If you're a wine drinker, you probably know that there are vineyards in every US state—yes, even Alaska. So it shouldn't surprise you that there are also vineyards in Illinois, despite its frigid winters. However, it IS a bit harder to find vineyards and wineries near Chicago, where the large swaths of land that do exist are dedicated to suburban sports parks and forest preserves.
That's partially why Valentino Vineyards in Long Grove, Illinois, is such a surprise. And I mean that quite literally. To get to the vineyard, my husband and I have to drive through a typical suburban Chicago neighborhood, down a two-lane street lined with parked cars. It's quite surprising to turn and suddenly find ourselves on a country road leading to the small vineyard.
We're there to meet my in-laws for a vineyard tour, wine seminar, and tasting that I got with one of our deals. Owner Rudolph "Rudy" Valentino DiTommaso and his wife, Vivian, greet us inside the large house on the property before Rudy whisks our group of 20 outside for a highly informative wine tour.
Rudy Valentino leads a tour group through his vineyard. Colleen Loggins Loster
Standing near a row of grape vines on a humid, drizzly day in July, we quickly learn that Rudy is passionate about wine making. He describes to us in detail how he uses a French bush method of training the grapes (straight rows, uniform heights). Then he rattles off the various types of grapes that he uses (vitis vinifera European-style grapes, French hybrids, and American hybrids). Where it gets interesting to the layman is when he talks about growing grapes in the challenging Illinois weather conditions.
Chicago winters can get very cold, with frequent wind chills below zero—a big difference from the winters in Napa Valley and other popular wine-growing regions. Luckily, many of Rudy's grapes have been bred to withstand freezing Illinois winters up to 35 below zero.
The grape vines that need some extra protection actually get buried under a heavy mulch compost that's shaped like a pyramid. In the winter, it's common to see tall pyramid-shaped mounds all across the grounds.
Rudy also talks to us at length about what makes his growing practices stand out from the competition.
"I'm growing this vineyard as organically as I possibly can," he says, adding that he eschews non-organic fertilizers and fungicides. He's not technically certified organic; for instance, the milk he uses on his vineyard is not organic (more on that below), but he does what he can to stick to organic growing practices.
He then points out the numerous patches of clover on the ground, explaining to us that clover is really good at putting nitrogen back into the ground.
"Notice how green the grass is by the clover? That's why," Rudy says.
My mother-in-law seems delighted to hear this. "I thought he just had a lot of weeds," she whispers to me.
And actually, he does. That's part of the deal when you no longer use herbicides on your property. "Let the weeds grow!" Rudy says.
To fight powdery mildew, Rudy does something unusual to the untrained eye: he sprays down the vineyard with milk. Specifically, he mixes gallons of milk from the local grocery store with water and sprays the mixture over the vines.
To combat Japanese beetles, Rudy uses an expensive organic insecticide made of African chrysanthemum flower pyrethrin.
Rudy also won't let tour groups actually walk into the cellar after touring the vineyard because of the potential bacteria people can introduce into the wine. He says he wants his wine to be as pure as possible.
Rudy and his wife, Vivian, tend to customers after the tour, seminar, and tasting. Colleen Loggins Loster
We wrap up outside and head back up to the house for our tasting session and a video that explains the wine-making process.
We learn that all the wines at Valentino Vineyards are produced and bottled onsite, and that the winery is gravity-fed, which allows the wine to be moved around much more gently than wine that is pumped through machines. According to Rudy, using pumps introduces unwanted oxygen into the wine, leading to oxidation.
Next, we sip our first wine, a 2015 seyval blanc. It's between a semi-dry, semi-sweet white with an above-average alcohol content, 13.9% vs. the traditional 13%. It's tasty and not too sweet. Surprisingly, it burns a tiny bit going down, but in a pleasant way.
Rudy's goal is to teach our group of 20 how to properly taste wine, including how to press the wine glass to our philtrums and really deeply inhale to discern the flavor notes.
It's a bit shocking to actually pick out honey and oak notes, something that I thought was just a lie from pretentious wine drinkers. Apparently, you can't only sniff somewhere above the rim of the glass, which is what I had been doing during other wine tastings.
We also learn that "stemless wine glasses are useless" because they allow the heat from your hands to warm up the wine. "I'm here to make wine connoisseurs of you," Rudy says in a determined voice.
While we taste three more wines—a smooth rosé, a chocolatey marechal foch reserve red, and an oaky signature label red—we learn that Rudy's wine is low in sulfites.
"Sulfites occur naturally," Rudy explains. "The problem occurs when wineries add too many sulfites." That, he says, leads to such side effects as headaches.
Plenty of wineries add sulfites in order to prevent bacteria from growing in the wine, and it's typically a high amount. In fact, Rudy says that he doesn't drink any store-bought wine because of the high sulfites and how poorly he feels afterward.
Instead, he sticks to his wine because although he adds some sulfites, he keeps the actual amount "very low."
"We have doctors and dentists who like to have wine on the weekends, but they have to perform surgery on Monday and be 100% fine. So they drink my wine," he says proudly.
We move on to our fifth and final wine, a port white with a high alcohol content that warms the stomach. It's pretty delicious. But despite the high alcohol content and the five pours we've just enjoyed, it's quite clear that you come to this place to expand your wine knowledge, not to get drunk.
And that seems to be OK with this group. They've been asking thoughtful questions throughout and leave smiling, arms laden with bottles to enjoy at home.