Visiting the Experimental Vineyard at Galena Cellars
Galena, the crown jewel of northern Illinois, is one of our favorite “good life” destinations, especially when autumn’s glow sets the hills on fire. During a recent visit, our first stop was at the Galena Cellars Vineyards. It had been a while since Dan and I sipped wine and lunched on cheese and crusty bread on the veranda overlooking the vineyard, so we were looking forward to the visit which included a tour of the winery followed by a tasting. However, this “good life” adventure took a fascinating and enlightening detour through the research that goes into the winemaking industry.
We arrived mid-morning on a gorgeous October day; the leaves were beginning to show a hint of burnt orange and crimson along the rolling countryside. Rob Hupperich, a budding vinticulturist, and his loveable dog Rex gave us a warm welcome. We’d read about the winery, a family business that began in 1970 with Robert and Joyce Lawlor’s passion for wine – a passion that captured the interest of their daughter Christine, an award-winning winemaker, and has since evolved into a legacy that spans three generations. (Read about the Lawlor family’s wine venture on their website.
As Rob gave us a tour of the barrel room and surrounding facilities, he shared insight on the daily workings of the vineyard which produces four varietals. “I find it all absolutely fascinating. “There are more than 6000 grape varieties, not including table grapes, grown all over the world. It’s amazing how much climate dictates the taste. … We don’t irrigate or fertilize the vineyards because stressed vines can produce wine with a much more complex flavor,” he said.” Winemaking is a science, but the art comes in blending the different varietals,” he added.
During an earlier visit, we learned that Christine blends her grapes with other regional varietals as well as the juice from California, Washington and Oregon grapes, producing some of the best Illinois wines we’ve ever tasted. But we didn’t realize, until recently, that the winery also grows 22 experimental varietals in collaboration with the Northern Illinois Wine Growers and University of Illinois.
A core group of NIWG members and volunteers work on the experimental vineyard. Chris said, “They’ve been a huge help in our goal is to find a grape that’s unique to our area, something that grows better in Northern Illinois than anywhere else, something we can stake our reputation on. California grapes were around for more than 100 years before they came up with their main varietals. So there will be ongoing research. We’re always looking for some kind of improvement and this organization takes on that responsibity and passes the information on to us. If there’s a problem with disease or insects, it shows up in the experimental vineyard before we plant it.” She added, “It also gives hands-on experience to people who have an itch to grow grapes or even start a winery. They can see how much work and dedication it takes to produce wine.”
Three NIWG members were working in the experimental vineyard during our visit and Rob invited us to take a look. We walked through the rows of vines until we spotted Ed Strenski, research manager, and Gerry Podraza and Bob Peterson clipping the season’s last white grapes – Marechal Foch and Ventura varietals. Here, the grapes reign supreme until they prove otherwise. The men counted and weighed the clusters from each vine. This information, along with meticulous data collected at the lab on PH, total acidity, and Brix (sugar content before fermentation) is crucial to finding what works and what doesn’t for further plantings.
Although we spent less than an hour at the research plot, we could tell that the men are fiercely committed to the horticultural discipline it takes in their quest for what Ed calls the “signature grape” for Northern Illinois. Part of that discipline comes in labor-intensive selective pruning, a skill they’ve mastered, which is essential to optimizing quality and production. “Grapes are genetically designed to grow to the trees. Pruning gives us more control. They all get the same sunlight and ripen at different times,” Ed explained. That afternoon, they planned to de-stem, press, and test the grapes and then put the juice in carboys and add yeast to start the fermenting. So Dan and I hung around.
Meanwhile, we went back to the tasting room where Rob poured us a crisp Chambourcin. He’s been working in the winery’s production barn for five months and talked about his growing appreciation for wine and all that goes into its making. He has a small orchard with grapevines at his home nearby and finds Galena Cellars to be a great training ground. “It’s pretty labor intensive, especially during the autumn. The harvest dictates our schedules, not the clock. But I love it all. It’s a pretty unique setting here with the vineyards, rolling hills and an old growth forest. And on a clear day you can see all the way to Wisconsin,” he said.
Before long Ed and Gerry arrived at the lab with several buckets of grapes. As they unloaded them, I noticed the fruit’s translucent flesh glowing with a soft yellow hue in the early afternoon sun. Gerry sterilized the equipment while Ed showed us the lab where shelves were lined with jugs of experimental wine. As we tasted one of the fermenting varietals, an amber sip of promise, he talked about the importance of yeast in the fermenting process – how it devours sugar, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide while bringing out the flavors. He said the wild yeast is often removed from the juice and cultured yeast is added for more control.
We watched Ed and Gerry de-stem the grapes before adding rice hulls for a more effective press. Then they crushed the fruit to extract the juice and invited us to taste their day’s labor. My opinion – it’s destined to produce a great wine! Maybe I was just caught up in the fanciful sentiments that comes from watching the fruit clipped from its mother vine and pressed into its future. And who knows? Maybe this will be the bottled nirvana the NIWG has been waiting for!
Before leaving that day, we stopped by the tasting room where we experienced the charm and hospitality of Rosey Fuchs who gave us a generous pour of Octoberfest, a crisp German-style white blended with Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Muscat grapes. Galena Cellars Vineyard proved to be a great wine destination and a wonderful way to start our three-day stay in Galena!
As always, we stayed in the Hellman Guest House, a lovely Queene Anne Victorian home on a bluff overlooking historic Galena and the valley beyond. The wraparound porch provides a lovely setting for morning coffee, and Rita's breakfasts are among the best we've had. Oh, those puff pancakes laced with powdered sugar and sprinkled with lemon juice! Read Dan's feature about our recent stay at Hellman House and its gracious innkeepers Bob and Rita Wadman.