The sun isn’t even up yet, but bleary eyed as I feel, I am boarding the train. In moments, it whisks me away from all things urban and fast paced. As I am speeding through miles of green pastures and small villages, my excitement builds. Somewhere out there, on the other side of the farmlands, is the hill that sparkles. There is only one thing in the world, really, that would motivate me to get up on the wrong side of the crack of dawn and ride the train into the middle of nowhere. I am going to drink bubbly today.
The train arrives at the tiny station. I maybe the only person to get off here but my companion for the day is waiting with a bright smile. She scoops me up and off we go, through farm fields, forests, villages, crossing the river. The vistas are stunning as far as the eye can see. My inner city slicker is in awe of the open spaces and nature’s beauty out here. We speed along the river bank, ours the only car in sight. Taking one last turn, we see it rising in front of us: the hill that sparkles. Where am I? Can you guess? France? California? If you guessed that, you couldn’t be more wrong. I am in Illinois River Valley, looking up at the vineyard of Illinois Sparkling Co.
I met the folks from Illinois Sparkling Co. at a tasting in Chicago, and boy, was I skeptical. They have just launched their line of five sparkling wines made entirely of Illinois grown grapes (see my previous article FOOD FRIDAY: Make Your Holidaze Sparkle!). It didn’t take long for my skepticism to turn into sheer amazement at the quality of bubbly in my glass and I was smitten. Yes, smitten is the best word to describe it. Ever since tasting these unusual creations, I have been plotting a trip to the winery. And today is the day. I will spend it with the folks behind Illinois Sparkling Co., I will taste, I will learn, I will visit the vineyard. Could life get any better than this for a wine geek?
Confucius once said: “The best fertilizer for the land is the footsteps of the owner.” That rings true on this sparkling hill. The vineyard, planted entirely with vines used in the production of sparkling wines, sees the footsteps of its owner and winemaker daily. Great care is taken here to make sure that even the smallest vines receive their share of attention. As I stand on top of the hill, looking down at the river valley, I learn about deer and birds and freezing temperatures and many other threats to the health of young vines here. Life is hard in Illinois for a baby vine, it seems. And yet these are thriving. They are a labor of love, that much is obvious.
Later downhill, I tour the winery. I meet a handful of employees, I see the caves filled with riddling racks and bottles in various stages of production. I learn about the crush and the dosage and the bottling process. And through it all, I taste. I taste the still wines destined for sparkling greatness out of stainless steel tanks. I taste the rare barrel aged wine that is headed for a reserve project. But best of all, I taste the brand new ESTATE sparkling wine. ESTATE! That means that every single grape that went into its production was harvested on this property, in this vineyard. First ever ESTATE sparkling wine from Illinois. Lucky me! It is called Stereo and is made with 100% estate grown LaCrescent grapes. It is delicate and floral and delicious. I want more.
My companions tell me that I am only the second person from Chicago to come and visit Illinois Sparkling Co. As we head to the next town over to the tasting room, I am pondering why that is. Plenty of people around me make trips to California or Pacific Northwest wine country. We rave on and on about those trips, and all the while delicious bubbly is produced in our own backyard, an hour and a half out of the city. Why don’t more people take the trip? I am not sure. What I am certain about is that I will be making this trip again and again.
At the tasting room, there are signs that we are in fact in the Midwest. There are sweet fruit wines and a wine slushy machine (c’mon! you would totally drink a wine slushy!). But on the back wall, Illinois Sparkling Co. bottles are prominently displayed. $10 gets you a generous pour of three sparkling wines and a plate of nosh. There is a lovely patio, just waiting to be discovered. The air is crisp, the wines plentiful and, as the day comes to a close, I make plans to come back at harvest. In my glass, Illinois Sparkling Co. Franken’s, a French rose hybrid that is now a staple in my home. In my book, any day is great if I drink delicious bubbly. I bid farewell to my gracious hosts. I promise to return. And I never break my promises.