One the best things about being in C-U in the summer is that there is some sort of festival just about every weekend from June to Labor Day. This year’s newest festival, Uncork Urbana Wine Festival, organized by the Urbana Business Association and the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, was a lovely addition, and offered a slightly more sophisticated take on outdoor public summer drinking.
The festival was set up in the Busey Bank parking lot on the corner of Elm and Main; the small space created an intimate atmosphere. By the time I arrived at 3 p.m., there was a fairly decent crowd (the event began at 1 p.m.). Entry was $10, and with that I received a commemorative wine glass and five tickets for samples. Additional tickets for samples were $1.
Nine different wineries were there, with plenty of bottles on and off ice for samples, and many more available for purchase. There was a small stage set in the northwest corner of the parking lot with musical guests lined up for the entire event. A medium-sized tent took up most of the south side of the parking lot, under which were some tables and a food table run by Common Ground Food Co-op. I didn’t realize that there was food under the tent; perhaps I’m a lush, but I’d like to think that it was because the tent was super crowded and I couldn’t see beyond the bodies. And it was super sunny. Not knowing about the food meant that I spent all my time drinking wine.
The weather could not have been more perfect for this sort of event. It wasn’t blazing hot, and there was a slight breeze. People seemed to be in good spirits, and the atmosphere was jovial. There were short lines at each booth, but most booths had more than one person working, and they (and the lines) moved quickly. Most of the wineries had water to rinse out the glasses and most people behind the tables rinsed out the glasses before pouring their wine into it.
Some wineries were more willing and/or able to talk about their wines. At each booth I asked to try that winery’s signature wine — the one and only wine from their winery I should try. At all but two booths (Alto Vineyards and August Hill), I was met with a series of follow-up questions: what do you like? Dry or sweet? White or red? And at each table I indicated that I had no preference, I just wanted to try their signature stuff. At a few tables the back and forth became ridiculous, and I ended up choosing more or less at random. I found that bit quite frustrating. As far as I’m concerned, each winery needs to be able to answer that question. If I’m new to the world of wine, I might not know what I like. Give me an entrance.
The first wine I sampled was from Wyldewood Cellars (Mulvane, Kansas); there is a tap room located in in St. Joseph, but the wine is made in Kansas. When I asked for the signature wine, the response was as I indicated above, but was at least narrowed down to sweet or dry elderberry wine. I opted for the sweet, and man, was it sweet. It was basically juice. I can’t say that this is something I’d drink more than one glass of, but it might be something nice to cook with in a sweet application, like a coulis or some sort of boozy dessert.
At the Kickapoo Creek Winery table, I sampled their award-winning Norton, named for the grapes from which it was made, a semi-sweet red with notes of plum and pepper. It had a woody nose, but wasn’t particularly woody or oaky upon drinking it. The initial sip was ever so slightly bitter, with tart fruity notes in the middle, and a peppery finish. It was pretty good. I also had the chocolate raspberry dessert wine, and it tasted like the syrupy filling found in some chocolates, or Chambord. I also tried the Dave—yes, that is indeed what it is called—which was a strawberry infused wine. Dave was pink, smelled like candy, and tasted like artificial strawberry. Honestly, I couldn’t move beyond the name and all of the innuendoes in ‘drinking Dave’, or ‘putting Dave in my mouth’, or ‘swallowing Dave’. It was just too much.
Vahling Vineyards, located in Stewardson (between Mattoon and Effingham), brought several fruit wines including a lemon wine and a rhubarb wine (both too sweet). The Deer Head, a dry red, had a very woody nose, but fell a little flat for me.
Kite Hill’s Chambourcin was given to me with the instruction to have a sip, then have a couple of semi sweet chocolate chips, and try the wine again. A neat party trick, it was, as the wine was initially dry, but after the chocolate was fruity and slightly sweet. It was a very drinkable wine.
August Hill Winery (Peru and Utica, IL) had an immediate response to the signature wine question: their Berlyn. The semi-sweet red was a little sweet, but not too much so. It was very easy to drink. I also tried the Ravat 51, a fruit white with strong tropical fruit notes. It reminded me too much of a candle. Their presentation was lovely, and the most sophisticated of all the tables.
The line at the Sleepy Creek Vineyards (Oakwood) table was lengthy, and it was pretty clear that Sleepy Creek was like the cool cousin at a family reunion—you know, the cousin everyone wants to catch up with or hang around because s/he is the most interesting person at the party. Last summer I reviewed the vineyard’s wines, and you can read up on that at your leisure. At Saturday’s event, though, there was a new wine not available last year: Sol. Sol was a super, super sweet white wine that poured like syrup. It was lovely, although incredibly sweet, and at 14.25% ABV, a quick way to hangover if not sipped in moderation.
Alto Vineyards also had a table, and even though their vineyard is in Southern Illinois, there is a tasting room in Champaign. Alto Vineyards was the other winery to have an answer to the signature wine question. Their signature wine was the Chambourcin, a dry red. Alto Vineyards was the first winery in Illinois (opened in 1987), and the Chambourcin was the first wine made. The nose was strong, but the taste was pretty mild, and a little thin.
JT Walker’s Brewery was there, too, and although I didn’t have any of the beer on this occasion, people were excited about it enough finish off all of the Orange & Brew, forcing a delivery from Mahomet around 4 p.m. Impressive. (You can read up on some of the JT Walker’s brews here.)
After several samples, I desperately needed some water and food. Had I only been paying a bit more attention I could have gotten some antipasto skewers from the Common Ground table, but I don’t think that a skewer or two would have been enough. I needed some real food to help absorb some of the wine I was pounding back, and I think there is some room to grow in the way of food vendors in the future. Maybe it’s the addition of some food trucks, or maybe some restaurants or caterers are willing to set up tables. Likewise, there were some tables near the stage and under the tent, but I think there could have been a few more. It was warm out, and the addition of a few more tables would have allowed more people to sit down with full glasses of wine and enjoy the musical entertainment.
Although there are a few places in which the festival can adjust and grow, I had a good time and was able to sample a variety of Illinois-based wines. The event was a deal — ten dollars got me a glass and five tickets, which was five dollars worth of samples. I realize that most people were not there to sample every single wine available, but after sampling five to eight (maybe nine or ten) wines, my palate was shot, so I decided to call someone to pick me up. It was a nice way to get little or a lot tipsy on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, my hangover kicked in at about 7 p.m., and yes, I fell asleep shortly thereafter, but it was such a nice day, and totally worth it.
All photos courtesy of Sam Logan.