A decade into their new venture, this Freeport-area couple has carved out a special niche in a territory beloved for its cold-weather winemaking skill. See how they did it, and how they continue to invent new ideas.
Like the product it sells, Famous Fossil Vineyard and Winery in Cedarville, Ill., continues to get better with age. The vineyard is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year; the winery opened after the vineyard’s first harvest in 2008.
“Every day, my husband Ken and I look at each other and say, ‘Can you believe we have a winery and a vineyard?’” says co-owner Pam Rosmann. “It’s hard to describe that feeling of standing behind the bar and having people tell you how they feel about your wine. It’s been a remarkable experience so far. Sharing and talking about wine is a real joy.”
The name “Famous Fossil” is a tribute to the 450-million-year-old sea sponge fossil the Rosmanns found while planting their vineyard. That fossil now sits on the bar at the winery, along with several others.
The real story here is how Ken and Pam fulfilled their dream of starting their own vineyard. For more than 30 years, Ken lived in Iowa and farmed small grains, hay, corn and soybeans. He also tended a herd of beef cattle before turning to organic farming. Some of his crops were used to make organic tofu in Japan.
But Ken had an even greater passion to make wine, a hobby he started in college. Sixteen years ago, he began studying under winemakers, taking courses and making wine. He’s also past president of Northern Illinois Wine Growers. “Wine was a natural fit for Ken’s personality and skills,” says Pam. “He’s wonderful in the vineyard, but he’s an artist when it comes to making the wine. That’s where he really shines.”
The couple met when Pam was director of the Organic Agriculture Program in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. After careers in psychology and landscape architecture, Pam now manages the tasting room and events room at Famous Fossil. She oversees a staff of five part-timers in the tasting room while Ken works with a full-time vineyard and winery assistant, Royal Scheider.
“We initially thought about just selling grapes and locating near a winery,” Pam says. “It didn’t take long, however, to decide that winemaking was going to be a part of our business. That way, we have more control and potential to be creative and expressive.”
The Rosmanns were looking to set up shop in northwest Iowa, southern Wisconsin or northern Illinois. They found the perfect location in Cedarville, a small town located just north of Freeport. The couple lives in a home next door to their vineyard. “It’s a beautiful space for grapes,” says Pam. “We’re not that far from Galena, Madison and Rockford, and we’re the only vineyard and winery in Stephenson County.”
Five-acre Famous Fossil Vineyard is home to 12 varieties of cold-climate grapes found on 2,100 vines. The Rosmanns also purchase grapes from about eight growers throughout northern and central Illinois. “We try different styles to see what works best,” Ken says. “It’s fun making wine and seeing what the grapes produce. Every year is special because of the grapes, and every vineyard is different.”
The Rosmanns didn’t plant the typical varieties of Merlot and Pinot Noirs found in warmer climates like California’s Napa Valley. Instead, they chose specially cultivated hybrids suited to cold climates, developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota. “We want a local wine that says you are here,” says Pam. “We’re in the cold climate. We have more in common with Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Midwestern soil and a cool climate make up the ideal conditions for a distinctive flavor. We don’t use flavor additives or tannins, and use only the minimum of preservatives.”
Famous Fossil makes 15 wines, including full-bodied reds, refreshing whites, sparkling wines and sweet dessert wines. Red grape varieties include Frontenac, Marquette, St. Croix and M. Foch; white grapes include LaCrescent, Traminette, LaCrosse, Brianna and Prairie Star. The winery also offers non-grape fruit wines such as blackberry. On the tangy side is a rhubarb wine that maintains a hint of the bitter stalk. “We find that customers prefer wines with a lot of flavor and a little on the sweeter side, compared to the drier side,” says Ken.
The Rosmanns are especially proud of their Fireside Red, a port-like, full-bodied wine that won a double gold medal at the 2014 International Cold Climate Wine Competition. Fireside Red is made with Marquette and Frontenac grapes.
In all, Famous Fossil produces an average of 250 bottles a day and 20,000 bottles a year. The grapes are harvested from the end of August to October, when workers can be found picking grapes, crushing and destemming the grapes, then pressing them to get the juice. Fermentation on the native yeast starts, and then the winemaking begins with aging, blending and bottling.
“The process can take anywhere from two to six months for white wines and six to 12 months for reds,” says Ken. “Weather can play a role, too. Last winter really affected the grapes, as did the drought in 2012.”
Most Famous Fossil customers come from within a 65-mile radius. Jennifer Bowman of Rockford recently visited the winery for the first time, along with a few co-workers. Her little group toured the property before taking part in a wine tasting. “The place is darling,” she says. “You’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s so peaceful and pretty. It’s a hidden gem and perfect for an afternoon drive and wine tasting.”
Famous Fossil has plenty of room for group meetings, custom wine tastings and private events such as birthday parties, rehearsal dinners and book club gatherings. The winery has a full-service kitchen for home-cooked treats or full-service catering. The tasting room offers a unique view into the winemaking room located below it. In the summer months, an outdoor deck is open for events such as cookouts and festivals.
Tastings are available during business hours; groups of eight or more should call ahead. On certain weekends, wine wagon tours are held through the vineyard for guests to learn about grapes. For the past two years, Famous Fossil has hosted a Garlic Festival that draws 700 people who taste and purchase fresh, locally grown garlic. “It’s a blast,” Pam says. “It’s fun to do things that make us unique.”
Recently, Famous Fossil began selling Chocolatorium Dark Secret and Cacaocuvee chocolates, as well as truffles made with Famous Fossil Fireside Red and Blackberry wines, Apple Cider Caramels and Galapagos Turtles.
Wine, it seems, brings out the best in people. “It’s been fun exploring the world through wine,” says Pam. “No one is stressed out in a winery. No one is in a hurry. There’s something romantic about wine. It’s an experience meant to be enjoyed in the company of others.”
Famous Fossil is open Memorial Day to New Year’s Day, Sun.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; from Jan. 1 to Memorial Day, Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays noon-5 p.m. Closed New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.