September is Illinois Wine Month (one of the worthy things former Governor Rod Blagojevich instituted before being sent off to jail), so the timing seems ripe for a look at Illinois Wines & Wineries by DePaul University professor Clara Orban.
Although most people wouldn’t think first of Illinois as a great wine-producing state, as it happens, the Land of Lincoln is home to more than 125 vineyards and wineries. In fact, as Orban notes, the wine culture here is more than a century old, really taking hold in the early twenty-first century, although its roots were laid in the eighteenth century. Before Prohibition all but destroyed the wine culture (not just in Illinois, but across the country), Illinois was the fourth largest wine-producing state in the Union. Today, Illinois’s wineries and vineyards represent a $253 million industry.
Orban, a professor of French and Italian and a certified sommelier, shares an easily digestible history of Illinois’s wine-producing roots in this handy guide. In addition to tackling the history of wine and vineyards in Illinois, Orban explains the basics of wine production as well as information about bottles, stoppers, and labels. She also dives into issues relating to purchasing, storing, and tasting wine, and she discusses more than two dozen varieties of Illinois grapes. Readers also will find suggestions for food and wine pairings in these pages, and a glossary and index help round-out the information. In these five short chapters, Orban covers a vast topic in an accessible way, providing something for wine novices, enthusiasts, and experts alike.
The bulk of the book—about 75 percent—is dedicated to profiles of various Illinois wineries and vineyards. This section is arranged by region, with the state divided into four sections: northern, central, south central, and southern. Roughly a hundred wineries and vineyards are profiled, with each profile providing such information as a brief history of the venue, information about the owners, details about grapes and wines available, and contact information and directions.
Illinois Wines & Wineries is more informative than evaluative; Orban presents the information in a rather matter-of-fact way with little in the way of editorializing. Readers won’t find insight in these pages about her favorite wines or vineyards. Rather, the guide presents details in an objective manner, providing readers with an easy-to-understand handbook to touring Illinois wine country from north to south.
That’s not to say that Illinois Wines & Wineries is dull or flat. To the contrary, Orban has packed this manageable volume with interesting details about grape varieties, wineries, vineyards, soil, owners, and on and on. In the many concise profiles, readers will learn details such as the fact that City Winery in Chicago was the first operational winery within city limits. They’ll learn that Lynfred Winery, headquartered in Roselle, is the oldest continually operating winery in Illinois. And, they’ll learn that Baxter’s Vineyard in Nauvoo was the first winery in the state, having been established in 1857.
Although one certainly could read Illinois Wines & Wineries from cover to cover in one sitting, this is a guide meant to be referred to time and time again. Wine enthusiasts who enjoy visiting wineries and vineyards can easily use the guide to plan routes for day trips or weekends. Those who are looking for longer trips will find the regional sections and accompanying maps useful for planning wine-oriented vacations.
With the locovore movement gaining more and more traction seemingly every day, foodies might well think about drinking local as well. In Illinois Wines & Wineries, Orban provides readers with a wealth of information about local wines that can grace their tables at home as well as those that can be found in restaurants and wine shops across the state.
Packed with about 150 color photographs, the guide is as pretty to thumb through as it is easy to read. Orban has in Illinois Wines & Wineries provided readers with a handy guide that should be read, saved, and perhaps even tossed in the glove compartment for easy reference when driving around Illinois in search of a good bottle of wine.
June 2014, SIU Press
$22.95, paperback, 204 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.”