Wine Territory: Meet a couple whose Byron, Ill., winery is shaped around local tastes and flavors.
Tucked a block west of Illinois Route 2 in Byron, Ill., this family-run winery is a hidden gem. Visitors to the custom-built facility at 114 S. Franklin St. find a bright, open space, outfitted with bistro tables and chairs, a tasting bar and corner fireplace circled by a comfy sofa and chairs.
“This was my husband, Jim’s, dream,” says co-owner Cheryl Hailey. “We talked about it for 10 years before finally planting an experimental vineyard in our backyard.”
On a half-acre at their Stillman Valley, Ill., home, they put in four types of grapes, Niagara, Maréchal Foch, St. Croix and Frontenac. “While waiting for those to produce fruit, we purchased some grapes from a Michigan vintner,” says Cheryl. “We were making a red from the Noiret, and we had racked it for the second time. Even though it wasn’t ready yet, Jim and I both thought it was very good. But we were really anxious for others to taste it.”
On their way to meet a group of friends in DeKalb, the pair impulsively grabbed a bottle and held a tailgate wine tasting in the parking lot of a Sycamore restaurant. Everyone loved it.
Says Cheryl: “One of our friends said, ‘This is what it’s all about – good friends sharing fun, food and wine. You should call this Road Trip Red, because you’re introducing it on a road trip.’”
Road Trip Red became Hailey’s signature wine, and just three years later it was named the Double Gold winner for red table wine at the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition. The couple bottles eight vintages per year, from eight types of fruit or grapes. Currently, Hailey’s wines include Chambourcin, Chardonnel, Seyval, Apple Harvest, Niagara, Road Trip Red and Rocking Chair Red.
The Haileys are still waiting for their fledgling vines to bear fruit, so they must continue to purchase grapes from other established vineyards. They don’t do much blending, and they don’t add tannins. “We let the grape be the grape,” says Jim. “What you taste is truly the grape. We have much to learn as winemakers, but we keep it simple, and that’s working for us so far.”
Jim and Cheryl run the vineyard and winery pretty much on their own, enlisting help from family and friends when it’s time to bottle. They have seven tanks, each yielding more than 100 cases.
“It’s hard work, and it can be stressful,” says Cheryl. “But we call our three children home to help, and if they can’t make it, we turn it into a party with friends. It takes seven or eight people to bottle, label and rack the batches.”
Wine is available by the glass or bottle. Hailey’s holds wine tastings, and is available for special events like bridal showers and Christmas parties. Also, once or twice month, they hold an “Uncorked” event featuring live music. They also sell artisan cheeses, chocolates and gift baskets, along with wine accessories and items made by local artists. Cheryl bakes breads for the tasting events.
For Jim and Cheryl, running all aspects of the business means that many of their customers have become friends, like the two couples who meet at Hailey’s every Thursday evening: Karen and Mark Burrows, and Kris and Bill Craig, all of Byron.
The friendship evolved after Karen and Kris stopped in one day to sample the wines. “After that, they would come in for a glass of wine and visit by the fireplace,” explains Cheryl. “One day, they happened to be my only customers, and they invited me to join them. And the friendship just blossomed.”
On this particular night, the group has decided to cook in the facility’s kitchen, making from scratch a special hearty vegetable chili featured on the cover of Food & Wine magazine. The fireplace crackles; the homey aroma of chili fills the room; glasses clink.
“It’s the whole package,” responds Bill, about what’s special about Hailey’s. “It’s the atmosphere, the company, the conversation. We like to support new and local businesses. But if the wine weren’t good, we wouldn’t come back. And I’m serious about that. This is not grocery-store wine.”
“There’s something here for every taste,” agrees Kris. “And it’s just such a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Some Thursday evenings, we solve the problems of the world in front of this fireplace.” Laughter and murmurs of agreement accompany an impromptu toast.
“This group epitomizes our philosophy about wine and why we started our business,” says Cheryl. “Sharing with friends in a quiet place, where you can slow down, relax and enjoy the warm feelings – we create wines that bond.”