Extension Educator, Horticulture
For many people holiday dinners would not be complete without the accompaniment of a fine wine. And just maybe the health benefits of wine in moderation may balance the gastrointestinal abuse we put our bodies through during the holidays.
Illinois may not be the first state that comes to mind for fine wines but we have a long history in grape and wine production. Before prohibition Illinois was the fourth largest producer of grapes and supplied 25 percent of the wine consumed in the United States. After prohibition Illinois languished in the lowest 10 percent of wine and grape producing states. Yet Illinois remained in the top five wine consumption states along with California, Texas, Florida and New York. Illinoisans consume 25 million gallons of wine a year. In other words we drink it, but we just weren't producing much of it.
But all that is changing as Illinois gains a reputation for quality wines and as the acres of grapes and numbers of wineries grow. In 1997, there were nine wineries and 34 growers in Illinois. By the end of 2002, Illinois had 33 wineries and 160 grape growers with a projection of 50 wineries and more than 250 growers in 2005. The majority of grapes grown in Illinois are used to make wine (94%), but a few (5%) are sold fresh or processed into juice (1%).
Most of Illinois grapes are grown on the sloping hills of southern Illinois. However wineries and grape orchards can be found throughout Illinois from the northern reaches to the southern tip. In east central Illinois the closest vineyard is Alto Vineyards in Champaign. They brought their wine making expertise up from Alto Pass in southern Illinois. Other area wineries include Cameo Vineyards in Greenup, Vahling Vineyards in Stewardson in Shelby County, Furrow Winery in El Paso and Mackinaw Valley Winery in Mackinaw.
Winter hardiness is a big factor in grape cultivar selection since some of the more widely known wine grapes such as merlot and pinot noir are not winter hardy in Illinois except in select areas. The major cultivars grown in Illinois include: Chambourcin, Seyval, Vignoles, Chardonel, Norton and Vidal. Juice and table grapes grown commercially in Illinois include Concord, Niagara and Catawba.
Grape production offers a low impact sustainable use of marginal lands. Wineries also become tourist destinations since they offer events, tours, entertainment and taste testing.
So you may be thinking the vintner life may be for you. Keep in mind it takes four years for grape vines to mature into quality winemaking grapes. Developing a winery is a long term investment but there are some resources available.
The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association (IGGVA) a non-profit organization, is a joint effort for information exchange and cooperation among grape producers and vintners. Their members include commercial growers, vintners and hobbyists. For info contact Bill McCartney, exec director RR # 3 Box 3159 Pittsfield, IL 62363 PH 217-285-6305. Their 2004 IGGVA Conference is February 27-29 at the Crowne Point Plaza in Springfield, IL.
Another organization, The Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council was created by an Act of the Illinois Legislature in 1997. The Council was created to provide support and growth services to the grape and wine industries in Illinois, including advocacy, training, research support; and marketing. It is funded by a yearly grant from the Tourism budget of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Their website contains several nice publications on starting a winery, growing grapes and locating wineries in Illinois. http://www.illinoiswine.org or by phone 1-888-877-9463.
The University of Illinois maintains grape varietal plots, provides information and conducts research. Their website http://w3.aces.uiuc.edu/NRES/faculty/Skirvin/cfar/ contains great information on growing grapes. Illinois Specialty Growers Conference is January 22-24 at the Crowne Point Plaza in Springfield.