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Illinois Country Living

Illinois Wine
How Sweet It Is

Illinois wine industry harvests strong economic impact for state

by Lisa Rigoni


Baxter's Vineyard

Baxter’s Vineyard is the oldest winery in Illinois and is located in Nauvoo. They host a homemade wine making contest annually. Photo by Baxter’s Vineyard.

Economic impact of Illinois wine and winegrapes

  • Retail value of Illinois wine: More
    than $21 million.
  • Tourists’ expenditures: $31 million.
  • Illinois taxes collected due to wine
    industry: $11.9 million to $22.9 million.
  • Gallons of wine produced: More than
    500,000 gallons.
  • Total economic impact on state: More
    than $253.8 million.

Illinois boasts:

  • 235 vineyards
  • 450 grape farmers
  • Nearly 80 wineries

Information provided by Megan Presnall, External Relations Director of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.

It’s harvest season in the vineyards across the state and wineries celebrate by offering travelers a memorable experience with festivals, tastings, grape stomps and unique opportunities to meet with and learn from Illinois vintners. September marks the state’s fourth annual Illinois Wine Month, which was first designated by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2005.

French settlers in La Ville de Maillet (now Peoria) brought winemaking expertise of their homeland to our state in 1778. In 1857 Emile Baxter and Sons opened a winery in Nauvoo along the banks of the Mississippi River. By 1880 there were more than 600 acres of grapes and 40 wine cellars in Nauvoo alone, noted in the Baxter’s Vineyard’s historical information.

While Baxter’s continues to thrive under the leadership of a fifth generation of Baxters - Kelly and Brenda Logan - some things have changed. In 1885, wine sold for 25 cents a gallon and $12.50 per barrel. According to a 2005 study on the impact of wine and winegrapes in Illinois, prices now vary from $7 to $38 a bottle depending on the fruit used to produce it. The business of making and selling wine has grown by leaps and bounds adding significantly to the state’s economy.

Industry Perspective
There were 77 wineries in the state as of the last count. That number is growing rapidly as more vineyards are established – a third more vineyards in just the last five years.

Bill McCartney, Executive Director of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintner’s Association (IGGVA) said, “The industry is strong, and we expect to see continued growth. In 1997 we had 14 wineries in Illinois. In 2004 there were 45 wineries and 68 in 2005.”

A 2007 study done by the IGGVA and the Illinois Department of Agriculture showed that 78 of the 102 counties in Illinois have at least one vineyard and 46 counties have at least one winery. Eighty-three percent of the reporting vineyards

and wineries in the state were established in the last 10 years. In the last five years, vineyards have increased by 34 percent and the number of wineries has grown by 48 percent.

In 2006 Illinois designated $400,000 to assist the state’s wine industry. Those funds were used by the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University, the IGGVA and to hire a viticulturist. The state also granted $150,000 to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism to help create an awareness campaign.

Jeremy Wombles

Jeremy Wombles is proud of progress Hopewell Winery has made in it’s first year. The winery is attached to the Hopewell Views Hunting Club.

Hopewell Views Hunting Club

IGGVA’s McCartney has toured a number of the establishments personally and sampled the different wines. “It’s part of my job,” he said as he grinned. “In all seriousness, I do get to go to the various wineries and see how everything is going.”

It is going well from McCartney’s point of view.

“I’ve been on the Shawnee Wine Trails, attended the Vintage Illinois Festival and stopped at other wineries. Besides having award-winning wines at so many of our Illinois wineries, the folks that run the wineries and vineyards are not afraid to share with someone who wants to get started in the industry,” he said. “They are more than willing to share their experience and help someone else move forward.”
When asked what his favorite wine is he hesitated, not wanting to name a specific wine, though he said he prefers a semi-dry wine.

“I used to like the sweeter wines.” He said that his taste, as someone who has retired and now reentered the workforce, is likely different than that of a 20- or 30-year-old, for example.

“Oftentimes, those who first begin drinking wine prefer the sweeter taste to the dry.”
Hopewell Winery’s Owner/Operator Jeremy Wombles agreed.

“I’ve found that when people first begin to experience wine, they tend to lean toward sweeter varieties. Over the years those tastes may change, though, and move from dessert wine, to a blush, to a semi-dry and later, land on a dry wine. Though it really is a matter of personal preference. Often times, it also depends on what someone is eating as to which type of wine they might select.”

Bill McCartney

Bill McCartney is Executive Director of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintner’s Association. He says the wine industry continues to grow steadily adding to the state’s economy.

One of the state’s newer wineries, Hopewell Winery, named for the Hopewell Indians in Pike County, is located near Pittsfield. They are members of Illinois Rural Electric Co-op.

“We opened on Sept. 1 of 2007,” said Wombles. “Our festivals have gone well. We had a shrimp and crawfish festival and it was the biggest festival we’ve had so far.” It was such a success that he’s already got it marked on next year’s calendar.

“It will always be the first weekend in June.” Typically, Hopewell will have 40 to 60 people in on a Saturday, 10 to 20 on an open weekday, and on a festival weekend already has 300 or so visitors.

“Our goal is to have 1,000 people on festival weekends. We continue to grow, and it has mostly been by word of mouth,” he said.

Word of mouth reputation is important in the winery business, as the wineries tend to recommend fellow wineries to their guests. Wombles always tells his guests about the Collver Family Winery in Barry.
“It’s close, and they have great dinner theater programs … murder mysteries. It’s family-owned and is well-established,” says Wombles.

Hopewell Winery is a family-owned winery, too. Wombles said many people would recognize it. It is located in the carriage house where his grandmother used to have her antique business – Bonnie’s Carriage House. The winery joins an existing family business, as well, Hopewell Hunting Club, run by Wombles’ father, Rick Wombles.

Statewide wine industry workforce

• The Illinois wine and winegrape sectors, and allied industries provide employment, directly and indirectly, for nearly 2,300 full-time equivalent jobs, representing a total payroll of more than $59.7 million.

• State wineries employ a total of 186 persons, with wages totaling nearly 2.8 million.

• State vineyards employ a total of 834 persons, with wages totaling nearly $8.9 million.

Stats as of 2005

“We have hunters come in especially in the fall and winter to stay in the attached lodge,” Rick says. “We have strict rules regarding hunting and drinking, and have not had a problem. All hunters sign in and no one who is drinking at the winery is permitted to hunt.

“We use the lodge more as a bed and breakfast during the spring and summer,” Rick said. “It’s a good complement to the winery, and allows folks to come in for an overnight get-away, if they like. Jeremy is also our chef … and the menu includes grilled shrimp, salmon, steak and manicotti. He’s gotten great reviews!”

Bella Terra Winery is located in Creal Springs and is part of Southeastern Illinois Electric Cooperative. Proprietor, Ed Russell, says Bella Terra is family-oriented.

“We have a regulation Bocce Ball court, horseshoes, washers, wide-screen TVs, soda, iced tea, ice cream and pizza.” All of those amenities, of course, are in addition to the 15-acres of vineyards that provide six varieties of grapes for the winery.

“We have 13 different wines from dry to sweet,” Russell said.

Bella Terra averages between 500 and 600 visitors a week and opened in May 2007.
Recently, Russell was interviewed by Mike Maniscalco, a historian at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.

“He spent six hours here, talking with me and touring the winery and the vineyards,” Russell said. “He is doing a project about Illinois agriculture, and I represented the wine industry from this region.”

Maniscalco said the project is an oral history of Illinois agriculture funded by a $500,000 grant through the Institute of Museum and Library Services out of the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Who’s growing what?

  • An estimated 1,666 tons of grapes were marketed by Illinois vineyards.
  • About 93 percent of harvested grapes were for use in winemaking.
  • Vineyards typically produce three tons of grapes per acre.
  • Average Illinois vineyard size is 4.6 acres.
  • 83 percent of all wine made in Illinois was made with Illinois fruit.
  • 53 percent of the wineries use Illinois fruit exclusively.
  • 564,270 gallons of wine were produced.

Top five varieties of grapes grown in Illinois:

  • Chardonel (106 acres)
  • Chambourcin (94 acres)
  • Vignoles (72 acres)
  • Traminette (57 acres)
  • Norton (59 acres)

“We are taking existing interviews from the ‘70s and ‘80s, adding 50 new interviews and combining them into an oral history of Illinois agriculture. Ed Russell was one of our new interviews. We want to make sure we have good representation from across the state – north, south, east and west,” said Maniscalco. “We also want to show that while corn and soybeans are important to our state, they are not the only produce that makes a difference. I was impressed as Ed talked about Grape Growers Associations and Vintners Associations and how more are popping up, because they want to market the area and how the wineries are working together to accomplish that.”

Traveling the Illinois Wine Trails
While the wineries are scattered across the state, there are five distinct wine trails in Illinois.

The Northern Illinois Wine Trail is located one to two hours northwest of Chicago and features 22 different wineries including August Hill Winery and Illinois River Winery both in Utica; Fox Valley located in Oswego, Sandwich and Geneva and the Tasting deVine Tasting Room in Wheaton.

Stretched across the southwest portion of the state is Illinois’ Heartland Wine Trail with wineries along the Mississippi River nestled in the rural communities. You’ll find Genkota Winery in Mt. Vernon, Piasa Winery in Grafton, and Mary and Michelle Winery and Vineyards in Carrollton, to name a few.

If your plans have you going south you are in luck. There are two wine trails at your disposal. The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail runs through Jackson and Union Counties and includes 10 wineries along the 30-mile trail. It has wineries with something to suit every taste, including Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda, Owl Creek Vineyard in Cobden, and Hedman Orchard and Vineyards in Alto Pass.

For additional wineries travel the well-established Southern Illinois Wine Trail. There you’ll find Bella Terra Winery, Shawnee Winery in Vienna, Cache River Basin Winery in Belknap and a number of others.

Illinois River Wine Trail is the newest trail being developed in the central region of the state. Wineries included along the path are: Hill Prairie Winery, Mackinaw Valley Vineyard and Willett’s Winery & Cellar.

(For a complete list of Illinois wineries, including those along the wine trails click here.)

Forging Ahead
There is no sign of slowing down for the wineries and vineyards in Illinois. It is expected that by 2009 harvested acres of grapes in Illinois will increase by about 50 percent, going from 659 acres to 988 acres.
Between 2007 and 2012 experts expect 76 new grape acres to be planted in vineyards across the Land of Lincoln. The IGGVA and the Illinois Department of Agriculture estimated that total grape acres were estimated at 1,083 acres in Jan. 2007. A record 564,270 gallons of wine was produced and comprises about 67 percent of capacity (844,372 gallons.) Expansions planned by existing wineries will increase that capacity to 1,078,764 gallons. It is expected that 91 percent more wineries will be established in the next five years. How sweet (and dry) it is!

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