URBANA When you think about "wine country," Illinois may not be the first state that comes to mind. But it's actually big business on the prairie. There are 90 wineries licensed in Illinois and 1,500 acres of wine grapes. One acre of wine grapes can bring as much as $8,000 in sales, though more commonly it's $3,000 to $5,000. The largest wineries in Illinois produce 90,000 gallons per year, while many produce 3,000 to 10,000 per year.
"In many cases, growing wine grapes is supplementary to the producer's entire farming operation. The break-even point for wineries is about 10,000 gallons to make it a full-time business," said Bill Shoemaker, superintendent at the St. Charles Horticulture Research Center.
Shoemaker works with other University of Illinois researchers to conduct grape research at the Center. For one of his latest projects, he is crossing wild grapes with proven wine grape varieties to develop a good wine grape that can withstand the cooler northern Illinois weather.
"There are wild grapes growing along the roadside on I-57," Shoemaker said. "The interstate grapes root easily with no further help. Their native genetics means that they have already adapted to this climate but they aren't good for eating or wine-making. We're crossing them with European grapes that have high quality to create new varieties that will grow in our climate and be a good wine grape."
Unfortunately, the wild grapes have poor flavor and low yield. But Shoemaker is looking at three wild grape species that have excellent disease resistance to create breeding lines that will require less use of pesticides. Right now growers sometimes have to spray in order to grow a good wine grape, so this would be a great step forward for the industry.
"There isn't much grape breeding being done to create improved varieties globally. We're working to improve the fruit quality and develop new flavor profiles in wine," he said.
|Contact: Debra Levey Larson|
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences