Like fine wine: Grapes gone wild

By Aaron Wiens

With the fall harvest season approaching, some Illinois farmers are choosing to plant crops that require a little more pruning instead of repetitive planting.

Growing grape-producing vines has become an option for more local farmers because of the good climate for certain varieties of grapes and the good soil that makes up most of Illinois.

“Before Prohibition, Illinois was one of the top grape-producing states in the nation,” said John Weck, co-owner of the Hampshire Vineyard, 13 N. 245 Engel Road in Sycamore.

The vineyard switched over from mostly cattle and some vines in 1989 to all vines in 1994, Weck said.

“The cattle kept getting out and breaking down the fence,” he said.

The six acres of farm land can hold about 2,200 vines, which, when fully matured, may produce about 20 metric tons of grapes, he said. However, last year’s harvest was only about one ton.

“A big reason why our yield was low last year was because we did not prune the vines,” Weck said.

Last year, the weather did not cooperate with the Wecks either.

“With all of the flooding and late freezing last year, we did not have much of a harvest,” said Diane Weck, wife and co-owner of Hampshire Vineyard.

The vineyard is home to six different varieties of grapes, but the majority are Concords, Fredonias and Sheridans, she said.

“We have experimented with different kinds, and these seem to work best in our farm,” John Weck said.

Concord grapes are the common table grapes that most people eat.

Fredonia grapes are originally from New York and are a very sweet black grape, John Weck said.

Sheridan grapes are similar to Concords, but black.

The Wecks sell most of their grapes to the Prairie State Winery, 217 W. Main St. in Genoa, where owner and wine maker Rick Mamoser turns their sweet harvest into a tipsy delight.

“It takes one ton of grapes to make about 150 gallons of wine,” Mamoser said. “We make about 6,000 gallons a year.”

Illinois farmers have the option to grow grapes lately because the wine produced is a different kind of wine and is contrasting to those produced in California or Australia, he said.

“If anyone is thinking about starting a vineyard or winery, I’d say do it,” he said. “But you should start making wine first.”

First, figure out how to make wine that people like to drink and then grow those grapes, he said.

“Money can be made, but it is a lot of hard work, and you have to do your research,” he said.