I grew up in Southern Illinois, and although I don’t get back nearly enough, I had a chance this past weekend to visit the area and see some long-lost family and friends. The weekend agenda was packed but I did manage to sneak in visits to a couple of the area’s top wineries.
Most people associate Illinois with two things: Chicago and corn. I’m not going to lie–there is a ton of corn and a majority of the state is flat and corn-laden. Wine typically doesn’t come to mind, but in fact, the wine industry has really started to grow in certain parts of the state. Southern Illinois now features 25+ wineries, which utilize mostly French-American hybrid grapes and Native grapes to make their wine. There are a few wineries experimenting with European Vitis Vinifera–I know of a couple Cabernet Francs, Rieslings, and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Alto Vineyards is the oldest commercial winery in the area and was founded in 1982. Alto was started by Guy Renzaglia upon his retirement from Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale. Three generations of Renzaglias have now worked at the winery. Guy’s son Paul serves as the winemaker and he kindly took some time out of his weekend to sit down and talk with me about Alto Vineyards and the Southern Illinois wine industry.
A Few Questions with Paul Renzaglia
Nick: What were people saying when your father started Alto Vineyards in an area where wineries were pretty much unheard of?
Paul: Most people thought that it was just some insane Italian starting a winery and that it was a silly idea. Our family even thought it was a little odd. But we knew our father, we knew he was determined, and we all supported whatever he did.
Nick: What did the winery mean to him?
Paul: It was something that took him away from retirement. He liked physical, dirty, work and it kept him alive for another thirty years. It meant a lot to him. He never thought about what it meant to anyone else. He never thought the industry would grow the way it has. He just wanted to do it.
Nick: As the oldest winery in the area, have several of the other wineries in the area sought out your advice?
Paul: Yes, I’ve spent hours and hours and never minded. I really do believe that if we work together we’re going to do better. The better the wine that we make the better off we all are. I’ll continue to do that if they ask–I’ve never minded that.
Nick: What’s the biggest growing challenge that you face here?
Paul: The bugs, the deer and other animals, the weather, the humidity. In Southern Illinois I can’t imagine that there would be something harder to grow. Everything likes grapes! Even people steal them! Fungus is a big challenge here as well.
Nick: You’ve got a wine named after a Saluki (SIU’s mascot). With your second location being in Champaign, are there any Fighting Illini-themed wines on the way?
Paul: Well I do have one up there. We’re doing an Illini Rosso. I’ve also had some notions of doing some Champagne, which would make sense, so we’ll see what happens with that.
We were going to do a tasting right after my meeting with Paul. Upon walking around to the tasting room, we noticed two large buses parked out from. A look into the tasting room revealed a plethora of sorority girls (surely from the nearby SIU campus) packed to the gills. Unfortunately, we were running tight on time and didn’t have time to deal with the crowd. As we drove away, I mentioned that if a couple of college-aged guys were to happen upon Alto Vineyards right now, they would be hitting the jackpot. I’ll definitely be stopping by Alto to taste on my next trip to the area!
Kite Hill Vineyards
Kite Hill Vineyards, owned by Jim and Barb Bush, is relatively new to the area’s wine scene but already has a strong reputation in the area. Thankfully, I did get to do some tasting here. Kite Hill’s tasting list included several wines made from French-American hybrid grapes and a Cabernet Franc. The Vignoles was by far the best wine that I tasted. It was impressive, with very ripe, fruit-forward aromas of pineapple and had a nice crispness about it. I would love to slip this wine into a double-blind tasting and see how it would fare–I’m thinking pretty well.
By chance, there happened to be a book signing going on when we got there. Clara Orban, a professor from Depaul University who teaches French, Italian, and of course, Wine Appreciation, was promoting her book Wine Lessons: 10 Questions to Guide Your Appreciation of Wine. It’s always great to chat with a fellow wine lover! I did manage to snag a copy of her book and am in the process of finishing it.
I also met and spoke with winemaker Scott Albert, whose first job at Kite Hill was in the tasting room. Paul Renzaglia had mentioned that he thought the local wine industry needed some “young blood”. Scott certainly fits the bill–he was filling me in on some plans to collaborate with other winemakers in the area to make sparkling wines, which have not been made in the area.