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Thursday, July 31, 2003 02:33 pm

Refined retreat

The Illinois State Fair’s wine garden

Illinois Wine Garden

The Illinois State Fair may celebrate corn dogs, carnival rides, and country music. But how about sipping a glass of cabernet in air-conditioned comfort while listening to jazz?

Tucked between tractors, a petting zoo, and a farm-safety display in the fair's "Agri-Expo" area (once home to the "Happy Hollow") is the Illinois Wine Garden, showcasing the best wine the state has to offer. Fairgoers get a chance to not only taste and purchase award-winning wines but also to talk to the people who produce them.

"The Illinois State Fair is our biggest event," says Karen Binder, executive director of the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council. "We touch more people there than at any other event. It's a unique opportunity for the public to see some of these wineries that they might not know about."

For the first time, the garden will feature a "Best of Illinois Wine" booth, where the public will get the rare opportunity to sample top winners from the 2003 Illinois State Fair Wine Judging Contest for $1 a one-ounce glass (full glasses and bottles will also be available). These gold-medal wines include Alexander's Conquest, the 2003 Best of Show winner, produced by Paul Hahn from a blend of grapes grown at his ten-acre vineyard in Mackinaw. Alexander's Conquest, picked out of 222 entries from 25 Illinois wineries, sells for $28 a bottle, but Hahn limits each purchase to two bottles.

The garden, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council, will be open during the fair from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. August 8 through 17 (wines won't be sold before noon). A variety of music will be performed on weekends.

Also new to the garden are an expanded exhibit on the state's grape industry and daily tutorials by oenologist Steve Menke, who will demystify wine tasting and explain how to best pair wines with food. The exhibit will feature industry statistics, photos, and some of the wine-label winners. While 14 wineries will rotate in and out of the sales booths throughout the fair, another eight are expected in the wine tent on Ag Day, August 12.

"Wine grapes are one of the newest, most exciting, and successful commodities to be planted in Illinois' soils," says Binder. "Not only are growers and diversified farmers raving about this sustainable crop, the rural and metropolitan economies alike reap its added-value benefits as well as a sizable agri-tourism impact. Consumers most directly enjoy this crop as a glass of wine. One of the best ways to tell a wine's story from grape to glass is through the Illinois Wine Garden."

So even if you're not a fan of monster trucks, decorated diaper contests, or eating assorted foods on sticks, don't stay away from the state fair. There's a glass of homegrown wine waiting for you.

Illinois' wine industry

The man who made this year's Best of Show, Alexander's Conquest, is vintner Paul Hahn, a carpenter and corn and soybean farmer who opened Mackinaw Valley Vineyards near Peoria only last year. Hahn's winning wine, just one of hundreds featured at this year's Illinois Wine Garden at the Illinois State Fair, is a dry red table wine that blends three homegrown grapes: foch, baco, and frontenac. The fact that this year's winner is a dry wine--not a sweet fruit wine, which is most often associated with Illinois--is evidence that our state's industry is growing and improving in quality and variety. It's also a testament to how important the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council has been in helping new wineries.

"We have excellent dry wines now," says Irene Huffman, a certified wine educator from Milan and a judge at the state fair's wine contest held earlier this month in Springfield. "The quality of Illinois wines has just increased tremendously--it's unbelievable."

Another judge, Brad Taylor, agrees. "The number of winemakers is increasing, and there are many selections that citizens aren't familiar with," says Taylor, a professor of plant and soil science at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "It started as a self-taught industry. We've had tremendous growth and that growth has been recognized throughout the country. Illinois has suddenly come on the map."

There are currently 38 Illinois wineries and 800 acres of grapes with expectations of surpassing 1,000 acres in the next few years. Illinois vintners produced 250,000 gallons of wine in 2002, roughly 1.1 percent of the 25 million gallons consumed in the state a year. The wineries are all small, family-owned operations with a handful of employees. "Everyone in the industry has been immensely helpful," says Hahn. "I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am today without everyone's help." Like Hahn, Illinois winemakers are mostly diversified farmers who often can't afford distributors to place their products in Chicago and larger markets. "That's the biggest reason you don't see Illinois wine in every Schnucks," says wine council executive director Karen Binder. "The fair is such a great way to reach out to the public."

At the fair's recent contest, 12 judges from Illinois and elsewhere swished, sniffed, and sipped samples of wine from glasses lined up in rows. They discussed the balance, color, clarity, and aroma of the entries. "I'm amazed at how good some of these fruit wines are," said one judge, as he sampled rhubarb, peach, and blackberry wines. "All of these are tarter than hell," commented a woman with a grimace and a shake of the head. "It smells like mace and nutmeg," said another judge. "It smells like a pie."

Overall, the panel praised the homegrown fruit of the vine. But just as the Illinois wine industry is making great strides, state budget cuts could put the council's future in jeopardy. As the judges marveled about the improved quality of Illinois wine, they also talked about the importance of state support to the industry.

"These Gold Medal winners can compete with any other wines nationally," says Huffman. "People used to sneer when I said I was judging an Illinois wine competition. Now there's nothing to sneer about. It would be a tragedy if Illinois couldn't find a way to fund the council. Neighboring states have found a way to do it. It's kind of embarrassing."

For more information on the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council, visit www.illinoiswine.org. More on the Illinois State Fair is at www.agr.state.il.us/isf.

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