Learn about the nine locally-owned wineries that make up the Great River Wine Trail, and find out how you can enjoy this tri-state treasure.
If you love good wine – and even if you don’t – an excursion along the tri-state Great River Wine Trail is full of enjoyable surprises. You’ll not only find nine excellent, locally-owned wineries, three each in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, but also unforgettable rural landscapes, all within short distances of the Mississippi River.
Getting there is half the fun, since each destination is tucked into hilly areas untouched by the flattening pressure of glaciers. Searching for the wineries is a perfect excuse to traverse winding back roads to places like Hanover, Ill., Bankston, Iowa and Fennimore, Wis.
And while much of the joy is in the journey, there’s plenty of joy at the winery, too. Learning about vintages made from locally-grown fruits is a lot of fun, especially on a crisp fall day from the vantage point of a tasting room veranda that overlooks a stunning vineyard landscape.
Straddling Old Man River are the two largest wineries on the trail – Stone Cliff in Dubuque, Iowa, and Galena Cellars in Galena, Ill. The other seven are located in the countryside between small towns, and each has its own personality, from a French-syle chateau at Park Farm Winery in Bankston, to the very small, down-home, country style wineries in Wisconsin.
“Visiting a wine trail in the Midwest isn’t always easy to do, since the distance between points can be intimidating,” says Bob Smith, who owns Stone Cliff Winery in Dubuque, with wife Nan. “But with the Great River Wine Trail, we’re fortunate to be part of a cluster of wineries where the two farthest points are only 40 miles apart. It’s not at all difficult to make it around to each one.”
Visitors may collect a wine bottle sticker at each location and redeem all nine for a Great River Wine Trail T-shirt. “That just makes it a little more fun for people,” says Scott Lawlor, owner of Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery, the largest and oldest winery in the group. “The name of the game in business today is partnerships, working together. That’s what we’re doing with this wine trail. We think we have something very special here. By teaming up, we raise the visibility and invite more people to come share in it.”
This trail shouldn’t be confused with much larger wine trails with similar names. This one is specific to the scenic tri-state area.
“Many of these vintners are couples now retired from other careers, who are passionate about wine-making,” says MaryBeth Theis, marketing director at Stone Cliff and ringleader of the Great River Wine Trail. “They’ve developed expertise in the art of winemaking and just love welcoming guests. They love to talk about their vintages and help people find wines that suit their particular tastes.”
Midwest winemakers are indeed enjoying a renaissance. Winemaking was a busy industry in the Midwest until Prohibition quashed it, but it took many decades before growers again planted grapevines. Now, there’s an explosion of interest.
“In Illinois, we’ve gone from about 12 wineries to 80, just since 1996,” says Lawlor. “About 22 kinds of grapes are grown in Illinois. But the huge problem is that people don’t yet recognize the names of the grapes we grow here, compared to California grapes, for example. Visiting the tasting rooms of the local wineries really helps in that education process.”
So if the names Chambourcin, Traminette and Seyval Blanc seem less familiar than Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Zinfandel, don’t worry. You can increase your wine knowledge on the Great River Wine Trail. Visitors learn, for example, that blending grape varieties to make a wine is nothing new; traditional French vintners have been doing it for centuries.
“We like to take the Midwest grapes and blend them with grapes from other parts of the United States,” says Smith of Stone Cliff. “Most people who come in here are not necessarily looking to taste a wine made entirely of grapes influenced by Iowa soil, though some are. Most are simply coming in to discover some wines they like.”
In contrast, Park Farm Winery in Bankston, Iowa, produces wine primarily from grapes grown in the upper Midwest. “We feel it’s important to the experience to produce wines that reflect a regional identity, as well as the local climate,” says owner Dave Cushman.
The fruit juices are only one part of the equation, given all the variables of winemaking, says Keith Weuste, owner of Brush Creek Winery in Bellvue, Iowa. There’s the selection of yeast and other additives; the balance of PH to brix (sugar); the harvest time and temperature; the type of barrel used for fermentation … and so much more. On the whole, Midwest wine drinkers favor sweeter wines than their West Coast counterparts. “This is a German-Swedish area, so our sweeter wines outsell the others 3 to 1,” says Weuste. “The thing is, you could give all nine of us the same batch of grape juice, and all of our wines would come out tasting completely different from each another. There are all kinds of choices to make along the way. That’s where the art of winemaking comes in.”
Here’s a brief introduction to each set of these “artists.” All have tasting rooms and most give winery tours. Some have gift shops, special event rooms, live entertainment and even lodging options. Some have private spaces they offer for special events and parties, too.
600 Star Brewery Dr., Dubuque, Iowa
(563) 583-6100 • www.stonecliffwinery.com
Owners: Bob & Nan Smith
What You’ll Find: Wine bar & tasting room, light appetizer menu, winery tours, frequent live music. Located at the Port of Dubuque, with the Mississippi River outside the door. This is an urban location just steps away from two major casinos, a waterpark and the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.
History: In a previous chapter of life, Bob met Nan in Denver when he sold her a copy machine. Fast-forward to 1996, when the couple returned to Nan’s hometown of Dubuque to raise young daughters in a smaller Midwest environment. They purchased Stone Cliff Farm near Durango, Iowa, and planned to do traditional farming, but the dream of growing grapes and making wine took root and the rest is history. They planted their first 2,000 vines in 1998 and moved their production operation and wine bar into the beautifully restored historic Star Brewery building in May of 2007.
About the wines: Stone Cliff uses grapes both locally-grown and from across the United States to make it own tasty blends. Examples: Cabernet Sauvignon from California, blended with its estate grape, Baco, for a Bordeaux-style wine; New York Riesling grapes blended with locally-grown Seyval Blanc for a semi-sweet white wine. It also makes fruit wines from apples, cherries and cranberries.
Events: Murder mystery dinner theaters; Tuesday night Euchre for Dummies; and live music or karaoke in the piano bar/tasting room from 6:30-10:30 p.m. See Web site for more.
Hours: Tasting room open Tues.-Thurs., noon-6:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-11 p.m.
15159 Thielen Road • Banskston, Iowa
Owners: Dave & Elizabeth Cushman
What You’ll Find: Tasting room, gift shop, vineyard, tours. An elegant chateau-style winery that combines old- world charm with modern geothermal technology and insulated concrete form construction.
History: A few years after the Cushmans purchased a piece of Iowa countryside, Liz ran into a viticulturist while visiting a hardware store, and was inspired to plant a vineyard. By 2004, the couples’ grown children began moving back home to help build and run a winery. Today, son Dave oversees the winery, son Jim the vineyard. The parents oversee the tasting bar and business as a whole.
About the wines: All are produced from grapes and other fruits that can grow in the upper Midwest, and several have won awards. The grapes fall into two categories: 70- to 80-year-old French varietals like Chambourcin and Marechal Foch, and newer American hybrids that include La Crosse, La Crescent and Marquette, plus some experimental plantings like Frontenac. Sweeter, fruit-forward wines account for about 60 percent of sales. At Park Farm, some of the wines are barrel-aged for up to three years and it now has 4,600 vines. The family bottled its first wines in 2004 and now averages 18 to 20 varieties each year. The winery won 2009 Mid-America Wine Competition awards for its Picket Fence, Mississippi Red, and Vineyard Select wines.
Hours: Gift shop and tasting room open Mon.- Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m.
Tasting Room & Gift Shop:
515 S. Main St., Galena, Ill.
4746 N. Ford Road, Galena, Ill.
(815) 777-3235 • www.galenacellars.com
Owners: The Lawlor Family
What You’ll Find: Tasting room, gift shop, vineyard, tours. The downtown location is on historic Main Street, near a variety of quaint restaurants and shops.
History: Robert & Joyce Lawlor loved the winemaking classes they took in the early 1970s in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where they lived. Daughter Christine earned a second college degree in enology and viticulture from Fresno State University, and has twice been honored as “Winemaker of the Year” by the Illinois Grape Growers Association. She and her parents launched Galena Cellars in McGregor, Iowa, in 1976. In 1978, they opened a second winery, in an old freight depot in LaCrosse, Wis. In 1983, the Lawlor family opened a third winery in Galena and Christine’s brother Scott, with wife Karan, joined the business. In 1990, the family closed its operations in the other towns and consolidated its business in downtown Galena. It then purchased a farm outside of Galena for wine production and grape-growing.
About the wines: More than 40 varieties made from fruit grown in the Galena Cellars vineyard and imported from across the United States. The winery produces about 60,000 gallons of wine annually, in 40 varieties. About 30 people work at their three locations.
Notes: There’s a third location in Geneva, Ill. The Galena vineyard location offers lodging.
Hours at Vineyard: Tours daily at 2 and 4 p.m.; Saturdays at 2, 4 and 6 p.m.; Sundays at 12:30 and 2 p.m. Vineyard tasting room and gift shop open seven days a week, noon to 6 p.m., Sun.-Thurs. and Fri.- Sat. noon-8 p.m.
Hours at Galena Main Street location Memorial Day through December: Mon.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m-8 p.m.
Special Events: Nouveau Luncheon at the Vineyard, Nov. 19 & 20 at the Ford Road location, $19.95 per person, reservation required, (815) 777-3330. Wine Lovers’ Weekend March 25-27. See Web site for more.
8837 S. Massbach Road, Elizabeth, Ill.
(815) 291-6700 • www.MassbachRidge.com
Owners: Greg & Peggy Harmston
What You’ll Find: Winery, tasting room, vineyard
History: Massbach Ridge Winery was established in 2003, after the Harmstons settled in the area to be closer to family. Greg has a family medical practice in Mount Carroll, Ill., and says that his pre-med classes helped him to learn the science of winemaking. Peggy, who has a degree in business and communication, runs the business with the help of their three children. They love to share with visitors what they’ve learned about winemaking over the years. “We talk to everybody one-on-one, and we’re glad to give a tour,” says Peggy.
The Wine: The Massbach vineyard has more than 18 acres planted with St. Pepin, Fronc, Vignoles, Traminette, Marechal Foch, Frontenac, Seyval Blanc, Concord and Niagra grapes. The Harmstons bottle 13 varieties each year, about 15,000 bottles total, from dry wines like Windsong White to sweet wines like Vignoles. Their new favorite is Daffodil White, which earned a Double Gold award at the 2010 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition.
Events: Sept. 25th is the Massbach Stomp. Get your feet wet by stomping freshly picked grapes. $5 tasting fee. Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Stomping during the hours of 1 p.m. to 5p.m.
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Sundays noon-5 p.m.
Rocky Waters Vineyard/Winery
2003 W. Hanover Road, Hanover, Ill.
(815) 591-9706 • www.RockyWatersVineyard.com
Owners: Jared & Phyllis Spahn
What You’ll Find: Winery, gift shop, tasting room, vineyard
History: Jared is a native of Dubuque and lived in Peoria, Ill., for more than 30 years, working as a computer system consultant. Phyllis White-Spahn is a native of Worthington, Iowa. The couple purchased 112 acres in 1994 and planted 3,600 cuttings, all but 300 of which were destroyed by neighboring cows when an electric fence failed. Like true entrepreneurs, they recovered, and began selling grapes to other wineries in 2001 before opening their own a few years later.
About the Wine: Rocky Waters maintains a 25-acre vineyard of Marechal Foch, Millot, St. Croix, St. Pepin and La Crosse grapes. It produces 35,000 bottles a year with 12 varieties, all made from its own grapes.
Note: The Spahns closely studied winemaking in Napa Valley, Calif., and laid out their property similar to typical wineries there. A wraparound deck at the winery provides a wonderful view and there’s live entertainment on Sundays. A cabin is available to rent. Check the Web site calendar for special events.
Hours: Gift shop and tasting room open Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays noon-4 p.m.
16415 298th Ave., Bellevue, Iowa
Owners: Keith & Sherry Weuste
What You’ll Find: Two acres of estate grapes, a charming country setting with picnic area, wine and gift shop. Brush Creek is a young winery nestled in the heart of trout fishing country, where wildlife abounds.
History: Retired from a career with the U .S. Army Corps of Engineers, Keith had no intention of starting a winery. He only planned to grow grapes and sell them to his neighbor, but then fate intervened. “My neighbor fell off his grain bin and wasn’t up to starting a winery after that,” he says. “So we decided we’d try it.” By chance, he ran into a vintner in Bambridge Island, Wa., who told him exactly how to set up a winery successfully. “It’s a tough business. You have to know what you’re getting into.” Turns out Keith has a knack for managing the chemistry of wine, which he attributes, in part, to his experience working in the agricultural chemical industry back in the 1960s. “I try to make products that are very natural, with as few additives as possible,” he says. He and Sherry opened their doors in 2007.
About the wines: Dry, sweet, fruit and blush wines from Iowa-grown grapes, Door county cherries, Michigan blueberries, Wisconsin cranberries and New York grapes. Among Keith and Sherry’s favorites: Edelweiss, a sweet white; Pop’s Passion, “which tastes like an old-fashioned wine your Uncle Henry would have brought upstairs from the basement for Christmas dinner,” says Keith. And, at the holidays, Santa Sauce, a sweet red, and Naughty or Nice, a sweet white.
Events: Chocolate Me All Over each Labor Day weekend, with games and treats; occasional live entertainment.
Hours: Wed.-Fri. 2-6 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m- 4 p.m. Closed on Sundays, but you can try calling for an appointment.
13541 Blue School Road, Fennimore, Wis.
(608) 943-9941 • www.whisperingwindswinery.com
Owner: Jim Eisele
What You’ll Find: A country winery and gift shop in which Jim’s beautiful wooden vases, handmade from trees on the site, are sold.
History: Whispering Winds Winery got its start in 1996, after a business client taught Jim how to make wine. His interest in this new hobby grew and he enjoyed experimenting with various flavors. At first, Jim produced about 10 gallons of wine to fulfill requests from friends. Now, 10 years later, he produces about 2,000 gallons annually.
The Wines: The 4.5-acre vineyard produces several Midwestern-hardy grapes including Frontenac, Edelweiss, Frontenac Gris and LaCrescent. Jim often blends the juices of grapes and other fruits such as berries, apples, cherries, cranberries and rhubarb. Most blends are sweet wines, although semi-sweet and dry varieties are available, along with blushes and fruit wines. Jim’s best-selling wines are Drupleberry, a berry blend, and Purple Stuff, a Concord grape wine. Autumn Breeze, a semi-sweet wine with apple, is a seasonal favorite.
Hours: Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
19245 W. Mound Road, Platteville, Wis.
(Just north of the big “M” symbol at UW-Platteville)
Owners: Ted and Helen Kearns
What You’ll Find: Down-home style location with tastings, winery tours, gift shop and hospitality.
History: While Ted was stationed with the Army in Germany, he and wife Helen grew fond of grapes and wines. Their winery began as a retirement project about 11 years ago, opening in 2008. The following year, Ted’s Driftless White, made from his own Lacrosse grapes, won a gold medal in an international cold-climate wine competition in St.Paul, Minn., against 300 entries from 16 states.
The wines: Most varieties here are pure wines, rather than blends. Of the 12 varieties available, eight are grown in the vineyard. The most popular are the Corot Noir and the Lacrosse, but Marechal Foch, Millot and Concord grape wines also are available.
Events: Visitors can get a behind-the-scenes tour, enjoy occasional music events and fish in the pond. Wine tastings are free with a purchase, or $3.
Hours: Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays noon-5 p.m.
4547 Timber Lane, Cuba City, Wis.
(608) 568-3212 • www.sinnipeevalleywinery.com
Owners: Lenny & Sharon Glass
What You’ll Find: Vineyard, winery, tasting room. Fantastic Mississippi River bluff views along the way.
History: The seven-acre vineyard, established in 2003 with 600 grapevines, today has about 3,500. “It was just a hobby that got out of control,” chuckles Lenny. “We started making a few barrels in the basement. One thing led to another, and finally, we got licensed and expanded.” In his previous career, Lenny owned an automotive body shop for about 30 years in Keiler. “I like working with the grapes. They don’t talk back,” he jokes.
About the wines: All grape wines are made from grapes grown on site, including Dechaunac, Frontenac, St. Croix, Concord, St. Pepin and LaCrosse. Fruit wines are made with Door County cherries and cranberries, and New York blackberries. Lenny says best-sellers include Jubilee, “a sweet, Prohibition-style concord,” and Sinnipee Gold, a fruity, semi-sweet white. Unusual offerings include Chocolate Cherry, Chocolate Strawberry and Chocolate Cranberry, all made with a blend of real chocolate. Sinnipee produces 8,000 to 10,000 bottles of wine each year.
Hours: Winery and tasting room open Fri.-Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m., other times by appointment. ❚