Uncorked Along the Byway

by Annie Locke

The Land of Lincoln reveals its own winemaking tradition along the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway.

When musing over wine, many think of the long, storied history of the vineyards in the hills of Tuscany or the French countryside. But ever since 1778, when French settlers first brought their winemaking expertise to, the tiny settlement which grew up to become Peoria, that tradition has existed right here as well. Over the last two decades, Illinois’ wine business has grown tremendously, from merely a dozen wineries in 1997 to more than 100 today, generating an economic impact of more than $253 million each year. Some of the state’s finest wineries exist along the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway, which stretches from Ottawa in the north to Havana in the south. With a wealth of options for day trips, wine aficionados can relax and spend the day at one or more of the five wineries located on this charming route.

Done By Hand
The first stop worth pulling over for is Kickapoo Creek Winery in Edwards, about eight miles west of Peoria. Nestled amongst 250 rolling acres in the Illinois River Valley, it’s no surprise this winery is among the area’s largest. Its owner, Dr. David Conner, started growing grapes in 2001, and the business has remained in the family ever since, with his son, Rory Conner, now leading day-to-day operations.

“Everything is done by hand,” says Rory, proudly sharing the methods that ensure the quality of their wines. In addition to hand-bottling their wines, every single grape that goes into that final glass is hand-picked; the absence of machines in the picking process helps to avoid bruising the grapes, which can negatively impact their flavor.

Kickapoo Creek produces two dozen wines—from reds, whites and roses to infused wines, chocolate wines and dessert wines—and it’s been recognized with bronze and silver medals at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, the Illinois State Wine Competition and the Mid-American Wine Competition. “I personally feel that some of our wines can beat out a Napa wine,” Rory declares, adding that the consumer is the final judge. “That’s all part of being a wine connoisseur. Not everybody’s going to like the same thing.”

Their catering service, he adds, is one of the most unique parts of their operations. “People know us as a winery, but we pump out some of the best food in Peoria,” he notes. Along with its cellars and tasting room, the winery features a full-sized commercial kitchen, with a full-time executive chef.

Enjoying the View
Across the river at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, guests may be pleasantly surprised to find the picturesque view awaiting them. Built upon the natural high point of a glacial moraine, the tasting room overlooks a 30-mile view of the valleys, farms and vineyards below. “Many people visiting for the first time are surprised there really is a ‘valley’ to look at,” says Diane Hahn, who owns the vineyard with her husband, Paul. Past two lakes with white gazebos on the water, visitors can admire row after row of white and red grapes that comprise Mackinaw Valley’s 25 table wines.

This landscape is the setting for some four dozen weddings and receptions each year, as well as a range of unique events—from murder mystery dinners and charity fundraisers to a variety of festivals. This variety, Hahn says, is her favorite aspect of the business. “It’s rewarding to have people come out and appreciate… the effort it takes to provide a unique place like the vineyard.”

Every Saturday evening from June to September, these scenic grounds are filled with lawn chairs and picnic blankets as guests relax and enjoy the outdoor concert venue. In July, the vineyard hosts its annual Art and Wine Festival, while in August, scores of pairs of red, sticky feet will participate in the Grape Stomp and Harvest Festival.

Though the vineyard’s first grapes were planted in 1998, the winery did not open to the public until 2003. That year, the Hahns submitted six wines to the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition. “Being relatively new to the industry, Paul was very surprised when his Alexander’s Conquest red table wine won… for best red wine and best wine overall,” says Diane. “It put the place on the map right out of the gate and was a real blessing to a new business.”

Over the years, as the property expanded to its current 96 acres, the Hahns’ vision has never wavered. “The focus has always been giving people a fun and restful experience,” she says, “so they feel like they have had a mini-getaway from their daily schedule.”

Big Taste, Small Town
In the early 2000s, Dan Willett left his position as a full-time architect to cultivate a vineyard eight miles northwest of Manito near Spring Lake. Five years later, having learned the ins and outs of growing grapes in the Midwest, he and his wife Cris opened Willett’s Winery & Cellar. But rather than locating it at the vineyard, the couple transformed a 19th-century harness shop in the heart of downtown Manito into a modern-day tasting room and banquet facility.

With its worn, wooden floors and ceiling beams, the restored building is an important part of the community, conjuring a unique European atmosphere in this small, rural village. In 2010, having found a need for food service to accompany their selection of wines, the Willetts acquired a neighboring bakery and established a small restaurant on-site, which has gained its own reputation for quality.

Willett’s offers 19 wines for a variety of taste buds, including six white wines from dry to sweet, a variety of blushes and reds, and a line of fruit wines, from Apple Splash to Cranberry Frost to Strawberry Breeze. Their wines have also had success at the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition, where the Willetts’ Hometown Red took home the 2008 Gold Medal, in addition to a string of bronze and silver medals over the years. Though Dan Willett passed away suddenly in 2011, the winery was sold to relatives Doug and Kim Abbott, who have kept his legacy of community alive and well.

Surviving the Winter
At the Byway’s northern end, nestled near beautiful Starved Rock, lies the Illinois River Winery in Utica. And while it has experienced great success since the first grapes were planted 16 years ago, it’s also faced challenges associated with the Midwestern climate and geography. The vineyard is positioned in a floodplain area, which owner Gregg Kane found underwater last year. And then there are the Illinois winters.

Like most of the state’s wineries, the Illinois River Winery employs a French-American hybrid varietal engineered to withstand these harsh Illinois winters. This past year’s unusually long winter, however, prevented employees from working the land until late in the spring, potentially reducing the year’s production. “There’s just a small window of time,” says manager Scott Kelley, “and we have to get as much done in that small window.”

Kelley cites their decorative bottling as one of the winery’s unique features. “Our bottles really stand out,” he declares, adding that they create a “wine for all seasons,” with special bottles hand-made for Easter, Christmas and even Halloween.

Inside the tasting room, more than 30 handcrafted wines are available every day, while the outside wine garden features live music on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from May to October. In addition, the winery is a strong supporter of the arts—it even opened up an adjacent apartment to Illinois artists, who can stay for up to three nights at no cost in exchange for leaving an original piece of art they created “in residence.” It’s a natural fit for a vintner who prizes artistic quality over formula winemaking.

Down On the Farm
Also located in the Utica area is the August Hill Winery, founded by Mark and Teri Wenzel, along with Mark’s boyhood friend Sean Ginocchio. In 2000, Wenzel acquired his grandfather’s farmland, and the friends-turned-business-partners decided to transform it into a vineyard, naming the winery in honor of Mark’s grandfather, August Engelhaupt.

Today, this fertile land produces 28 different wines, including a range of red, white, blush, dessert and even sparkling wines. Besides a slew of medals and awards at various competitions, Mark was named the 2013 Winemaker of the Year by the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.

Having noticed an increased consumer demand for sparkling wines, the Wenzels sought to make their own, and after years of experimentation, a new venture, Illinois Sparkling Co., was born in 2011. The independent craft winery uses 100-percent Illinois-grown grapes and carries on the Wenzels’ self-proclaimed “passion for creation.”

Though Ginocchio is no longer involved in daily operations, he and his family continue to support the Wenzels’ business. His wife Tara’s paintings can be seen on their labels and marketing materials, as well as in the tasting room, where visitors can enjoy August Hill wines, local artwork and other handcrafted creations. Meanwhile, somewhere in the great beyond, August Engelhaupt is smiling at what has become of this scenic patch of land overlooking the Illinois River Valley. A&S

Tasting rooms at all five wineries along the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway are open this summer. Plan your trip today!