“The business was started by people into wine — old hippies, starry-eyed folks,” says Majka, the current president of the wine trail association. “But I see it as a good sign that people interested in making money are interested in what I do.”
THE COLLISION of people who love wine and people who love money has caused its share of tension, but that’s true all over the Midwest, which has witnessed explosive growth in wineries. In a business where profit hinges on reputation, quality will inevitably get better, and Bob Foster, a professional wine judge in San Diego, says he’s witnessed an “amazing improvement” in Midwest wines.
“Some of the whites are just spectacular,” he says. “The reds, because of a shorter growing season but warmer temperatures, are much more challenging.” That said, Foster is impressed by some of the nortons and chambourcins produced in the region and has a couple of cases of those reds aging in his wine cellar. For the most part, though, the wines are unknown outside the region, he says — and that needs to change.
A retired California state prosecutor, Foster has served for the past three years as competition director for the Mid-American Wine Competition, an event held each year in Des Moines, Iowa, that has given wineries in a 16-state area an opportunity to showcase their best work. The competition draws more than 600 entries each year. In 2008, several Shawnee Hills wineries came back winners: Gold-medal recipients included Alto, for its 2003 chambourcin; Blue Sky, for a 2007 seyval; and StarView, for its 2005 norton. Owl Creek’s Bald Knob, a 2007 vintage chambourcin, was named the best red wine. (The southern Illinois wineries didn’t fare as well in 2009, earning no major prizes.)
Although the region has produced some widely acclaimed wines, there are embarrassments too. Some wines are fl awed through production blunders; some are overly sweet schlock. As author of the region’s successful application for an American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation — granted by the U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in 2006 — Wichmann is encouraging the region’s winemakers to raise their games by participating in blind tastings of each other’s products and comparable wines from other regions and accepting constructive criticism.
That’s easier said than done.
“The AVA meetings are like a soap opera,” Wichmann says, smiling. “There are a lot of big egos. If you had to ask me, one of the common denominators among the people who open wineries is having a big ego — a strong ego, anyway. Getting those egos together is a real challenge.”
Pomona’s George Majka was trained as a clinical psychologist, and that background helps when he runs wine trail association meetings.
“It’s kind of like a family,” he says. “Families can be dysfunctional. We didn’t exactly choose each other.” At the same time, winery revenues on the Shawnee Trail have grown by 28 percent per year since the mid- 1990s, Majka says, and that kind of growth “doesn’t happen from people squabbling.”
That’s Rochman’s attitude as well. “One winery doesn’t make a trail,” he says.
The Shawnee Hills wineries reflect the characters of their owners. Some are ambitious — Brad Genung, for example, says he wants to grow the Owl Creek brand more than tenfold (it’s doing about 12,000 gallons per year now). Others — such as Orlandini, who does about 2,400 gallons — are content where they are.