Mackinaw Valley Vineyard and Winery is truly a family-run business. Though I am the current general manager, it began as the vision and dream of my late husband. Paul founded the winery in 2003 when he opened our tasting room to the public, and we managed the business together for many years. When he passed away from colorectal cancer in 2016, two of our children got even more involved with the daily operations: Eric handles the winemaking and cares for the vineyards, and Carly is the tasting room and gift shop manager. Many friends have become like family over the years—including Ben Chase, who manages our social media presence with help from his wife Sue.
We love that our business is known for being family-friendly. During a typical year, the vineyard hosts many weddings, receptions, parties and social events. Weekly concerts in the summertime and three annual festivals offer something for everyone, and in the cooler months, the tasting room is used for murder mystery dinners, painting and craft classes, trivia nights, and small parties and events. This past December, our Luminary Stroll evenings with Santa and Mrs. Claus became a new holiday favorite!
Like most farming operations, the agricultural component of our business follows the natural cycle of growth and harvest. Grapes are perennial plants with a long lifespan. Our vineyard cultivates French-American hybrids that were developed at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota for cold climate tolerance down to -30 degrees. The more famous wine grapes—varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Chardonnay—cannot tolerate the extreme cold winters of central Illinois, so Midwestern wines are not made with these grapes. We grow their cold-weather “cousins” instead: Corot Noir or Baco Noir instead of Pinot Noir, for example, or Seyval Blanc, which is similar in taste to Sauvignon Blanc.
The vineyard side of the business began 24 years ago when Paul began planting the vineyards. They now encompass about 15 acres with 20 different varietals on our 86-acre farm. The harvesting is done by hand with family, staff and volunteer groups and lasts about six weeks, depending on production and available labor—typically mid-August through late September. The grapes are crushed and processed at harvest, and fermentation begins at that time.
During the fall and winter months, the wines are racked, tested, filtered and blended, depending on the desired wine. Wines from the 2020 harvest will be bottled this spring. There are usually about 25 wines to taste, though some are very small batches and sell out quickly. Our Edelweiss white wine is one example of a small-batch favorite. Winery tours and tasting experiences can be scheduled for groups to learn more about viticulture, Midwestern winemaking and wine appreciation.
Sense of Community
2020 was a challenging year. It was difficult to be essentially closed with only over-the-counter sales until the end of May. Once the grounds were open for outdoor use, the large park-like property and outdoor porches and decks allowed visitors a wonderfully picturesque space to relax with a glass of wine while maintaining social distancing. Although summer attendance was lower than usual, people appreciated having a safe place to enjoy an outdoor visit with friends.
My biggest takeaway from 2020? I feel blessed to live in an area where people really tried to support us as we worked within the parameters we were given. Even with that chaotic atmosphere, I felt a strong sense of community. My family and our staff look forward to a better year in 2021—and to once again assisting many local nonprofits with their fundraising efforts, including Easterseals, Special Olympics, the Heller Center for Kids with Cancer, Lutheran Social Services and Colorectal Cancer Life. We invite you to come visit soon to experience all the vineyard and winery have to offer. PM