Making Medal-Winning Midwestern Wines

The Illinois winemaking scene is slowly coming into its own, and our area includes some impressive displays of talent. Discover some of our local medal-winning wines.

Tlowly, quietly, like the grape vines carefully nurtured by their owners, wineries in northern Illinois have taken firm root. Season after season, dedicated vintners handcraft sophisticated varietals, some time-tested and others proprietary, refining and improving the wine with each batch.

In the Old Northwest Territory and the northwest suburbs, many of these wineries are family-owned; several use grapes grown only in Illinois; nearly all have produced award-winning wines. These growers are just as serious about their wines as anyone from Napa, Sonoma, Italy or France. Some of the cold-hardy grape varieties they use, like Frontenac, La Crescent and Marechal Foch, were propagated at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and released for sale just five years ago. So, while these cultivars already are producing award-winning wines, their individual characteristics and wine-making possibilities are still being explored and discovered by growers.

Most certainly, each winery has its own special charm, from the rolling hills of Jo Daviess County and rural farmlands of Stephenson County to busier suburban settings.

All have tasting rooms, where customers can sample wines before buying. Some offer on-site restaurants or food tasting menus. Others feature gift shops, vineyard tours, wine clubs, special dinners and event space.

Most importantly, the proprietors are nearly always on hand to answer questions and describe their vintages. Here, Northwest Quarterly talks to several of them about their vineyards, their wine-making philosophies, and their most recent award-winning wines.

Prairie State Winery

217 W. Main St., Genoa, (815) 784-4540,

Owners: Rick & Maria Mamoser
year established: 1998
varietals: 8-10
No. of wines produced: 28 to 30 annually

All wines at this family-owned vineyard are made with Illinois grapes. Solar panels and wind turbines help to power an upgraded production and bottling facility and reduce the impact on the environment. Tours are offered each Saturday, and in addition to its on-site tasting room, a second has recently been opened in downtown Sycamore.

Grape sources: Illinois, some from its own vineyard
Fruit sources: Various states
Competitions per year: Says Rick: “We usually do between two and four. We entered only the Illinois State Wine Competition this year, but we usually include the Finger Lakes [N.Y.] competition and a couple of others that we flip-flop year to year.”
2012 Competition: Illinois State Fair Wine Competition, Springfield.

Award-Winners & Attributes: Best of Show (top wine in competition) & Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Chambourcin Reserve. Says Rick: “This 100-percent barrel-aged wine is from a French hybrid, in the Sangiovese/Merlot style. It’s not especially hardy but it has good depth, with medium tannins and body. The oak is nicely integrated but not overly forward, and it finishes with cherry tones.”

Silver Medal: Racey.
Silver Medal: Cabernet Franc. A deep red made from a southern Illinois version of the classic European grape.
Bronze Medal: Nawt’n.
Bronze Medal: La Crescent.
Bronze Medal: Red Oak. A medium-bodied, dry, barrel-aged red made with the Norton grape. Smoky with hints of black cherry.

About Awards: Says Rick: “Personally, it tells me I’m on the right track – not that I’ve arrived, by any means – but the impartial judging helps me to know that I’m making good wines.”

Philosophy: Says Rick: “We always try to make the best wine we can, and to showcase that quality to our customers. We’ve found the most amazing vineyard in southern Illinois, and the nice thing that I find fun is that I can produce different types of wine from one grape.”

Rocky Waters Vineyard Winery

2003 W. Hanover Road, Hanover
(815) 591-9706,

Owners: Jared & Phyllis Spahn; Kyle Spahn, president
Year established: 1997
Varietals: 5
No. of wines produced: 14 annually

Marking its 15th growing season in 2012, family-owned Rocky Waters boasts 25 acres of vineyards, with all vines in full production. The view from its perch above the hilly farmland of Jo Daviess County is breathtaking, and to get a real taste of this wine country, visitors can rent a luxury log cabin on a lake stocked with game fish.

Grape sources: Rocky Waters vineyard
Fruit sources: 100-percent grape wines. Says Kyle: “No fruits are added to our wines. The grapes are flavored by the rotted fruit of nearby trees, and the taste is transferred through the soil. Different sugar levels of the same grape, along with when it’s picked, yield different flavors.”
Competitions per year: Says Kyle: “We usually enter three: two international competitions every year, and the Illinois State competition every other year.”
2012 Competitions: Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, N.Y.; Indy International Wine Competition, West Lafayette, Ind.

Award-Winners & Attributes:
Finger Lakes

Silver Medal: Meadow Blush. Says Kyle: “Made from the Leon Millot grape, this is sweet, fruity, soft and smooth, with a hint of cherry at the finish. It’s excellent with chocolate and desserts.”
Bronze Medal: Hillside Rosé. A sweet rosé made from the Marechal Foch grape.
Bronze Medal: Pear Tree Blush. Says Kyle: “This semi-dry rosé from the St. Croix grape is mellow and fruity, and the pear finish comes from a pear tree planted near the vines.”
Bronze Medal: Wild Turkey Blush. Says Kyle: “Made from the same Marechal Foch varietal as the sweeter Hillside, but picked at a different time, Wild Turkey Blush is a complex, fruity, semi-dry wine with a clean hint of cranberry at the finish.”

Indy International Wine Competition
Silver Medal: Meadow Blush.
Bronze Medal: Wild Turkey Blush.

About Awards: Says Kyle: “In four years, we’ve received 32 medals, and 24 are international. Awards let us know if we’re on the right track with our wines, and offer validation that we’re doing something right.”

Philosophy: Says Kyle: “To make wines that people like to drink. I want them to enjoy drinking them as much as I enjoy making them.”

Famous Fossil Winery

395 W. Cedarville Road, Freeport, (815) 563-4665,

Owners: Ken & Pam Rosmann
Year established: 1996
Varietals: 12. Says Pam: “All varieties are used for winemaking. Some are varieties that haven’t been released for public sale but are being tested for cold hardiness and wine quality.”
No. of wines produced: 15 per year, three from fruits

A tasting room and deck overlook this family-owned vineyard, nestled amidst the rural farmlands of Stephenson County. All Famous Fossil grape wines are produced with Illinois grapes, some from its own vineyard, and visitors can order a tasting plate, featuring local foods, to complement their wine samples.

Grape sources: 9 Illinois vineyards, including their own
Fruit sources: Blueberries and raspberries) from Michigan; rhubarb from Illinois
Competitions per year: Says Pam: “We do very few, because we’re interested in competitions for varietals that grow in cold climates.
2012 Competition: 12th Annual Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, Finger Lakes, N.Y.

Award-Winners & Attributes:
Silver Medal: Over The Moon. Says Pam: “Over the Moon is a white sparkling wine, with citrus flavors and a refreshing, crisp finish. It’s made from a single varietal, LaCrescent, which we also use to produce a still wine, our Crescent Moon White.”
Silver Medal: Fossil Rock Red. Says Pam: “This is dry, full-bodied red, made from blending Frontenac and St. Croix and aged in oak. It’s dry but has soft tannins, with hints of currant and vanilla.”
Bronze Medal: Blackberry. Says Pam: “We buy our blackberries whole and crush them ourselves, for the freshest taste possible. This sweet wine is one of our most popular with customers.”
Watch for: Marquette, out in October. Says Pam: “This is a new red hybrid, a Pinot Noir cross from the University of Minnesota, which was released in 2007.”

About Awards: Says Pam: “Our wines are similar in style to better-known varietals such as Merlot or Chardonnay. But Famous Fossil wines have flavor and characteristics unique to the cold-climate varieties that grow here. It’s difficult to compete against wines from grapes with established characteristics for that varietal, that grow in consistently warm climates. We’re still trying to determine what’s possible with these cold-climate grapes.”

Philosophy: Says Pam: “To establish a new wine region, it’s important to focus on the varieties that grow well and express the character of that region. We’re excited to be developing a name for these new varieties and for Illinois wines. We enjoy and value the partnerships we have with growers of grapes in our own region.”

Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery

Vineyard: 4746 N. Ford Road, Galena (800) 397-9463; Tasting Room: 515 S. Main St., Galena, (815) 777-3330; Geneva Wine Tasting Room & Gift Shop, 477 S. Third St., Geneva, (630) 232-9463;

Owners: The Lawlor Family; Master winemaker Chris Lawlor White
Year established: 1976, in McGregor, Iowa, as Christina Wine Cellar; Galena location, 1983
Varietals: 23. Says Chris: “These are in our experimental vineyard. We also have an adaptive program to mentor future winemakers, who take care of 12 of these vines for a season to see how it’s done. We have four acres on which we grow varietals to use in our wines.”
No. of wines produced: 40 annually

This second-generation winemaker consistently produces large-batch, awarding-winning vintages. The vineyard, located along the winding country roads near Galena, offers a wine-tasting room, gift shop and, on select days, tours. Available for rent on the property are a guest suite and a guest house.

Grape sources: Northern, central and southern Illinois; northwest states; a few from the East Coast. Says Chris: “Our basic belief is that your wine is only as good as the fruit you put in it. So we buy the best fruit possible.”
Fruit sources: States known for producing the best of certain fruits. Says Chris: “We used to just order the juice, but now we order the whole fruit and crush it ourselves, so that we can better control the quality.”
Competitions per year: At least three
2012 Competitions: Illinois State Fair Wine Competition, Springfield; Indy International Wine Competition, Ind.; Mid-American Wine Competition, Ankeny, Iowa

Award-Winners & Attributes:
2012 Illinois State Fair

Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Traminette. Says Chris: “This is an excellent example of a central Illinois grape. It’s a Seyval-Gewurztraminer cross, fruity with a spicy complexity, a semi-dry wine that’s Germanic in its flavor components.”
Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Daffodil. Says Chris: “We use LaCrosse grapes from our own vineyard to produce this German-style wine with a beautiful floral complexity. It’s very aromatic, with big fruit notes and flavor.”
Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Eric the Red. Says Chris: “This is made from Marechal Foch grapes, all grown in Illinois and aged in American oak barrels. It’s a lighter, more burgundy Pinot Noir-style wine with a cherry finish.”
Governor’s Cup for Best Illinois Rosé & Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Vineyard Rosé. Says Chris: “This is a blend of Marechal Foch and St. Croix grapes grown in our vineyard, light and fruity with a hint of raspberry.”
Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Blackberry.
Gold Medal: Frizzante di Muscat Canelli.
Silver Medal: Seyval Blanc. Says Chris: “Dry, clean, crisp, austere, flinty, citrusy, it complements food, but it’s also the perfect chilled wine for sipping on the patio.”
Silver Medal: Britt White. Named after the winemakers’ daughter. Says Chris: “We use Chardonel grapes from southern Illinois and barrel age them for six months. It’s oaky, with big vanilla flavor, big body and a full mouth feel.”
Silver Medal: Vineyard Red.
Silver Medal: General’s White.
Silver Medal: Oktoberfest.
Silver Medal: Rhubarb.
Silver Medal: Late Harvest.
Silver Medal: May Wine.
Bronze Medal: Vintage Red.
Bronze Medal: Cranberry.

2012 Indy International:
Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Cracklin Apple. Sparkling fruit wine
Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Raspberry.
Silver Medal: Blackberry.
Silver Medal: Eric the Red.
Silver Medal: Port in any Storm. Frontenac Foch Port-style
Bronze Medal: Britt White.
Bronze Medal: Sangarita. Naturally flavored Riesling, Niagara, Key Lime
Bronze Medal: Bublin Blanc. Carbonated Riesling, Seyval Blanc

2012 Mid-American Wine Competition:
Gold Medal: Framboise. Sweet dessert wine derived only from grapes
Gold Medal: Riesling.
Gold Medal: Country Red.
Gold Medal: Gewurztraminer.

About Awards: Says Chris: “We do it for ourselves, to know that we’re producing quality wines. Also, I have to admit, we like to get medals! Who doesn’t?”

Philosophy: Says Chris: “I have the mindset that all of our wines should be medal-winners. We want to perfect all of our vintages and make the best wine we possibly can.”

Massbach Winery

8837 S. Massbach Road, Elizabeth, (815) 291-6700

Owner/winemaker: Peggy Harmston
Year established: 2003
Varietals: 8
No. of wines produced: 15-16 annually

Hidden among the rolling hills of Jo Daviess County, this family-owned winery grows most of its own grapes on 18 sprawling acres. A wine tasting patio provides a scenic overlook, and wine tasting events are held often.
Grape sources: Illinois
Fruit sources: Various states
Competitions per year: Says Peggy: “I enter just a few a year. I always send several to the Illinois State Competition, ones that stand out in quality for that category, and also, those that I’d like some feedback on.”
2012 Competitions: Illinois State Wine Tasting Competition, Springfield; Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, N.Y.

Award-Winners & Attributes:
Illinois State Wine Tasting Competition

Governor’s Cup for Illinois-Grown Fruit/Red Table & Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Träumen. Says Peggy: “‘Träumen’ means ‘to dream’ in German. Made from the Frontenac grape, it’s very rich in color and flavor, with a touch of sweetness for her and full body for him.”
Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Cherry Rose: An estate-grown rosé sweetened with Door County, Wis., cherry juice.
Silver Medal: Massbach Reserve. A full-bodied, dry, oak-aged red made from blending Foch and Frontenac grapes.
Bronze Medal: Wind Song White. A full-bodied, oak-aged white made from estate-grown St. Pepin grapes. Says Peggy: “We also make our semi-sweet St. Pepin wine from this grape, but didn’t enter it this year because we’re sold out until we bring in this year’s crop. One of the things I love about wine-making is that we can treat the juice differently and blend it in different ways to produce very different wines.”
Bronze Medal: Velvet Hour. A port-style sweet/dessert wine made from a blend of red grapes.

Finger Lakes 2012
Silver Medal: Träumen.

About Awards: Says Peggy: “While there is some personal validation, it also helps me to know that we’re producing good wines. Once I hear about a medal, I get on the social media and thank our great employees, and customers and everyone who supports the winery.”

Philosophy: “To make Illinois wines that stand out in quality. I think awards are most helpful in getting the word out to customers that northern Illinois is a great region for producing grapes that yield award-winning wines. We like supporting local products.”

Acquaviva Winery

47W614 Ill. Route 38, Maple Park (630) 365-0333,

Owners: Vito Brandonisio & Family; Joe Brandonisio, general manager
Year established: Vineyard, 2000 Winery, 2010
Varietals: 20; some still in development stages
No. of wines produced: 40 annually

Meaning “living water” in Italian, this winery is named for the Italian town where founder Vito Brandonisio’s grandfather had a vineyard 50-plus years ago. Carrying on the tradition, Brandonisio and his sons have been producing award-winning wines since 2008, with the first batch of grapes harvested from their 40-acre vineyard, planted just 12 years ago. A 20,000-square-foot facility across the road houses the winemaking facility, a tasting room, wine shop, restaurant and event space.
Grape source: Acquaviva Vineyard
Fruit sources: 100-percent grape wines.
Competitions per year: Up to three.
2012 Competitions: Illinois State Fair Wine Competition, Springfield; Indy International Wine Competition, Ind.

Award-Winners & Attributes:
Illinois State Fair

Governor’s Cup for Illinois-Grown Fruit/White Table & Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Brianna. Says Joe: “A single varietal named for the grape. Well-balanced, medium body with a strong peach nose, this is a sweeter wine, but it doesn’t leave you with sweet. It has a crisp, citrusy finish that invites another sip.”
Double Gold Medal (unanimous vote): Prairie Star. Says Joe: “Another single varietal named for the grape. Of the whites we’re talking about, this is less sweet, but there’s no real bite. It has a sort of Pinot Grigio finish that pairs well with food.”
Gold Medal: Bianco Bello. Says Joe: “This is a semi-sweet blend, made predominantly from St. Pepin and Chardonel grapes. We add a very small amount of Moscato, for a floral nose. It’s full-bodied with a crisp finish.”
Silver Medal: Don Guiseppe. Says Joe: “This is a red blend made mostly with the Noiret grape. Barrel-aged for a year on French oak, it’s full-bodied, not overly bold but well-balanced, with hints of berry, cedar and oak, and a peppery finish.”

Indy International
Gold Medal: Brianna.
Gold Medal: Bianco Bello.

Watch for: Four new wines: a white, rosé, port and Christmas. Says Joe: “These aren’t quite ready, but we hope to have them out before November.”

About Awards: Says Joe: “It’s always a great honor when judges like the wines you make. But we try to keep in mind that there’s a bigger picture. We want to create wines that our customers enjoy, because they’re our most important judges.”

Philosophy: Says Joe: “We hold our wines to a very high standard. We want to make our customers happy. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we’re always working to get better.”

Lynfred Winery

15 S. Roselle Road, Roselle, (630) 529-9463,
Tasting room/gift shop locations: Tasting deVine, 127 W. Front St., Wheaton, (630) 752-9463; Tasting deVine Cellars, 21 W. Jefferson Ave., Ste. 101, Naperville, (630) 420-9463; Lynfred Winery Wheeling, 971 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling, (847) 229-9463

Opened in 1979, this 25,000-square-foot, three-story facility, with on-site wine production, a tasting room, retail store and bed-and-breakfast, began when Fred and Lynn Koehler made their first batch of homemade wine in the basement of their Roselle home in 1975. Today, the Koehler family brings in the best whole fruit available and crushes it themselves to produce distinctive, award-winning wines.

Year established: 1979
Varietals: N/A
No. of wines produced: More than 80 per year

Grape sources: Illinois, California, Washington State, Michigan
Fruit sources: various states. Says Christina: “We buy local as much as possible – cherries from Door County, Wis., rhubarb from Illinois – but we go wherever we can get the best fruit.”
Competitions per year: 10-12. Says Christina: “We pick specific competitions every other year, and we only enter wines that we’ll have to sell to the public, or that we think are really outstanding. We do send Illinois varietals to the Illinois State Fair every year.”

2012 Competition: Illinois State Fair Wine Tasting Competition, Springfield
Award-Winners & Attributes:
Silver Medal: Chambourcin Rosé. Says Christina: “This hybrid is grown everywhere, but it grows most beautifully in the U.S., I think. This wine drinks like a French rosé. It’s light and fruity, with notes of cranberry and craisin.”
Bronze Medal: Seyval Blanc. Says Christina: “This drinks like a Sauvignon Blanc. It’s clean with a nice acidity, and you taste grass and citrus and melon. It’s summer in a glass.”

About Awards: Fred Koehler was having trouble getting respect for his wines, because they were made in Illinois. Finally, in 1985, he sent his Chardonnay to a prestigious show in Reno, Nev., where it won Best of Class and Best of Show. Says Christina: “Awards help with sales. That first wine made people take notice, and now, we’re known for making some of the best wines in the country. Lynfred was a pioneer in Illinois winemaking.”

Philosophy: Says Christina: “Our goal is to make a quality wine that our customers like. The best award is that someone likes our wine. In addition to our local retail partners, we distribute through local restaurants. We encourage people to dine locally, and we want them to enjoy great local food with a quality glass of local wine.”