It has been about a month-and-a-half since Fred Koehler passed away, and I still think about him every time I see a bottle of domestic wine that isn’t from California, Oregon or Washington.
Several other states are making very good wine on a pretty consistent basis these days—New York, Virginia and Texas, among others—but the West Coast states are the ones we’re most likely to think of when the topic is “American wines.”
One state we’re almost certain not to think about in that regard is Illinois. That’s where Fred Koehler not only made wine at his Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Ill., but helped shape an entire industry through his pioneering planting of grapevines and his willingness to help other wineries get started.
Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune wrote a nice tribute a few days following Koehler’s passing on July 16. You can read it here.
In that story, Daley related a story that Koehler once told him.
“People walk into the winery with their noses in the air,” Koehler said. “People walk in thinking Illinois wines can’t be good. They’re surprised.”
I had that very experience in June when I visited Lynfred Winery for the first time. I shared the tasting room with a couple from California, who were enthusiastically telling tales of their visits to Beringer, The Hess Collection, Silverado Vineyards and several other Napa Valley estates.
They obviously weren’t expecting much at Lynfred. I was trying to figure out why they’d even bothered to drop in. And then they sampled a pour of Lynfred’s Chardonnay—I think it was the 2008 vintage—they looked at each other, and fell silent for a moment. It was if they didn’t know what to say, because what they’d say was likely to be complimentary.
Finally, the woman spoke up and said, “That’s really good.” It almost sounded more like a question than a statement, but with just one sip, Koehler’s crew had another convert.
Many of Lynfred’s wines—and Lynfred makes a lot of wines—are crafted from grapes grown in other states. The simple fact is that not all grape varieties fare well in Illinois’ climate. But Fred Koehler’s goal simply was to make good wine that people would enjoy…some from Illinois grapes, some not.
And he did it for more than 30 years.
I’m happy to report that Lynfred Winery continues to operate. Lynfred actually has four tasting rooms in Illinois, one of which includes a four-suite bed-and-breakfast, and all are easily accessible from Chicago.
My favorite Lynfred wine? A tasty concoction of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that’s called “Fred’s Red” and sells for $10 at the winery.
I obviously have no future as a wine snob.
Have you ever tried a wine from a state other than California, Oregon or Washington? What kind? From what state? How did you like it? Share you experiences in the comments box below.