Napa, by noon
These Midwest wineries offer a taste of wine country within a few hours of the city
If it's been a few years since you tried a Midwestern wine, it's time to give it another shot. Today, there is a minirevolution going on in local vineyards: Grape growers are eschewing the grape-juice varietals (Concord, Niagara) and focusing on the vinifera (grapes native to Europe and the Middle East, like chardonnay) and hybrid varietals bred to withstand our climate, like Traminette (white) and Chambourcin (red). The result: sophisticated, if sometimes offbeat, wines that you can feel comfortable bringing to a friend's party or pouring at your place.
A proviso: This isn't California monster-style wine country; what are offered here are leaner, dry, less-oaky food-friendly reds and whites, and sweet-edged whites with elegance and balance. There are even—wine snobs, cover your ears—some made with fruit other than grapes.
There are about 150 vineyards in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. We've focused on those that offer the whole package—tours, tasting opportunities (some free, though most charge around $5 for five or more half-ounce pours) and a pastoral setting—within a few hours' drive of the city. In addition to offering an opportunity to pick up a few conversation-piece bottles, a trip to these wineries provides a chance to support local agriculture and learn about how terroir, the immediate environment in which grapes are grown, affects the final product. Many wineries are celebrating the upcoming harvest with festivals, making the Labor Day weekend a great time to plan a visit. Check out the wineries' websites for hours and directions.
Rudolph Valentino DiTommaso has ten acres of vinifera and hybrid vines, but he loves vinifera so much he buries the vines every winter to protect them from the cold. Valentino's Long Grove estate is a terrific place to wander, and the tasting room combines Midwestern intimacy with the flair of his Italian background. Try the rich and fairly dry 2002 Ventura ($19); the 2001 Chianti Reserve, a light dry red made with Foch grapes ($39); and his 2001 De Chaunac ($56), a good, if light, dry red. 5175 Aptakisic Rd, Long Grove, 847-634-2831, www.valentinowine.com.
The Glunz Family Winery
Established in 1993, this north suburban winery is part of the local family's "empire" (including beer and wine wholesale and importing companies, a retail shop and Glunz Bavarian Haus restaurant in Lincoln Square). The tasting room is small, and there isn't a huge selection, but almost every wine we tried (all of which are made with grapes imported from California) was of good value. The Everyday Chardonnay ($10.95) is a steal if you like 'em lean, clean and crisp. The winery also makes vintage ports, including the 1999 ($24.95 for a regular bottle), which hews closely to the Portuguese model. 888 E Belvidere Rd, suite 109, Grayslake, 847-548-9463, www.gfwc.com.
Fred Koehler opened his west suburban winery in 1979 with a small bar and tasting room; today it's a modern facility producing dozens of wines, with an indoor balcony overlooking the tank room and a four-room B&B for overnighters. Grapes are imported from downstate, Michigan and California. If you want a good look into how a winery works, this is the ideal spot. Favorites include the 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ($17.50) and the 2002 Chambourcin ($15)—but don't miss the fruit wines, made with rhubarb, cranberries and more. 15 S Roselle Rd, Roselle, 630-529-9463, www.lynfredwinery.com.
Prairie State Winery
Established in 1998, it looks like a general store, but with a small but modern winery in the back. The grapes come from their own 3.5 acres, as well as other nearby vineyards. We liked the Oak Savanna, a dry, well-balanced Chardonel (think of it as a winterized version of Chardonnay) with a little oak ($11); the Prairie White, a tangy off-dry white ($10); the Red Oak, an assertive dry red made for pasta ($14.50); the Kingston Vines, a mostly Foch-based red blend ($12); and the full-bodied and great valuePrairie Red ($10). 217 W Main St, Genoa, 815-784-4540, Prairiestate@TBCnet.com.
If you want to experience a vineyard in the making, this is the place; it's experimenting with 30 varietals on ten acres in DeKalb County. It offers a few wines—all at $10—to folks who come by on the weekend for a tour (and, when possible, a hayride). The Sunset White has a Niagara grape–like odor but finishes drier than most, while the Sunset Red (it's actually pale red) has a berrylike aroma and a light fruity, nearly bone-dry flavor. The Wine Dog White is very dry and appley-tart and would make a great base for a kir if you didn't have any French Aligoté lying around. 11582 Waterman Rd, Waterman, 815-264-3288, www.sunsetwines.net.
Fox Valley Winery
It has 26 acres of its own grapes, including vinifera, and also buys from growers in New York and Michigan. The 2003 ChardonnayReserve ($19.95) is in the lean-and-lightMidwestern style, its 2003 Chambourcin ($20) is a dry red similar to a Cotes du Rhone, and the 2000 RA Faltz Vintner's Reserve (a blend of Chambourcin and Norton, $29) is aromatic with subdued oak. 5600 W Route 34, Oswego, 630-554-0404, www.foxvalleywinery.com.
Anderson's Orchard Winery
This mom-and-pop winery has been a destination for dunes visitors since 1994. Tours are by appointment, and there's a sculpture garden for meditating or picnicking. You can even pick your own grapes for 89 cents a pound. We found the Seyval Blanc ($13), the Vidal Blanc ($13) and the Traminette ($13) to be tasty off-dry whites. If you have a sweet tooth, you'll dig the Ravat 51 Vignoles ($13) and the Niagara-based Vineyard White ($10). 430 E U.S. Hwy 6, Valparaiso, 216-464-4936, www.andersonsvineyard.com.
Lake Michigan Winery
This hole-in-the-wall operation offers a look back at the way Midwestern wineries used to operate: It's personal, intimate and free of pretension. Unfortunately, that means quality is hit or miss. The Pasta Red ($12) is a dry Concord wine, and the Hammond Rosé ($11), a blend of Concord and Villard grapes from Michigan and Indiana, is in the White Zinfandel vein, only a tad drier. U.S. 41 at 119th St, Whiting, 219-659-9463, www.lakemichiganwinery.com.
Indiana's largest winery is a bit beyond daytrip range, but it's worth a visit if you have the time. Founded in 1972, it used to specialize in mildly sweet wines using out-of-state fruit. But in 2000 it planted 37.5 acres of vinifera and hybrids.Its 2004 Gewürztraminer ($10) is a clear value and very much in the style of textured Alsace wines with just a hint of sweetness. Try it on their patio. 8024 N State Rd 37, Bloomington, 812-876-5800, www.oliverwinery.com.
If you're a connoisseur of apples and pears, and if you're open-minded about wines made with fruit other than grapes, this is the place for you. The apple-based Appely is a delicious, champagne-style, off-dry sparkler ($14); and the crab-apple wine, fermented with honey, is ethereal ($7.50). The Perry ($18.50) is an off-dry sparkling pear wine that reminded us of an AlsaceGewürztraminer in the nose. 1072 288th Ave, Burlington, 262-878-5345, www.appletrue.com.
Lemon Creek Winery
Jeff Lemon's family grew fruit here for 150 years before setting up this straight-outta-Burgundy winery. The 2003 Chardonnay ($16) is aged in new French oak, but it's subtle and more Chablis-like. The 2003 Cabernet Franc ($19) is a good first attempt. (You'll notice that most Michigan cab francs and merlots are leaner and a bit more herbaceous than those from California, but we think that makes them more food-friendly.) The 2003 Baco Noir ($9) tastes like a cross between a light French Burgundy and a Cotes du Rhone. 533 E Lemon Creek Rd, Berrien Springs, 269-471-1321, www.lemoncreekwinery.com.
Contessa Wine Cellars
Tony Peterson and his wife, Liz (she's theContessa on the label), turn out a collection of wines on the lighter and leaner side at their three-year-old winery. The grapes are grown nearby, along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The 2003 Chardonnay ($16) and the mildly sweet but well-balanced "Celeste" ($9) are standouts. 3235 Friday Rd, Coloma, 269-468-5534, www.contessawinecellars.com.
Karma Vista Vineyards & Winery
Joe Herman had cherries growing next to what is now Karma Vista's tasting room until he decided the sandy hillside would be great for growing grapes. We like the 2003 Sauvignon Blanc ($18), the 2003 Chardonnay ($12.50) and the 2002 Merlot ($20). Once the vines for his Stone Temple Pinot Noir get some age on them, they should produce outstanding red wine. 6991 Ryno Rd, Coloma, 269-468-9463, www.karmavista.com.
St. Julian Winery
Established in 1921, this is Michigan's largest winery by far. All of the wines we tried at the Union Pier tasting room were cleanly made and relatively fairly priced. Standouts include the 2002 Pinot Gris St. J, which, for $10, kicks most Italian pinot grigios' punts. The 2004Traminette ($15) smells of Alsace and tastes of Germany (try it with moderately spicy Asian cuisine). Among the reds, the Village Red ($8.50) and St. J Merlot ($10) are great values. And go for the Blanc de Blancs Braganini Reserve, a delightful, dry and French-style bubbly ($20). 2110 N Concord Rd, Paw Paw, 269-657-5743, www.stjulian.com.
Roll out the barrel
Time your wine country road trip to coincide with these upcoming events
Sept 9–11: Paw Paw Wine and Harvest Festival.
The 15th annual "Best of Michigan" wine tasting includes bike tours and carnival rides. www.wineandharvestfestival.com.
Sept 10: Lemon Creek Harvest Festival.
A family-friendly fest with an Austin Healy car show, hayrides, and grape and apple picking.
Sept 17 and 18: 33rd annual Cedarburg Wine and Harvest Festival.
Complimentary wine tasting from Cedar Creek Winery, craft fair, farmers' market, pumpkin-carving contest and scarecrow contest.
Sept 17 and 18: Vintage Illinois 2005.
Twenty-one wineries, including Fox Valley, Prairie State and Stiengtunt, assemble in Starved Rock for the largest Illinois wine festival. www.vintageillinois.com.
Sept 18: Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery annual trip.
This bus trip to Lemon Creek Winery includes a minilecture andgrape picking.
Sept 24: Wine and Vine Festival.
Fox Valley Winery tastings, riding tours and food from Le Patisserie Cafe.
Sept 24 and 25: Lynfred Winery Pig Roast.
This festival is a family-friendly event with oompah bands, as well as grape spitting and squashing contests.
Nov 5: Distillation Day.
Round Barn open house features brandy and appetizer tastings as well as winemaking classes.
Nov 12 and 13: Holiday Cheer Weekend.
A two-day tour with tastings at ten wineries, including Round Barn and Lemon Creek.www.miwinetrail.com.