On the Road with Illinois Rosé

6.19 August Hill Winery Chambourcin Rosé with Ken Myszka, Epiphany Farms

“It’s a beautiful day!”

Ken Myszka is always on the move. He rolled up on the Downs, IL farm property late in the afternoon, apparently having just finished up a business meeting.  nortonHowever, the minute he hopped out of the truck, you could see a calm enthusiasm wash over him. He’s clearly happiest when surrounded by the farm. We were quickly off and running, checking out his new hazelnut plantings, the original farm site, various veggie plots, and at last (hooray!) the vineyard.

Ken is the founder of the Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group, a restaurant and events collaborative with a real, committed focus to the promotion of locally-grown food. They go a step beyond the typical farm to table place by actually producing much of the food they serve. In fact, one of the core principles of this business is that everybody on the team, from the president to chefs to the servers, commits a significant amount of time working on the farm as well. downloadKen himself wears a lot of hats, including Owner, Business Manager, Marketing Guru, Chef, and Farmer. He’d be the first to share that it’s a group effort, and gives a lot of credit for his success to his team, but it’s clear that he’s the engine that keeps this machine running. This reminds me a lot of many of our small farm wineries, where the owners are the main employees, and serve as the owners, business managers, marketing directors, grape growers, wine makers, event coordinators, and tasting room staff. It’s really tough to make it work, and you have to have an absolute passion for the work to succeed.

I chose August Hill Winery’s Chambourcin Rosé for Ken for a few reasons. Ken and Mark Wenzel (owner/winemaker at August Hill) share that many-hats entrepreneurial spirit I discussed above, but they also both dedicate themselves to the idea that just being local isn’t enough – you have to produce something amazing. August Hill Winery first opened their doors in 2002, and over the last 15 years it has been a real privilege to get to watch them grow into leaders of the Illinois wine industry. They’ve even added to a new brand, Illinois Sparkling Co., which has really found a way to maximize the potential of northern Illinois wine grape cultivars.

IMG-0774When I poured the wine, Ken was instantly thrilled by the gorgeous color and intensely floral nose. I could tell by his reaction that he was surprised by the taste on the palate.  “Wow!  That is really crisp! I was expecting something sweet from the nose.” I asked him if that tartness sends him any kind of message.  “Absolutely!  This wine is begging for food.” Ken currently runs three restaurants: Epiphany Farms, Anju Above, and Old Bank.  Each have their own distinct personality, and I asked him where he thought this wine would be most at-home.  “Definitely Anju Above.  It’s an upbeat place, with a creative menu which includes sushi, salads, artisan pizzas, and Korean dishes. The food we serve there is completely fun, but also unlike anything else you’re likely to find in central Illinois. This wine would work with so many dishes we serve there, from sushi to pork buns to bbq pizza.”

I get that sentiment. This rosé is soooooooo good on its own, but the flavor intensity and bracing acidity would stand up well to a wide variety of foods without getting lost in the sensory experience. This wine is also a past Governor’s Cup winner for Rosé at the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition, and takes home a lot of hardware from competitions all around the country.

I could tell I got Ken’s wheels turning a little. He mentioned that he would love to feature great local wines like this at his restaurants at some point in the future. I think lots of local restaurants would like to feature more Illinois wine, but struggle with the choices they have. With over 100 wineries each producing anywhere from 10 to 50 wines, it’s difficult to know what will work for them, and sometimes even harder to get the wines they want for a whole host of other reasons. By creating a single, quality-assured signature style, this project will hopefully help these folks find their way to Illinois wines, and start developing long-term relationships with great Illinois wineries!


My wife and I recently visited the August Hill tasting room in downtown Utica, right next to the beautiful Starved Rock State Park.  It’s a really impressive space, and the wines, food, and service are all outstanding.  I highly recommend a visit! Thanks to August Hill Winery and Ken Myszka for their time, and our project sponsors for their support:

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On the Road with Illinois Rosé

6.10 – Blue Sky Vineyard 2017 Rosé with The Brazilionaires!

“I was thrilled with the crowd last night!”

I met up with Rico Johnson and Dove Benoit, founders of the outstanding Brazilian dance/party sensation known as The Brazilionaires, at their swanky Bossa Nova Pad a day after they headlined the Pour Bros fest in Peoria Heights, IL. bzaThe weather was perfect for this outdoor performance, and an enormous crowd showed up for a three-hour tour of bossa nova standards, originals, and creative covers of popular music in a traditional Brazilian style. The Brazilionaires have a real knack for bringing and sustaining a great energy that is fun for everyone.

I’ve known Dove and Rico for a while – I think I was at their first show back in 2012 at the Black Rabbit in downtown Peoria, and got to know them a little at a house party or two ahead of that event. It was clear to me then that these two had a real chemistry, and a great sense of style. They now live and record in Nashville, TN, but still get back to Illinois as often as they can. If you haven’t heard them, here’s a nice introduction. However, I’d encourage you all to get out and see them live!

Since the rosé project began, I’ve been thinking about wine and music, and the bossa nova sound really clicks with rosé wine. They’re both upbeat and fun, but maintain a balance of heart and soul underneath the surface. Some musical styles can wear a person down over time (as can some wines!), but bossa nova has this great balance of rhythm and tenderness that you can listen to for days without getting fatigued. Setting also has a lot of influence – rosé feels at home at a pool party, with dinner, and late at night, but the emotional impact changes according to the situation. Bossa nova hits me in a very similar way.

The wine I chose for this session is Blue Sky Vineyard’s 2017 Rosé. This is one of the most-decorated rosé wines in the project, taking home medals from multiple competitions year after year. bsv labelMost recently, they took a gold at the 2018 Experience Rosé International Wine Competition! Last year, this wine took the Governor’s Cup for Illinois-grown rosé at the 2017 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition. Within the Illinois wine community, Blue Sky winemakers Karen Hand and Kaleb Wilson are renowned for their creativity, work ethic, and attention to detail.  They make a ton of great wines from many different grapes, most being grown in the Shawnee Hills American Viticulture Area in southern Illinois. However, they don’t get enough credit for the emotional impact (aka soul?) of the wines the produce (from vineyard to bottle). I guess that is harder to measure, but Blue Sky Wines aren’t just technically great, they connect with people on a deeper level. Blue Sky Vineyard also happens to be one of the most beautiful sites in all of Illinois.

Rico and Dove are just the people I needed to help me see the wine in a different way. They’re not wine industry professionals, but have a profound relationship with wine on their own terms. The first time I met Rico we spent a most of our time discussing the ‘Chambourcin’ grapes he was growing in his backyard. Dove, an enthusiastic cook, has recently begun experimenting with wines within the context of a meal. In fact, she prepared and arranged a nice array of appetizers for us to play with during our tasting. One of the takeaways was that salty and creamy foods each pair great with this wine, but the impact is felt in different ways.

bsv bottle lavaInstead of focusing on the sensory descriptors, etc., we took a more creative approach.  I challenged them to focus on how the wine makes them feel first.  We started things off with simple word association:

  • Dreamy strawberry
  • Smooth but crisp
  • Expressive
  • Intense and fruity
  • Romantic

They nailed it – this wine has an intense, balanced nose of fresh strawberry and floral notes, with a little citrus beneath the surface.  All that flavor creates the illusion of sweetness on the palate, but the wine is very dry, with a crisp, acidic finish.

The terms “dreamy”, “expressive”, and “romantic” were exactly what I was looking for! In wine professional circles, these terms aren’t used much because we try to dissect a wine into its definable parts.  However, people often use these because it’s a way to communicate how a wine makes them feel, which in my opinion is every bit as important as being able to describe the wine itself. Because these two clearly love music, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the romance and connect this wine with music, specifically the bossa nova sound. My question: “You’re at a pool party, the sun is shining bright, and you’re about to take a leisurely trip down a water slide into a pool filled with this rosé. What’s the song you want to be the soundtrack for your ride?”

Dove immediately recommended “O Barquinho” by Karrin Allyson. This song is smooth and playful, but has an interesting balance of light and dark elements. I get the connection, and the song is great! I wanted to to mine this a little more, and asked them to create an official Brazilionaires Rosé playlist.

Perfect with a Glass of Rosé


What really got me excited is how surprised both Dove and Rico were about this wine.  “This might be the best Illinois wine I’ve ever tried! I would definitely buy this again.” said Rico. As luck would have it, their trip back to Nashville happens to take them right through the Shawnee Hills, so I expect they’ll be able to get up close and personal with the winery very soon.

The Brazilionaires and the Illinois Rosé Project have a lot in common.  “As performers, we’re always trying to stretch our demographic and reach new people who may not be that familiar with us, or Latin music in general.” said Rico.  Sound familiar?  The Brazilionaires are trying to build a bridge to bossa nova, just like the Illinois rosé project is trying to build a bridge to locally grown wine for new consumers!

Just as we were wrapping things up, Dove brought out a surprise! A Provence rosé appeared from the chiller, and was presented for a quick comparison. Provence is in southeastern France, and probably has the strongest reputation for rosé wine quality in the world. This region is largely responsible for the tremendous rise in the popularity of rosé in the United States, and is the standard to which all dry rosés are held. I’m happy to share that we all preferred the wine from Blue Sky! Without getting into too much detail, I can share that I was heartened to see how favorably Illinois wine can compare with other wines from around the world, especially from highly-acclaimed regions and producers.


So, if you’re new to Illinois wine, give this Blue Sky Vineyards rosé a try!  Thanks so much to Blue Sky Vineyards and The Brazilionaires for lending a hand and to our project sponsors:

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On the Road with Illinois Rosé

5.15 – Twelve Oaks Vineyard 2017 Chambourcin Rosé

with Karen Binder

“You’ve got a big project coming up!”


I met Karen Binder at a southern Illinois tasting room after our work days were over.  Karen’s been a long-time friend of the Illinois wine industry, and a pretty big help to me personally and professionally over the years, so I thought it would be a great idea to have her be my first guest of the On the Road series of wine experiences.  She’s also a seasoned journalist, working for many years with the Southern Illinoisan newspaper and a regular contributor to Illinois Agrinews online, so my hope was she could set me straight if I was going off the rails.

The “project” she was referring to is the Illinois Rosé Project, an effort to craft a signature wine style for all of Illinois wine producers.  More information about this project can be found in older posts on this blog, as well as the illinoiswine website.  In short, the industry implemented quality and stylistic goals, and wines wanting to be part of the project must pass a blind peer evaluation to qualify.

For 2018, wines making the cut are also being featured as the official wines of the Illinois Bicentennial!  When you’re out and about, look for this seal on the bottles:


In addition to the project, I thought I could do something extra to help move the needle – I’m always on the road, and know lots of great people, so I thought I could share some of these wines with them and write about the experience.  I have friends in agriculture, wine retail and distribution, chefs and sommeliers, writers, and even entertainers who have all expressed interest in sharing in this wine experience with me, so I hope it’s a fun time for everyone!

The wine I picked forweb-logo-twelve-oaks1 Karen was Twelve Oaks Vineyard 2017 Chambourcin Rosé.  Twelve Oaks is located just south of Carlyle, IL off of Rt. 127.  I went with this one because I wanted Karen, a person very familiar with the Shawnee Hills AVA, to experience a wine she hasn’t had before.  This winery opened in 2015, producing around 500 gal (2500 bottles) in the first year.  Doug and Jodi Palm are the owners, wine makers, grape growers, tasting room staff, and business directors for the winery, so they have their hands pretty full most of the time, but are never too busy to take a minute to talk about the wine they make and the industry they love.  They make deep connections with their customers, and it’s paying off – they’re in the process of building a new wine making facility to help handle the rapid increase in demand!  Doug expects the new facility to be up and operational in time for the 2018 harvest.

In addition to being an official selection for the 2018 Bicentennial Rosé Project, this wine recently took a Gold Medal at the International Experience Rosé Wine Competition.

“I can smell it already!” exclaimed Karen, as I poured the first sample into the glass.  The bright fruit and floral aromas filled the air before we even swirled, sniffed, etc. twleveoaksbottle1.jpg Instead of asking for a list of specific descriptors, I asked Karen to play a word association game as we tasted.  Here’s what we came up with:

  • Bright
  • Fruity
  • Floral
  • Elegant
  • Pretty
  • Perfect for the Patio

On the last one, I asked for a little clarification.  Karen started talking about southern Illinois.  “Down here we can spend about nine months of the year on the porch, enjoying the natural beauty around us.  This wine would work well with all of it, Spring, Summer, and Fall.”  During our discussion we kept going back through the history of the southern Illinois wine industry, and I think this wine was responsible for some of these memories.  First, it’s made from the ‘Chambourcin’ grape, which shines in southern Illinois vineyards, and is made into several different wine styles, from fortified dessert wine to dry reds.  Since the project began two years ago, it is now experiencing tremendous success when made as rosé.  Second, the people and the product are inseparable to Karen and me.  “Some regions have a cultural personality, no matter who the individual characters are, and that cultural personality persists even if the individuals change over time,” said Karen.

That reminded me a lot of how we define terroir in wine.  Doug Palm, while really just beginning as a winemaker, is no stranger to the Illinois wine industry.  He’s been a proud grape grower in the region for over twelve years.  The grapes he grows are very much a product of southern Illinois culture, and the accolades this wine has received are a strong sign that great things lie ahead for Twelve Oaks Vineyard and Winery!  As we were finishing up the session, I asked Karen if there were any surprises.

“Absolutely!  This wine is so aromatic and elegant that I was shocked at how dry it is.  It’s got great acidity and even a little tannin on the palate.  It reminds me of when I go out to wineries in the summer – there’s a bunch of guys drinking red wine under the hot summer sun.  Once I walked past a group of red wine drinkers with a pink wine in an ice bucket, and got a curious look.  I shared the dry rosé wine with them, and they loved it!  I think dry rosé can have structure that shouldn’t be discounted by red wine people.”

I agree!  What I loved about this wine is that it combines the best of both worlds – it’s really fun and serious at the same time.  We could have talked forever about food combinations too, but eventually landed on the Marcoot Creamery, specifically the Cave-Aged Heritage cheese.

twelveoaks-cork.jpgI’d like to thank both Karen Binder and Twelve Oaks for their help with this article.  We had a lot of fun, and I hope you get out on the road this season and visit an Illinois winery!  For more information on Twelve Oaks Vineyard:


See you on the road next time!

Project Sponsors:

illinois-wine-logo                        ilda logo


Illinois Wine Strikes Gold in California!

xr 2018 competition

I’m thrilled to announce that Illinois wineries made a very strong showing at the 2018 Experience Rosé Wine Competition, taking home 12 total medals!  This California-based international competition included over 300 wines from around the world being judged alongside those from Illinois.

For the complete competition results, follow this link:



Here are the Illinois wines and wineries to celebrate for achievement in the competition:

Dry Still Rosé

Gold Medals:

  • Blue Sky Vineyards – Rosé
  • Galena Cellars – Chambourcin Rosé
  • StarView Vineyards – Dry Rosé
  • Twelve Oaks – Chambourcin Rosé

Silver Medals:

  • Alto Vineyards – 2017 Rosato
  • Kite Hill Vineyards – Rosé
  • Spirit Knob – Days End Rosé

Bronze Medals:

  • August Hill – Chambourcin Rosé
  • Galena Cellars – Vineyard Rosé
  • Galena Cellars – Frontenac gris Rosé

Sparkling Rosé

Gold Medal:

  • Illinois Sparkling Co. – Brut Rosé de Saignée

Bronze Medal:

  • Illinois Sparkling Co. – Brut Ombré Rosé

If you’ve been paying close attention, you may recognize that many of the wines listed above also have been designated as official wines of the Illinois Bicentennial!  These wines have been evaluated by industry members, and are quality-assured for your enjoyment!

For more information on the Illinois Bicentennial and Illinois wine:


It’s also a good jumping off point to finding the closest Illinois winery!  These rosé wines are truly amazing, so I’d encourage you to go get your hands on them before they’re gone!