Fighting fluctuating winter temperatures

The Illinois wine grape industry has grown substantially in recent years, complementing a small number of older, established vineyards in several regions of the state. Central and northern Illinois require cold-hardy varieties, and increased grape research and breeding programs are ongoing to find varieties that will grow best in northern Illinois. Growing grapes through cold Illinois winters with fluctuating temperatures remains a major challenge at Kickapoo Creek Winery.

Kickapoo Creek Winery is located just outside Peoria, in the rolling hills of western Illinois, where it gets its name from meandering Kickapoo Creek. Conner is a retired doctor who specialized in hand surgery in Peoria. When he started thinking about buying a retirement property, he still needed to be within a short driving distance of Peoria hospitals. He found the 250-acre farm with about 130 tillable acres located just a 12-minute drive from Peoria. The farm had been used most recently for a thoroughbred race horse breeding operation, and upon retirement, Conner started a cattle operation.

“I got tired of chasing cows,” he said. “I’ve always liked to grow things, so I started a nursery business. At one time we had 500 hostas and a variety of other plants. There was a lot of competition in the nursery business, and somebody mentioned that grapevines would look really nice on the hillsides.”

Starting grape production

Grapevines on the hillsides sounded interesting to Conner, so he set out to learn about growing grapes. He visited a number of vineyards and consulted with experts. To gain a thorough understanding, he enrolled in an online program of study on viticulture and enology. VESTA, the online program, is supported by the National Science Foundation and is a partnership of the Missouri State University system and two-year colleges, state agricultural agencies with vineyards and wineries in surrounding states.

Testing of the mostly timber soil was done prior to planting to determine soil needs. The soil is naturally somewhat acidic, which grapes like, and the sloping terrain provides good drainage.

“We used a ripper to work up the soil 5 inches to 6 inches down before we seeded the bluegrass,” Conner said. Bluegrass paths were seeded between the locations for rows of grapevines.

Grapevine plants were obtained from a University of Minnesota licensed nursery and from Double A Vineyards in Fredonia, N. Y. Plants were placed in a hole that had been made by an auger with standard spacing 8 feet apart with about 10 feet between rows. Newly planted grapevines were protected by Snap N’ Grow tubes that protected them during the first growing season. Additionally, the growing tubes protect the vines from rabbits or other animals during the critical growing time when they are tender and vulnerable, and the tubes assist in vine training.

“We remove them in the late summer so the vines can harden,” Conner said. Conner retains some of the reusable growing tubes for replacement plantings and sells some to other vineyards. Both high-wire and vertical shoot positioning (VSP) trellising are used with the grapes.

Pruning is started in the fall after a hard frost and continues over winter. A regular preventive pesticide spray schedule begins with a dormant spray and continues through the growing season. Two full-time employees work in the vineyard year-round, and three part-time employees help with pruning. College students often fill in as part-time help, and pickers are drawn mostly from an available local labor market.

Drip irrigation is used primarily during establishment. Two lakes collect runoff water and are supplemented by wells as needed for irrigation. Underground 2-inch pipes were already in place from the nursery operation to carry water to the vineyard. Water is carried to the rows in .5-inch black PVC pipes that run along the wires, and spaghetti tubing is used for the water to drip down to the ground with a spike at ground level. Illinois normally receives ample rainfall and snowfall, and although irrigation usually isn’t necessary after establishment, it is used during droughts.

“I used irrigation in 2008 during our really dry weather,” Conner said.

Visitors tour the vineyard riding on a modified trailer named “The Grape Train.”

Growing wine grapes

Establishing his 13-acre vineyard based on science, Conner planted a demonstration garden the first year to evaluate the cold hardiness of a number of varieties. He continues the demonstration garden, which offers visitors an opportunity to see the differences in cold weather survival of the different varieties.

Through continual evaluation, he identified grape varieties that worked best in his vineyard in the western Illinois location. Kickapoo Creek Winery lies just to the northwest of the Illinois River. That quadrant of Illinois is often identified on weather maps for more severe winter storms with higher amounts of snow and colder temperatures.

Grapes are grown with high-wire trellising.
Photo courtesy of Karmen Riggs.
Dave Conner bottles his award-winning wine.
Kickapoo Creek Winery.

“The fluctuating temperatures of our cold winters are the biggest challenge to growing grapes here,” Conner said. Illinois winter temperatures often fluctuate between bitter cold and above freezing.

Norton, Sabrevois, St. Pepin, St. Croix, Cayuga and LaCrescent are among the grapes that survived the winters well. Chardonel, a late-ripening white grape, did not grow well. According to a review of cold weather cultivars by Iowa State University Extension, Chardonel was found to be only moderately hardy and recommended for locations with a long growing season. Conner is currently in the process of replacing the Chardonel vines with Prairie Star, which has exhibited better winter survival rates.

About 610 grapevines are currently growing, including both American and French hybrids in white and red varieties. Kickapoo Creek Winery’s first commercial grape crop was picked in 2008.

Grape harvest begins about the first of September. Grapes are picked in 1-bushel totes, and the totes are picked up in the field and hauled to a fully air-conditioned building built into the hillside, where the grapes are kept at a temperature of about 50 to 55 degrees before processing.

“The earth covering helps keep it cool,” Conner said. The totes are dumped into 1,000-pound bins, and they are taken out to the destemmer and crusher before being moved into the winery to the fermentation tanks.

Marketing wine

Kickapoo Creek Winery sells wine on-site in its tasting room, where a gift shop also carries specialty items, including cheeses, jellies and other products. Kickapoo Creek Nort Noir won the 2008 Governor’s Cup best Illinois dessert wine. Kickapoo Creek Winery offers banquet facilities, and the banquet business was recently expanded, as it acquired the catering business for the banquet facilities at the adjacent Wildlife Prairie State Park center.

Destination-type winery activities are offered with vineyard tours, tasting room gift shop and walking trails. Visitors tour the vineyards riding on The Grape Train, a specially adapted trailer to carry visitors. The walking trails wind through the property and include an attractive footbridge built by Conner’s brother, Gerald, who frequently lends a hand at the winery. Conner has three adult children, and his son, Rory, recently joined him in the business.

The Illinois Wine Growers and Vintners Association promotes several wine trails throughout the state, and Kickapoo Creek Winery participates in the Illinois River Wine Trail that starts south of Chicagoland and follows the Illinois River Road Scenic Byway.

Conner is a member of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, where he has served on the board of directors. He is also a member of the Iowa Wine Growers Association and Minnesota Wine Growers Association.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.