Smile Politely

A Trip to Prairie State Winery

Last summer, I made my family take a two hour detour to Genoa, Ill., so I could snag the perfect wine for our concert date. Chambourcin, like so many grapes, offers a spectrum of styles, depending on how the vintner crafts the vintage. Our double bill of k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett needed a classy, yet country summer red (we were only eating saucisson after all) that we could drink chilled at the hot outdoor venue. I made my crew head to Prairie State Winery to grab just the thing. Rick Mamoser’s 2006 Prairie Red, a lighter style Chambourcin, provided the kind of bright cherry and cola splash needed for humid summer nights. Its dry, boisterous personality kept to its roots as a country wine that avoided trying to be something it wasn’t.

I love this about all of Rick’s wines. While some are more to my taste than others, he excels at finding the balance needed for enjoyment with food. These are wines for everyday life, not some point-driven monsters, wrapped in the predicable new oak and slimy glycerin, sure to make the mainstream wine press pant like dogs. Rick shoots for a “brightness” on each of his wines, and tasting all his offerings, he showed consistent attention to preserving the character of the grape while imparting his style.

Like many Illinois producers, he started as a home winemaker, making apple wine from his neighbor’s orchard. He commented that grape wine is ideal because grapes provide everything needed for vinification. Making wine from other fruits is difficult, he says, because “you spend all your time convincing the yeast the fruit (apples, etc) are grapes.” He left his job as a high school chemistry teacher some years after Prairie State opened. They celebrated their 10th anniversary this July.

Here are some cool things about the operation:

  • Rick’s wife and brother-in-law are the only other employees.
  • Their new bottling and production facility is fully powered by their wind turbine (O.K., not fully but it is on windy days) and solar panels are on the way.
  • The city changed zoning for the windmill just for them, and now other downtown businesses are looking into it. Maybe they started a mini green revolution.
  • And although none of the wines qualify as certified organic, their vineyard outside Genoa runs with minimalist intervention.
  • Prairie State helped found Vintage Illinois, that wine festival September 20-21 you are all going to attend (Yeah party bus!).
  • All of Rick’s grape wines are 100% Illinois fruit.
  • And this isn’t so much a cool fact as a command: you have to drink the cranberry wine. It rules.

I tasted about two dozen wines on my visit. All of them were well-crafted. The balance between acid and sweetness impressed me in the sweeter wines. The dry wines all possessed refreshing acidity too. Rick manages his tannins well. Hybrids can sometimes be stemmy, but I didn’t notice that in one wine. It’s a really solid lineup. You may notice these are all 2007’s. They always sell out of last year’s wines.

Cranberry NV: Yeah, get over yourself. Super complex. Of course loads of cranberry on the nose but also tarragon, mint, kumquat, strawberry, lemon and pepper. Tannic and tart but balanced with sweetness and fruit. Roast a chicken and have at it. (or save some for turkey time.)

Cabernet Franc 2007: This should be released by the time this posts. Rick opened a bottle of this gold medal-winning red. Cab Franc from Illinois! I liked this as much as the last time. Deep black cherry and wet tobacco fill out the nose with smoky aromas giving way to the beautiful texture and great length. Impressive.

Prairie Red 2007: Bigger than the 2006 and a different style. This is built to age for a few years. 100% Chambourcin. A big brooding example with cherry, bramble and mint on the nose. Should open up with some cellar or decanter time. This is good stuff.

Seyval Blanc 2007: Seyval is often boring. Not here. Please don’t be put off by what I’m about to say – this is a really unique, and delicious wine. A nose of dill and sauerkraut with golden apples moves to biscuit and Meyer lemon mouth. What to do with a fermented cabbage wine you ask? Get some Moore Farm cheese brats, some stone ground mustard and don’t skimp on the kraut. It’s so good.

Maria’s Sangria NV: My standard moral opposition to pre-made sangria does not apply. This is key lime white sangria better than most ‘house’ margaritas in town.

Some of these wines are available in town, but the most recent vintages require a trip up north. Grab a few friends and make it a day trip. There is a charming tearoom open for lunch next to the winery in downtown Genoa. This is yet another passionate winemaker just on our doorstep. Stop being coy and DRINK LOCAL!

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