When thinking of a great wine, the vineyards of central Illinois don’t always creep to the front of one’s mind. However, Marsha Conner, owner of the Kickapoo Creek Winery, is helping to put central Illinois on the map for quality and delicious wines.
Conner was born and raised in Peoria, attending the Academy of Our Lady and St. Francis Medical Center College of Nursing. She and husband Dr. David Conner have two children—Tisha Conner who resides in Sarasota, Florida, and Rory Conner, who lives in Chicago.
“I’m a registered nurse and practiced nursing at intervals for 20 years,” Conner said. “My experience was in general medicine, but I especially enjoyed working in the Coronary Care and Emergency Room areas.”
Her husband had always had an interest in wine, being a member of several wine clubs, and realized that land he owned would be perfect for a vineyard in Illinois.
“Some of the acreage he owns was not suitable for the usual Illinois crops but appeared ideal for growing grapes,” Conner said. “After visiting many other wineries and vineyards, he decided the acreage would be excellent for growing grapes.”
Thus Kickapoo Creek Winery was born. The Conners started planting grapevines in the summer of 2003 and now tend to 13 acres of grapevines. Conner has been the manager of the winery since its opening in August 2005.
“We purchased Illinois grapes in the fall of 2003 and made wine on a small scale for our own use,” Conner said. “In the fall of 2004 we started making wine on a larger scale and opened the Tasting Room in August of 2005. Since it takes three to five years for a grapevine to produce suitable fruit, we are expecting to pick a partial crop of our own grapes this year.”
Unlike her husband, Conner had little knowledge about or interest in wines and winemaking before they established the vineyard and winery.
“Actually, I didn’t have an interest in winemaking, but as the business evolved people were needed for the various winemaking activities and I became interested in the process,” Conner said. “(David) has taken many classes on winemaking. Although I haven’t taken any classes, I have attended a number of seminars on winemaking and have read extensively on the subject.”
Some of her duties at the winery include assisting customers, managing staff, ordering retail items and maintaining wine inventory levels in the Tasting Room, ordering supplies for the wine bottling line, assisting with the winemaking process and pruning in the vineyard. She has also been the manager of Conner Nursery & Gardens for over 12 years, since it began in the summer of 1994.
“Our nursery specializes in hostas, we have approximately 500 different varieties,” Conner said. “I am a member of the Central Illinois Hosta Society and was an officer in the club for two years.”
Growing grapes in the central Illinois area is a science that requires work throughout the entire year. Late April and early May is the prime time for planting grapevines. Pruning is required during the summer to provide proper ventilation, maximum grape production and training of the vine. Vines are also pruned during the winter months. Soil testing is done during the off-season to determine what type of fertilization program is necessary.
According to Conner, there are some vital components that go into making a good wine which include:
- Good grapes. Most important—good wine is made in the vineyard!
- Variety. Choosing grape varieties that will grow to create the perfect balance between PH, total acidity and “bricks” or sugar.
- Yeast. Selecting the proper yeast for each specific grape.
- Add it up. Calculating the correct fermenting time.
There have also been many advances that make it possible for grapes to grow in different climates such as Illinois, which was once thought to be too harsh for grapevines.
“Hybridizers have been developing many new grapevine varieties by combining French or California varieties with cold-hardy American grapes that make a stronger grapevine for our Illinois climate,” Conner said. “Pioneering work in this field was done by a gentleman named Elmer Swenson at the University of Minnesota. Cornell University is also working on development of new cold-hardy varieties.”
The winery isn’t just winemaking and selling. Over the course of a few years, the winery has expanded in numerous areas, including a banquet and catering facility which opened in May 2006 with Chef Michael VanRaalte and Catering Manager Karen Wahl. Visitors can also take a walk through the winery’s beautiful walking trails and gardens and participate in some of the events that the winery plans throughout the year.
“We have many special activities at the winery,” Conner said. “Two of the most popular events last year were the Grape Stomp held in August and our Octoberfest/Art Fair in September. This year we are planning our first Jazz Fest on Sunday June 24.”
With the success and expansion of the Conners’ businesses, Marsha no longer practices nursing on a regular basis.
“Due to the demands of my managerial positions at the nursery and winery, I no longer have time to practice as a nurse,” Conner said. “However, with a full-time staff of 12 and a number of part-time employees, I sometimes call on my nursing skills for minor cuts and injuries at the winery.”
Kickapoo Creek Winery currently produces 10 different wines. Red October, a dry red, is one of Conner’s favorites. Jubilee Gold is a sweet white wine and is one of the winery’s top sellers. They also have two new dessert wines: Pizzazz is a combination of pear and raspberry and Dolce Regalo is a delicious new plum wine. There are also plans for a new fall wine and another Christmas wine debut.
Naming the wines is a joint effort with all of the winery’s staff involved. To arrive at a name, they first smell, taste and look at the appearance of a finished wine. When naming a wine, they try to really capture the personality of the wine and tie in the characteristics of the winery as well.
“Our first wines were named after hostas,” Conner said. “We have even used the Kickapoo Indian language and named one wine Nookeenay Meskwaai, which translates to “red shadow.” Finding an original name for the plum dessert wine was difficult. Since plums for the wine were from an Italian plum tree we choose the (Italian) name Dolce Regalo, which means “sweet gift.”
For directions and more information about Kickapoo Creek Winery, visit www.kickapoocreekwinery.com. tpw