Illinois industry expands beyond expectations

Photo by Lee Riggs.
Gene Meyer checks grapes at Rolling Hills Vineyard.

For the past five years, Gene Meyer has not only grown and sold grapes from his own vineyard, Bay Creek Vineyard, but he has also managed Rolling Hills Vineyard, owned by Hope Baehr. The two vineyards in Pike County, Ill., are part of the dramatic growth of the state’s grape industry.

Meyer said, “For me, it’s just been way beyond anything I originally thought about.” Meyer’s 4-acre Bay Creek Vineyard is close to the average Illinois vineyard size of 4.6 acres, but combined with the 16 acres of grapes at Rolling Hills Vineyard, he grows grapes on 20 acres, a retirement project that requires a lot of work. In addition to establishing Bay Creek in 1999, Meyer restored Rolling Hills as it fell into neglect following the death of the owner.

Meyer was employed by Verizon Communications, where he serviced several counties in western Illinois and often saw Marchell Baehr working in his Rolling Hills Vineyard in New Salem, about 30 miles east of the Mississippi River. Meyer grew up in southeastern Missouri in an area known as the “bootheel,” and was eager to return to rural living. As retirement approached, he and his wife Kathy purchased 7 acres and built their retirement home in Pittsfield, a few miles south of New Salem. He often visited with Baehr and began learning about the vineyard; those conversations spurred Meyer’s interest in starting his own vineyard and led to his managing Rolling Hills as well.

Meyer said, “After Marchell passed away in 2001, Hope and her son, who lived in Pennsylvania, wanted to keep the vineyard. They had inexperienced people managing it for the first couple of years; the grapes suffered the effects of neglect. When she heard I was retiring, she asked me to take it on.”

Growing grapes

A number of Illinois vineyards have been developed in conjunction with wineries and are significant contributors to the state’s tourism base. Several wine trails have been established throughout the state and include the Southern Illinois Wine Trail, Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, Heartland Wine Trail and Northern Illinois Wine Trail.

Meyer’s focus, though, is on growing and selling grapes, and he sells about 100,000 pounds of them annually to Illinois wineries. The flat Illinois prairie gives way to rolling hills with deep valleys in western Illinois near the Mississippi River, and corn, soybeans and wheat grow across this part of the state, but the fields are smaller than in central and northern Illinois and are often cut through by woodlands or steep hills. The hillsides are perfect for growing grapes, according to Meyer. He said, “You grow grapes where you can’t grow other crops.” Several French hybrid grapes, a cross of French grapes with native American vines, and native American Norton grapes are grown.

While the vineyards are not part of a tourism package as a destination promotion, they are very much the center of community activity at harvesttime. All of the pickers at the two vineyards are local residents who come in to help out with the harvest. Hope serves an outdoor lunch to the pickers in keeping with traditional harvesttime activities in rural areas.

Picking usually starts in early August with the Edelweiss variety and runs through early October with Norton. This year’s wet conditions meant late harvests for almost all crops throughout the state, and grape harvesting continued through late October. Pickers use 5-gallon buckets, which are dumped into bins that hold approximately 900 pounds of grapes. Meyer drives the grapes to Illinois wineries, often exchanging the filled bins for empty ones.

Meyer has one part-time, year-round employee. Pruning, mowing and spraying take extensive time throughout the year. “We rotate our fungicides to avoid the plants getting immune to any one product,” Meyer said.

Although spraying at the vineyards usually averages eight or nine times annually, this year required 12 times due to the extremely wet conditions. “Vignoles particularly is susceptible to bunch rot,” Meyer said. “You have to preventive spray for that.” Other fungal problems surfaced this year, requiring the additional sprayings.

Establishing Bay Creek Vineyard

Meyer started Bay Creek Vineyard with .75-acre planted in 400 Chambourcin vines. “I got my cuttings from Alto Vineyard in southern Illinois,” Meyer noted, which was the first southern Illinois vineyard, established in 1988. Paul Renzaglia, president of the family-owned Alto Vineyard, is a past president of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association (IGGVA), formed to encourage support of the Illinois grape industry.

Bay Creek Vineyard is located at the northern edge of the climate zone where Chambourcin grapes grow well, according to Bill Shoemaker, University of Illinois Extension specialist. Shoemaker focuses on grape variety breeding for northern Illinois and heads up the University of Illinois grape breeding research facility in St. Charles, Ill.

Chambourcin is one of six varieties that make up more than 75 percent of the Illinois grape production.

Meyer said, “In about 2001, a friend told me I was going to have to either plant enough to justify expenses or get out of grapes,” Meyer said. So, he planted additional grapes, including 1 acre of Chardonel, .5-acre of Vignoles, .5-acre of Corot Noir and .25-acre of Marechal Foch. Meyer used rootstock from Double A Nursery in Fredonia, N.Y., to expand his vineyard.

Rolling Hills was early research site

“The University of Illinois set up test plots at Rolling Hills in the late 1990s,” Meyer said. The plots were part of a grant funded by Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education (SARE) to help increase grape production in north-central Illinois. The grant initially helped fund planting 10 acres of grapes.

The research plots included 12 plants each of several varieties of both table and wine grapes. “I’ve maintained the research plots to have some variety in the grapes for some novelty wines we make for our own use,” Meyer said.

Rolling Hills varieties are primarily Vignoles, Norton and Traminette. Shortly after taking over management of the vineyard, Meyer removed about 3 acres of Chardonel grapes that exhibited signs of neglect. He said, “Marchell planted them in the spring before he passed away, and they were neglected during the time they needed watering and other attention. There was only about half a stand. Chardonel had been somewhat overplanted in the state, and the market wasn’t that good, so I replaced them with Edelweiss, Corot Noir and New York 76.”

Meyer obtained Corot Noir and New York 76 rootstock from Double A Nursery, and Edelweiss rootstock from Concord Nursery in North Collins, N.Y.

Illinois regaining heritage of grape growing

Although grapes were commercially grown and wineries established in Illinois in the 1800s, commercial vineyards had pretty much disappeared in the state by 1980, a decline attributed in part to the enactment of prohibition in the United States.

Prohibition ended, but grape growing did not return to Illinois in any substantial form until about a decade ago, though a few fledgling vineyards were established in the 1980s.

A 2007 IGGVA survey indicated that grapes are grown on about 1,200 acres in the state, with more than 1,600 tons of grapes marketed by Illinois vineyards. The state has approximately 450 vineyards in 78 of the state’s 102 counties, and 90 percent of the vineyards have been established within the last decade. Vineyards and associated industries account for more than 2,000 full-time jobs. State funding to assist the grape industry through marketing and education was lost for a time, but was restored two years ago.

Meyer has served on the IGGVA board, and is president and a charter member of the Western Illinois Grape Producers Association, a growers’ cooperative formed in 2000. He said, “Its primary function is to help growers obtain more competitive prices on supplies by purchasing in larger quantities.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer in Mt. Zion, Ill.