Americans have been trying to grow European wine grapes longer than there has been an America. Thomas Jefferson, who famously thought horticulture was a competitive sport, long tried (and failed) to get a bottle of wine out of his vineyards on the slopes of his little mountain in Virginia.
What Jefferson eventually learned at Monticello – and what every viticulturist on these shores now knows – is that Vitis vinifera gets a little fussy when you bring it to North America. This species of grape is native to Europe and parts of Asia and thrives around the Mediterranean. It prefers a little elevation and a south-facing slope. It’s perfectly fine with rugged soil. Heck, it’s perfectly fine with rocks and gravel so long as it gets a cool night and a warm, dry daytime with maybe just a hint of moisture floating in the morning air.
In other words, any place but Illinois.
Paul Hahn used to grow corn and beans. He knows the wonders that the dark soil of central Illinois can produce. But when commodity prices began to keep Illinois farmers up at night, some 17 years ago, Hahn planted grapes: three reds (Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch and Frontenac) and three whites (Niagara, Seyval Blanc and Vignoles).
“I started with just six rows back here,” he says, motioning to a slope at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, 15 acres of grapevines planted halfway between Bloomington and Peoria. Back in March, when we met, Hahn’s vineyard was still dormant – but that doesn’t mean the vineyard owner can rest. “Every year it kept growing and growing; more grapes, more grapes, more grapes; learning as I went along,” he says.
And learn he did. At the 2003 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition, his 2002 Alexander’s Conquest – a dry red blend of 40 percent Maréchal Foch, 40 percent Frontenac and 20 percent Baco Noir – took the Best in Show ribbon in a field of more than 250 wines.
“Being a farmer my whole life, it wasn’t hard for me to learn how to grow something else because it’s just another plant,” Hahn says.
But no one grows a new crop without learning as much as possible about the plant. Hahn says he discussed strategies with the grape specialists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who were themselves testing different varieties of grapes for use around the state. “Bill Shoemaker of U of I was a person I looked to for information, and I attended his seminars about how the test-plot grapes were doing [at the university].”
This task of creating varieties that will grow in the Midwest and produce world-class wines has not been easy, and horticulturists from New York state to Minnesota to Illinois have spent years trying to make it work. Here’s the problem: our winters and our summers and our rainfall and our fungus and our grape phylloxera.
Let’s take those five points in order.
The winters here are almost too damn cold for vinifera. The summers are almost too warm, but they’re certainly too humid. And we can get a lot of rain all at once. (Think: Midwest thunderstorms.) That leads us to the fourth point: Fungal disease poses a huge threat to vinifera. Our hot, humid summers promote too much fungal growth on the vines, and the poor things just don’t know what to do with it all. And the plants can grow exuberantly in the warm weather, producing lots of foliage which, paradoxically, creates shady spots where a fungus can thrive. Finally, there’s the threat of insect pests, like phylloxera, a nasty little root-sucker that can single-handedly wipe out a grape industry. We’ve seen it happen before – North American rootstock essentially saved the French wine industry in the mid-1800s.
For years, winemakers in Illinois have tried to solve those problems. As far back as the spring of 1874, The Prairie Farmer (“a weekly journal for the farm, orchard and fireside,” published in Chicago) ran an item headlined “Phylloxera and Grafting Grape Vines” asking Illinois growers to graft scions of European varietals onto North American rootstock in order “to ascertain the means of growing with more certainty the delicate varieties that now fail so frequently.”
But grafting is a solution for phylloxera in the instant: a one-off, labor-intensive fix for this plant, in this vineyard, and it doesn’t bestow any benefit to the plant’s offspring. It’s not a solution for an industry. And everywhere in the world where wine grapes are grown, industries have grown up alongside of them: winemaking, tourism, fine dining, entertainment, hospitality. Yes, there’s romance in the grape, but there’s a business engine in there, too.
The approach that has worked better in the Midwest is to develop vinifera-native grape hybrid strains designed to carry on in their DNA some of the most useful characters of their parents and grandparents and all their grapey ancestors.
If you can cross the delicate vines of Europe with one of the many hardy native vines that can withstand Midwest weather, you might just be on to something.
This is what Jefferson didn’t get right at Monticello. Had he cultivated native grapes instead of vinifera, he may have succeeded in making wine. In the early 19th century, Dr. Daniel Norton came upon seedlings of a native North American grape in Richmond, Virginia – not far from Monticello. His discovery would become the grape now known as Norton, which quickly gained popularity on the East Coast and in the Midwest for its disease resistance and hardiness. In 2003, Missouri named Norton its official state grape; today it’s the most widely grown wine grape in the state and one of the top five grown in Illinois.
For scientists interested in creating Midwest-hardy varieties, the task is to find wild grapes that like it in our region.
Bill Shoemaker can find them growing in the alley behind his house in DeKalb, Illinois. It’s a weed, he says, growing everywhere in the state, as well as most other states in the Midwest. He’s talking about Vitis riparia, literally “riverbank grape.”
According to Shoemaker: “Wild grapes can have weird, vegetative flavors. Some are bitter. They are almost always sour until fully ripened. But some wild grapes have flavors that aren’t all that offensive. I’ve had a couple of wines made from wild riparia that were made by good winemakers.”
On the day we met, he found wild riparia climbing a volunteer tree next to a dumpster. (You can probably find it growing near you, too.) It’s a woody vine with those telltale curly tendrils that support it as it climbs trees, heads to the canopy where it leafs out, steals a little sunshine and produces small fruit the birds seem to adore. Riparia is ubiquitous in our region, thanks to red-winged blackbirds and the like that find the wild grapes at the tops of the trees, eat a few or a lot, then later disperse the seeds on terrain and windshields.
Shoemaker, a fruit and vegetable horticulturist, is retired from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he spent his career studying vegetables and fruit, with an eventual emphasis on grapes. He founded the St. Charles Horticultural Research Center, 100 acres in the far-western suburbs of Chicago, in that zone where subdivision meets silo at the intersection of two American eras.
Today, Shoemaker sits on Victorian furniture in his home built in the 19th century. He pours a few glasses of a wine he’s made from grapes grown at the research center: a Valvin Muscat.
“This grape that was developed at Cornell University by Bruce Reisch, and is a true Muscat-style grape, but it’s very hardy, and it’ll survive here just fine,” he says.
And the wine Shoemaker has made is quite nice: aromatic and sweet, but not at all syrupy, with that floral nose that’s so characteristic of Muscat grapes. Muscats seem desperate to go on a date with a piece of Gorgonzola, and they often do.
Valvin Muscat is a cross between Couderc 299-35, which is itself a hybrid, and Muscat Ottonel, a variety of vinifera first developed in 1852 by Jean Moreau-Robert, a French grower in the Loire valley. Today Muscat Ottonel is used to make dessert wines in eastern Europe: Austria, Romania, Croatia and Serbia, as well as dry whites in Hungary and Alsace, France.
The cross that resulted in the grape used to make the wine that Shoemaker poured for us was made in 1962, but the paper describing Valvin Muscat wasn’t published by Cornell University until 2006. According to Shoemaker: “That gives you a sense of how long it can take to develop a new grape variety. Most don’t take that long, more like 15 to 20 years, but still a long time.”
Taking a long time is part of the process of hybridizing grapes. It can take years for a new cross to take root and bear fruit. And then it can take many more years to decide whether that fruit is worth the winemaking. And then it can take even more years – even in this age of genomic analysis – to find out if the new plant has inherited genes that will allow it to weather the conditions in places like Illinois and Missouri.
But that’s what the scientists at Cornell and the University of Minnesota and their colleagues at the University of Illinois have been doing: crossing and then waiting. And then crossing again.
In 1965, horticulturist Herb C. Barrett crossed Joannes Seyve 23.416 (itself a French-American hybrid) with the German varietal Gewürztraminer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The result was Traminette, a white wine grape released in 1996 – long after Barrett’s retirement – by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. Today, Traminette remains the only cross developed in Illinois that is commercially grown throughout the country – though Shoemaker hopes that isn’t true for much longer.
“I’m trying to change that, and perhaps others will be successful in introducing a new variety or two with Illinois roots,” Shoemaker says. “A new variety from Cornell, Arandell, has a strong connection with a wild vine developed by Herb Barrett, which came from Vitis cinerea, another wild grape from central Illinois, north of Springfield. It contributed amazing disease resistance which could give this variety potential for producing an organic wine – a tall order in the Midwest. It would still be difficult because of insect problems, but there is no other variety with so much natural disease resistance on the market.”
Shoemaker describes the scientists who work with grapes as having to make decisions “creatively” when deciding which grapes to cross for new hybrids.
“There is a lot of instinct involved,” he says. “I think grape-breeding is a lovely blend of science and art. The decision of what parents to cross and which offspring to focus on involves so much chance. You have to develop great data and use [it] expertly. But your decisions are still fraught with risk. You have to reach within yourself and feel your decisions.”
Meanwhile, the grapes are getting to know Illinois and its five hardiness zones. (The Land of Lincoln is especially “tall” in the horticultural sense.)
Shoemaker points to the interesting relationship between grapes and the place where they’re planted. “You may have heard of the word terroir – it’s a sense of place,” Shoemaker says. “The French coined this term, and it recognizes the ability of grapes to adapt to their environment in a way that other crops don’t.”
He says that other fruit crops will do this to some extent, but nothing like grapes.
And here’s a paradox about growing grapes in Illinois’ rich soil: Grapes like it a little rough.
“Managing vigor becomes a really big issue with growing grapes,” Shoemaker says. “The French, in places like Bordeaux, have these sites that limit the growth of plants. They will plant in very tight formations, and the site itself does most of the work of managing the vine beautifully.”
The soil of the right bank of the Dordogne River in Bordeaux is filled with gravel. High in calcium, it is lacking in other nutrients. And this poor soil limits growth for the vines.
“That’s why Bordeaux was recognized a long time ago as a great place to grow grapes,” Shoemaker says. “You didn’t have to have a lot of expertise to grow really high-quality grapes. If you had the expertise, you could even improve on what the site did. But in places like Illinois, you have to manage well – and you’re managing the vigor.”
Dr. Shelby Henning runs the research center out in the Chicago suburbs these days. The vineyards that Shoemaker planted are there, some pruned, some looking a little wild – all badly damaged by the polar vortices that dropped arctic air onto northern Illinois two winters in a row.
“The past two winters were pretty bad,” Henning says. “I mean we got to negative 20-something [degrees] last year.” Weather like that will test the winter hardiness of any plant.
“Farming’s a gamble,” Henning says. “This far north, you’re pushing the envelope.”
But that’s what these vineyards are for. They’re here to test the hardiness of grape hybrids. Better that a plant be tried and fail in a test row here than fail in a commercial vineyard down the road. And growers like Paul Hahn pay attention to the performance of the varieties being tested here.
Meanwhile, you wait and let the grapes grow.
Henning sits at the lunch table in the research center. There’s a greenhouse out the back door with makings of a pretty good salad: tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and some peppers that will knock not only your socks off, but also the socks of the person sitting next to you. There’s a jar on the lunchroom table – a science experiment, really – filled with pickled peppers that have gotten just a wee bit too friendly with some bacteria. Remember: Henning has a Ph.D. Don’t try this at home.
Back at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, Paul and Diane Hahn snuggle against a brisk spring wind. The porch of the winery’s tasting room overlooks rows of Frontenac grapes. Beyond the grapes, on the horizon 30 miles away, a line of power-generating windmills churn the Illinois farm air.
Making a bottle of wine is expensive. It’s labor intensive from beginning to end. And Hahn is there for every step, including the very beginning, walking the rows, pruning and snipping, hand-cultivating 15 acres of farmland growing one of the world’s most prized crops.
It’s a labor of love, you think, as you watch this man look out over his vines.
“It’s my pleasure,” Hahn says. “It’s my life.”
And then he begins to weep.
Hahn is living with stage 4 colon cancer. Two and a half years ago, his doctors told him he may only have two years to live. Two vintages. He is trying to stretch that with chemotherapy, but it takes its toll on him. And the vineyard is a lot of work.
“That’s where I want to be,” he says. “With the grapes.”
That’s where Hahn is most comfortable: walking the rows, taking care of the plants. He knows which ones want to get bushy and which want to droop. He knows the fruit to expect from one and what to expect from its neighbor. Each plant has character.
Fifteen acres is a lot of land to know that well. In that, Hahn is not alone. Grape growers the world over know their vineyards just as well. But none has a more pressing reason to hope to see another vintage, to see for themselves what sun and rain and soil and vine will produce for them to work with and for us to enjoy.
There is no other crop grown in the world with as much mystique and as much romance. People love wine. And winemakers love grapes. And farmers love their vines, like they love their children. Think of that the next time you pull a cork from a bottle.
As we leave Hahn’s vineyard, he asks me to remind people to get a colonoscopy when they turn 50. “I waited too long,” he tells me.
It’s a generous thing for a generous man to say, living, as he does, with the crab clutching at his very life. He has the strength of character to think of others in that moment. What a sad, brave thing to do: to think of us, because you want us all to enjoy another glass of wine.
Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, 33633 State Route 9, Mackinaw, Illinois, 309.359.9463, mackinawvalleyvineyard.com
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