Illinois flourishing in previously untapped wine industry

CHAMPAIGN – If you think Illinois is all about corn and soybeans, you haven't heard the latest on the grapevine.

Vineyards and wineries across the state have flourished in recent years, blossoming into a $20 million annual industry.

Most of the growth has come in the last decade, according to Brenda Logan, secretary/treasurer of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.

In 1987, when Logan and her husband became fifth-generation owners of Baxter's Vineyard in Nauvoo, there were only nine wineries in the state, she recalls.

That number has since risen to 63.

"I think it's going to keep growing," Logan said. "There are so many varieties of grapes out there and wines you can make."

Most recently, Logan's trade group has been encouraged by such developments as:

– 69 of the state's 102 counties now have at least one vineyard.

– 38 counties have at least one winery.

– Illinois has about 1,000 acres planted in grapes, and there are about 300 grape growers.

– Wineries around the state are now producing about 500,000 gallons of wine a year.

In terms of sheer volume, grapes don't come close to Illinois' agricultural Goliath, corn and soybeans, which together account for about 21 million acres, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

But look how far the state's vineyards and wineries have come in such a short time, said Dick Faltz, the trade group's new president and president of Fox Valley Winery in Oswego.

"In percentage of growth, that's phenomenal," he said.

Faltz and his wife, Christine, also grow corn and soybeans, but they added grapes to their farm in 1999.

"It really was our desire to reconnect the family to the family farm, and that was the reason we decided to plant grapes and start the winery," he said. "It's been a wonderful opportunity for the family to work together and stay connected."

Five of the couple's seven children are involved in the family grape and wine operation, and some of the grandchildren also are helping in the business, he said.

There's also a profit to be made in grapes, Faltz said. Corn and beans will yield $300 to $400 an acre, and an acre of grapes will yield more like $4,000 to $6,000 an acre, despite all the additional hand labor involved.

"The other nice thing about grapes is they don't grow as well on prime ground," Faltz said.

In other words, grapes – which favor dry, light, well-drained soil – won't take up a farmer's prime ground for corn and soybeans.

Virtually all five growing regions in Illinois can support grapes, and Faltz said he's successfully growing some varieties that weren't expected to do well in the Midwest.

"Illinois is kind of an undiscovered jewel right now, in terms of growing grapes," he said.

Chris Herbert, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, said a new emphasis on diversification in agriculture education is also driving some of the recent interest in grape growing.

"They're saying, yes, plant corn and soybeans, grow livestock, but branch out and diversify your crops," she said. "What it is, is another way to make money."

The state also is helping promote diversification through grapes: Last fall, under the governor's Opportunity Returns program, $400,000 was designated to boost marketing and technical assistance around the state for grape growers and wineries.

Last September, the state promoted the first Illinois wine month as a tourism initiative.

Despite the growth in grapes and wine over the past decade, Illinois doesn't yet rival wine production in other Midwestern states, especially Missouri, Ohio and Michigan, Logan said.

"We're still small compared to Missouri," she said. "They're about 10 years ahead of Illinois."

But she's optimistic about Illinois catching up.

Her trade group association projects a 23 percent growth in the number of wineries and vineyards the next five years, with 38 existing vineyards planning to add a winery to their operations.

Faltz looks for steady growth in total grape acreage in Illinois, reaching 3,000 acres by 2010.

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