SPRINGFIELD, IL. - Wine and air conditioning create a relaxing combination, making the Illinois Wine Tent, located in the Heartland area at the Illinois State Fair, a popular location for fairgoers old enough to partake.
On display in the tent are roughly 10 rotating wineries from around the state, each with glasses and bottles of wine available for purchase. Fairgoers also have the option of buying tickets for $1 each, which will allow them to taste a wine of their choice. Samples are roughly one ounce, said Brenda Logan, part-owner of Baxter’s Vineyards & Winery in Nauvoo, Illinois’ oldest winery, established after the Prohibition. Fairgoers who buy five tickets get a free complementary Illinois Wine glass.
“It’s a great opportunity to sample a lot of Illinois wines in one place,” she added.
Baxter’s, which has been on display for over 10 years at the state fair, offers 11 wines from sweet and semi-sweet to dry and semi-dry. Bottles range from $10 to $16, and a glass of wine is $4. Logan said the most popular wines are the sweet wines, the Concord Wine and the White Sweet.
She said the grapes used for their wine is grown in the Midwest and carefully selected as it is one of the most important steps in making good wine.
“The grapes determine the wine. If you have not-so-good grapes, then you don’t have good wine,” she said. “It starts with the grower.”
Bruce Morgenstern, part-owner of Pheasant Hollow Winery, said that this sense of Illinois pride also applies to the wine business as a whole for him, which he calls a “cooperation.”
“I have the entrepreneur drive: I want to be the best and sell the most,” he said. “But if the wines I’m selling are not your taste, I just assume that you go to another Illinois winery and find one that does.”
And, apparently, that attitude has worked. In a 2000 MKF economic impact survey, Illinois wineries made $20,000. Now they make nearly $230,000, Morgenstern said.
That’s not all. In July 1999, Pheasant Hollow was the 16th winery to open in Illinois. Now, there are roughly 75 wineries in Illinois.
“What other industry in Illinois has that kind of exponential growth?” he asked. “It’s just exploding.”
At the Pheasant Hollow Winery exhibit, 11 wines are on sale, ranging from $11 to $16. Morgenstern offers a number of fruit-blended wines, one of which, the Midnight Medley, won the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association’s Governor’s cup for best fruit-blended wine.
Pheasant Hollow Winery also offers the only sparkling wine in the tent, the Muscat de Canelli. The wine is also one of the only sparkling wines in Illinois, with Morgenstern adding that his company is the only winery that has the machinery to make sparkling wine. There may be another winery in the state that still does it by hand.
“We are the only winery in the state capable of producing sparkling wine the way we do,” he said. “And we do it on purpose.”
Fairgoers visiting the Wine Tent will also find brochures and other hand-outs detailing other activities and tourist attractions located near the wineries.
Located next door to the Illinois Wine tent is the Farmer’s Market, which features some of the finest produce from around the state, and, in the mean time, proves that fairgoers don’t have to go out of state to get the freshest fruit.
“Local producers are just as good as anybody else,” said Harry Alten, chairman for the Illinois Specialty Growers.” If they’re in season, they may be even better.”
All the fruits for sale, except the peaches which came from a producer in Virginia, are produced in state. For example, the apple cider came from Tanner’s Orchard in Speer and Curtis Orchard in Champaign-Urbana and the sweet corn is produced at Twin Gardens Farms in Harvard. Also for sale is Illinois-produced cantaloupe and watermelon and healthier snack options including popcorn, the popular egg-on-a-stick, garden salads and vanilla ice cream. Apple cider slushes are also available, which Alten said is the most popular item because of the heat.
Needless to say, the Farmer’s Market’s produce is also some of the healthiest of food options at the fair and a great alternative for both the young and old.
Alten relayed a story of a lady who came in with her 7-year-old son, who tried watermelon for the first time at the Farmer’s Market, a fruit he had previously didn’t like.
“He thought it was fair food,” he said. “Now he likes watermelon. ‘I can’t believe it, he ate the whole thing!’ she told me.”
All sugars in the produce are natural and the produce is not processed.
Besides selling Illinois-produced food, the Farmer’s Market also informs the fairgoers about fresh produce in their area. The Prairie Bounty of Illinois, a handout that lists farmer’s markets throughout Illinois, offers fairgoers a chance to purchase fresh produce outside of the fair. Brochures are also available on local orchards as well.