When you think of vineyards, you probably think of California. But with the extraordinary surge of wine producers cropping up in Illinois over the past few years, it won’t be long before “Illinois” and “wine” are synonymous. While difficult to keep up with this fast-growing sector, it’s estimated the Illinois wine industry currently features almost 60 wineries and approximately 300 grape growers.
There are several wineries right here in central Illinois, including Furrow Vineyard & Winery in El Paso. And though the wine business is a relatively new venture for the Furrows, they have decades of business experience. “We’ve owned everything from a restaurant to a grain elevator, and we still manage a trucking company in El Paso,” said Wayne Furrow, president and winemaker at Furrow. “So starting a business was nothing new to us.”
He said the idea of creating a winery came about six or seven years ago while the family was on vacation. “My father, Wally Furrow, made a comment about wineries in Illinois and that maybe we should look into starting one. My father and I had been thinking about starting a business that hopefully would be profitable and here for our children when we leave. And since farming isn’t what it used to be, we went for it. A few grapevines later—and a lot of learning and hard work—we created Furrow Vineyard and Winery.”
He said first and foremost, Furrow Winery is a family business. “The decision to go into the winemaking business was made through many family meetings and discussions. Even the name of the winery was voted on be the whole family. My father and I are president and vice president of the winery, and we really started this business in hopes that it would be around for our children and grandchildren if they wanted it. My aunt, Judy Stimpert, created and runs our beautiful and unique gift shop, and my mother, Lorene Furrow, keeps track of the books and money. My son, Wade Furrow, and daughter, Thayre Melick, also work at the winery full time while my wife and two younger children help on some weekends and during special events.”
When starting any business, Furrow said there are always doubts in an entrepreneur’s mind, but he’s confident in his family’s decision regarding its newest venture. “We did a lot of research before we started the winery, but learning to be a winemaker has been very challenging. Basically, I started from scratch, and I must admit I’m still learning.”
Furrow said the process of turning grapes into the wine on your dinner table is both simple and complicated. “In an abbreviated version, the grapes are processed and squeezed into juice first. Then, we use yeast to ferment the juice into wine. Next, we clarify the wine, add a secret ingredient, bottle the wine, and sell it.”
The company makes all of its own wines—currently 21 different varieties, he said. White wines include Chardonnay, Ole Farm White, Seyval, Grand Prairie, Chardonnel, Riseling, Illinois Vignoles, Niagara, American Vignoles, and Vidal Blank.
Blush wines include Catawba, White Zinfandel, and Blush Table Wine. Red wines include Panther Creek, Ole Barn Red, Concord, Norton, Chambourcin, and Merlot. In addition, various fruit wines are available.
Critics and the public have responded very favorably to this relatively new winery, as evidenced by the number of awards the wines have received:
• Chardonnay (dry)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair.
• Ole Farm White (dry)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair; Silver Medal Winner, 2002 Indy International Wine Competition.
• Niagara (semi-sweet)—Gold Medal Winner, 2003 Illinois State Fair; Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair; Silver Medal Winner, Indy International Wine Competition.
• Vidal Blanc (sweet)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2003 Illinois State Fair; Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair; Bronze Medal Winner, Indy International Wine Competition.
• Catawba (semi-sweet)—Silver Medal Winner, 2003 Illinois State Fair; Gold Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair; Silver Medal Winner, 2002 Indy International Wine Competition.
• Blush Table Wine (sweet)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair.
• Panther Creek (dry)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair.
• Ole Barn Red (semi-dry)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2003 Illinois State Fair.
• Concord (sweet)—Silver Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair.
• Norton (dry)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2003 Illinois State Fair; Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair; Silver Medal Winner, 2002 Indy International Wine Competition.
• Chambourcin (dry)—Bronze Medal Winner, 2003 Illinois State Fair; Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Illinois State Fair; Bronze Medal Winner, 2002 Indy International Wine Competition.
Furrow said his best-selling wine is Catawba, a semi-sweet blush wine. “Many people in central Illinois are new to this wine thing, too, and haven’t yet acquired a taste for the drier wines. However, we do sell a lot of our Ole Barn Red, and it’s a semi-dry wine.”
In addition to wine, the Furrow Winery experiences also includes a gift shop—and you never know what special events will be going on. “We have a very elaborate gift shop at our winery. We sell flower arrangements, unique and lovely gift items, and gourmet foods, along with cheese and crackers. We also hold special events at our winery. We have an annual grape stomp in August that gives people the chance to be like I Love Lucy and stomp grapes in a large tub while listening to a great outside band. In late September, we have an Oktoberfest, and we feature different bands, create a special Oktoberfest wine, and serve beer and bratwursts. In the winter months, we have different bands play in the back room, and sometimes we have murder mystery dinner theatres. We’ve also had weddings and private parties at our winery too.”
Furrow said the best part about owning and operating the winery is meeting all the people who come through. “In the future, we hope to produce more wines and maybe someday add a restaurant and banquet room.” AA!