid summers with plenty of rainfall, cold winters, and ground varying in type from sloped lean forest to flat rich black prairie soils.  I am a believer in the French concept of terroir – the idea that the interaction of grape varieties, soil type, topography, and climate all work together to express “a sense of place” through the wine.  However, it seems a bit short-sighted to assume that one specific combination is the “best”.  You can grow grapes anywhere, but figuring out how to select the varieties and vineyard management practices best for your site is really the art behind terroir that gets overlooked.  In the old world, these practices in the vineyard are largely cultural traditions developed over centuries.  In Illinois, we’re just getting started!

Myth #3: Illinois Only Makes Sweet Wine

This is simply not true.  However, Illinois wineries do tend to produce the wines consumers will buy.  Wine tastes prior to prohibition were 3:1 dry to sweet.  Post-prohibition, the ratio switched to 1:3, likely due to the rise of Coca Cola and other sodas, as well as sweet cocktails developed during the speakeasy era.  Younger generations also have a taste for the sweet stuff, as do rural consumers based around the majority of these wineries.  This is not just a Midwestern trend.  The most rapidly growing niche on the west coast right now is Moscato, a sweet, fruity, and floral wine.

That being said, IL wineries typically make and offer a wine for almost every palate, from bone dry reds to fortified dessert.  Most will have plenty of sweet wines as well, and often in larger volumes, due solely to consumer demand.  Small wineries usually start out marketing to their local, mostly rural areas, with little to no distribution.  They learn quickly that the sweeter wines pay the bills.  These are the wines that are often picked up by distributors as the wineries grow, and are the easiest to find in retail shops, grocery stores, etc.  I guess the reason people believe IL only makes sweet wines is that they are easier to find than the dry ones.  However, I believe our dry wines are worth the extra effort.

Myth #4: Illinois Wine is Just a Novelty

I would like to wrap things up by saying that California wine was once a novelty too!  The global wine industry is very trendy – remember the “discovery” of New Zealand, South Africa, and Spain?  The search is always on for the next new, great region.  I think the next one will be Greece, if it isn’t already trending.  Greece grows very different grapes from any other country, with their own individual flavor profiles, and has unique terroir.  The only real difference between their story and Illinois right now is history and experience.  As we continue to develop our growing and wine making practices to enhance quality, I see no reason why we won’t eventually become one of these newly “discovered” regions at some point in the future.

Judges and Crew from the 2011 IL State Fair Wine Competition

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for this to happen – you can discover it for yourself right in your own region.    If you are looking for a place to start, I highly recommend taking a look at the results from the 2011 IL State Fair Wine Competition.  Any wine receiving a medal from this competition should be of very good quality.  Also, Vintage Illinois wine festival is less than a month away – there will be over 30 wineries represented, and hundreds of wines will be poured.  It’s a great way to explore a lot of territory in a short time frame.  Enjoy!

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Notes on the 2011 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition

It’s been a crazy month!  The competition was held this year at Lincoln Land Community College – a new site for us that brought a few new challenges.  However, the students and staff at LLCC were incredibly helpful, and the competition ran very smoothly for the duration.  I’ve made it through the competition in one piece, and the results this year are outstanding!

Best of Show: Prairie State Winery, Cabernet Franc, 2009

Governor’s Cup Awards for Illinois-Grown Products

  • Red Table: Blue Sky Vineyards, Cabernet Franc 2007
  • White Table: Galena Cellars, Daffodil Festival La Crosse 2010
  • Blush/Rosé: Kite Hill Vineyards, White Chambourcin 2010
  • Fruit: Pheasant Hollow Winery, Midnight Medley 2010
  • Dessert: Pheasant Hollow Winery, Autumn Mist 2009

Top Awards, from any appellation:

  • Red Table: Hickory Ridge Vineyard, Norton NV
  • White Table: Blue Sky Vineyards, Vignoles 2010
  • Dessert: Galena Cellars, Framboise 2010

Top Awards for the Amateur Competition

  • Best of Show, Grape:  Jeff Pankow – Blue Star Vineyard, Frontenac Rosé 2010
  • Best of Show, Non-Grape: Matt Haas, Blackberry 2010

Commercial Competition Summary:

250 Entries, 222 Medals Awarded – 89%

  • 32 Gold or Consensus Gold
  • 112 Silver
  • 78 Bronze

Amateur Competition Summary:

128 Entries, 99 Medals Awarded

  • 15 Gold
  • 38 Silver
  • 46 Bronze

So, the results are very promising for the future of Illinois wines!  Looking back at the first year I ran the competition (2006), the results were not so exciting – I think there were 9 golds, and a total medal count of around 50%.  I’m proud of the strides we’ve made as an industry!  As industry-wide education and experience grow, so do the quality of our wines.

When I first started as the industry specialist, the general public opinion regarding our industry was not terribly positive.  This opinion was warranted, at least in part, based on the relative inexperience of many of our wineries and grape growers.  Many consumers made huge generalizations based on a limited sample size; they would taste one or two faulty wines, and determine that Illinois wines were not worth pursuing any further.  I guess the take-home message here is: if you haven’t tried Illinois wines in while, it’s time to revisit them!

  Our Judges

This group worked diligently over a three-day span to assign awards to all 379 wines entered into this year’s competition.  They approach these wines from differing perspectives: some are academics in the grape and wine world, some retailers from wine shops, some are enthusiastic consumers, and some are chefs with a keen eye for wine.

This last category is one that I find very exciting!  This year, we had two excellent chefs judge: August Mrozowski of Augie’s in Springfield, and James Beard Foundation nominee Glenn Bardgett of Annie Gunn’s in St. Louis.  While Glenn has been a veteran supporter of Midwest wines, this was a new experience for Augie.  He was very surprised at the quality of the wines across the board, and even indicated how he looked forward to carrying Illinois wines in his restaurant in the near future!

This is the message I want to share, as it is one of the purposes of this blog – there are many food-friendly wines available in Illinois.  The only thing keeping foodies from using Illinois wines is exposure and education.  From a chef’s perspective, I think it would be exciting to consider all the new pairing possibilities!  Our grape varieties, such as Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, Norton, Seyval blanc, Traminette, etc., all have unique flavor profiles that should really expand the possibilities for food pairing at restaurants.  All we need now is for the pioneering chefs out there to take notice, and start the experiment.  More information on that in the coming months.

In the meantime, check out the official results at, and hunt some of these wines down before they sell out!


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