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Vineyards growing in Illinois

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

Will Ender, Port Byron, grows about 20 acres of grapes, which he sells to a Galena winery. Dr. Enders and his wife, Linda, make up to 100 gallons of wine for themselves in the basement of their home.

PORT BYRON -- Grape-growers in Illinois are making the first steps toward creating a home-based wine industry, and no one has a better handle on it than Will Enders of Port Byron.

Dr. Enders has 14 acres of French hybrid grapes, and plans to plant an additional five acres with new varietals this spring.

``I put the first 4,000 cuttings of root stock, roughly five and a half acres worth, in for my own consumption,'' the Moline chiropractor said. ``I've always made wine, and I used to drive to Michigan to get my grapes. I decided it was getting ridiculous, so I found this property out in rural Port Byron that had rolling hills and the perfect soil.''

Most of the stock Dr. Enders planted was Marechal Foch, a small, deep purple-blue grape native to the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, a semi-mountainous area with a climate similar to that of northern Illinois. Foch, one of the most popular grapes grown by North American winemakers, is a vigorous, highly productive hybrid.

Over the years, Dr. Enders hand-propagated the rest of the grapevines covering his acreage, creating a landscape that more resembles the rustic hillsides of Tuscany than northwestern Illinois. He now grows several varietals, including a white Seyval Blanc and a red Leon Millot.

``Most recently, I have this new variety of grape that has no name, only a number, 2-22-2, that was given to me by the University of Minnesota,'' he said. ``It reminds me of a Gewurtztraminer -- it has a spiciness to it. So far, I've only made little batches of it, but I'm looking forward to making more.''

The growth and experimentation is nonstop. In one corner of his vegetable garden, Dr. Enders is growing enough new cuttings to cover an additional acre he will plant in the spring. It takes five years of nursing the young vines along to maturity before a crop of any substance can be harvested.

Unlike the seasons for other Illinois agricultural crops, a grape grower's year is 12 months long. The major pruning of the vines is done in February, and fertilizing is done in early spring. The grower is busy during the spring and summer months, ``green pruning,'' or trimming the vines during the growing season, and ``leaf bending,'' or trimming leaves to give exposure to the delicate fruit.

The end result is a cultivated vineyard as beautiful as a still life.

The grapes are harvested by hand the first three weekends in September. Dr. Enders' volunteer grape pickers, each wielding a small pair of cutting shears, come from a large circle of friends, Palmer College students and colleagues.

At one time, Dr. Enders had his own winery and bottled his wines under the Terra Wines label, which was available at retail wine outlets in the area. ``The actual winery was in Geneseo, next to the old train station, and they were trying to promote the train with a winery next to it. It didn't work out because the project was undercapitalized,'' he said.

Dr. Enders now sells the bulk of his grapes to the Galena Cellars Winery, owned and operated by Scott and Chris Lawlor. The brother-sister team produces 30,000 gallons (150,000 bottles) of wine a year, making Galena Cellars one of the two largest producers of wine in Illinois.

``Will's grapes make excellent wine,'' Chris Lawlor, state oenologist for Illinois, said. Ms. Lawlor was a student in oenology (the study of wine) and viticulture (the study of grape growing) at the University of California, Fresno, one of the top programs in the country.

``His Foch is really an exceptional wine. It tastes somewhat like a California pinot noir, but it's more earthy tasting. Our soils are so much richer here -- you can taste the Midwest in the wine.''

What Dr. Enders doesn't sell he turns into wine for his own consumption. He and his wife, Linda, make 80 to 100 gallons a year in a wine cellar they built in the basement of their house.

Despite all the technology developed in the wine industry, there is nothing more basic than making wine, said Ms. Lawlor, who helped Dr. Enders harvest his grapes last fall, before trucking 6,700 pounds back to Galena.

``You mash grapes, then the grape juice mixes with the yeast on the grape skins and that causes the sugar in the juice to ferment, transforming it into alcohol,'' she explained. ``Allowed to settle and clarify during the winter, the wine is drained in the spring from the sediment and left to age. It is that simple.''

Before accompanying Ms. Lawlor to Galena with a second truckload, Dr. Enders put 200 pounds of grapes through the initial stages of wine making. The freshly harvested grapes first are put through the hopper of a grape crusher, a hand-cranked device with a cylindrical barrel that spins the grapes while crushing them, sending the pulp into a fermentor, in this case a clean 30-gallon plastic container.

``Some stems mixed in with the grapes is perfect for complexity -- too many stems will make the wine bitter because the stems contain tannin,'' Ms. Lawlor said. ``Large wineries now have crushing machines that are electronic and so technologically accurate they completely remove all the stems. They found the lack of stems produced a less flavorful wine, so they have to take some of them back and mix them in the `must,' which is what the crushed grape pulp is called.''

The natural sugar content of the must is then checked with a refractometer. ``Every 2 percent of sugar equals 1 percent alcohol, which is why grapes are the perfect content for wine,'' Ms. Lawlor said.

Once all the must is in its primary fermentor, a liquified yeast is added, which is necessary in American wine production. ``We've only been making wine in this country for 60 or so years, and our wild yeast is incomplete,'' Ms. Lawlor said. ``So we have to add yeast.

``In Europe, on the other hand, for thousands of years, grape growers have returned the fermented must to the vines to nourish them for the following crop,'' she said. ``The wild yeast that is produced by European grapes is enough for the grapes to ferment completely.''

Dr. Enders uses a new yeast called BM-45. ``French hybrids are very herbaceous tasting, and this yeast removes that taste.''

The must remains in the primary fermentor until the yeast becomes less active, a period of five to seven days during which the Enders will ``punch down the must,'' a twice-a-day procedure that resubmerges the raised pulp into the liquid.

The must is then sent through a wine presss and into a secondary fermentor -- the Enders use two 52-gallon oak barrels -- for three months. Then the wine can Be consumed as a young wine or bottled and left to age.

As the fourth largest wine consumption state in the nation, Illinois has a ready-made market that is encouraging for the small number of grape-growers that dot the state. Interest in grape-growing is high and the Lawlors are encouraged by many new vineyards that are being planned.

``These are going to be the funnest years yet of our wine making,'' Scott Lawlor said. ``We're all making good wines here in Illinois and we're really going to spread our wings.''

-- By Lisa Mohr (January 22, 1998)

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