Despite the autumn colors crying for attention, eyes focus mostly on feet during grape-stomping time at Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery. The ritual is one of the attractions that draw wine-lovers to the northwest corner of Illinois every fall.
When the ancient glaciers covered the land, they skipped this part of the state, so it isn’t flat like so much of the Midwest. Instead, the region enjoys ideal grape-growing conditions—loamy soil, cool summers and slopes to heat up the vines. Wineries have capitalized on the favorable climate and topography, growing Illinois-hardy grapes such as Marechal Foch, St. Croix and Frontenac to produce distinctive dry reds, whites and rosés.
With four wineries in the countryside to explore, visitors can create their own wine tour, enjoying tasting rooms that overlook picturesque vineyards, farms and woods. Most offer outdoor seating that provides fresh air to go with the fall views.
After three generations, the Lawlor family keeps adapting to the tastes of wine novices and experts alike. Second-generation family member Scott Lawlor says, “We create wines for everyone’s taste buds.” Galena Cellars began with fruit wines and expanded to include hybrid grapes. Visitors to the vineyard (about 6 miles east of town) can take a behind-the-scenes tour, spend the night in one of two suites or bike the Stage Coach trail to the location. (E-bike rentals are available from Fever River Outfitters.)
The winery 10 miles off US-20 tempts palates with reds, whites and rosés made from Illinois grapes. Favorites include semisweet Massbach Stomp and sweet Traumen. The family-owned winery has a covered outdoor tasting room overlooking the vines, plus an indoor spot in downtown Galena. Massbach’s big fall event is the Massbach Stomp (complete with food trucks), but it holds events throughout the year, such as a Cabin Fever Wine Tasting.
With a lodge-feel tasting room and a front porch overlooking the woods and rolling hills of the Apple River valley, the 25-acre vineyard (about 20 miles southeast of Galena) provides a peaceful afternoon or weekend getaway. An on-site cabin with a three-story stone fireplace sleeps 10 and offers seclusion by a pond. Find red and white varietals (Tower Red and Lakeside White are favorites) and swag at the gift shop of this two-generation winery.
The winery (located about 20 miles southeast of Galena) uses hybridized grapes to produce a Tuscan-style wine similar to Chianti, a nod to founder Rosario Bruno’s Italian roots. In addition to regular antipasto offerings, the winery participates in a Garlic Fest in August, where farm-to-table food shines. Visitors sit in the stonework tasting room or outside amid lush landscaping. Saturdays bring tunes.
Must-See: Galena Nouveau Wine Weekend
- The tradition: On the third Thursday of every November, France celebrates the release of Beaujolais nouveau, a red wine made from just-harvested grapes in the country’s Beaujolais region. Galena’s version, the Nouveau Weekend, involves the entire town. “We thought it would be fun to have our own celebration,” says Scott Lawlor of Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery, which started the event in 1985.
- The event: A ceremonial toast and luncheon at the winery’s Main Street location kicks off the weekend. Many area restaurants follow suit with special nouveau French meals, while some businesses pass out samples of the new wine. “There are bands playing and parties and cheese tastings all day,” Scott says.
- The highlights: An artist creates the label for the limited-edition wine, which Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery releases at noon before delivering it to businesses. A parade with horse-drawn carriages and trolleys follows at 2:30 p.m. The celebration extends into Saturday.