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. www.nauvoowinery.com
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.
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.
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!