Years ago, a Father’s Day gift led Matt Schulte to join his brothers and father as a home winemaker. Once he realized that local fruit made the best wines, he took the family green thumb and planted some vines: first Norton, Chambourcin, Chardonel and then others. Matt produced the first vintages in his basement. Guests brought blankets and chairs and sat on their hill overlooking the Mississippi lowlands. Everyone drank delicious wines from nearby. Thus Spirit Knob Winery began.
Far western Illinois exists seemingly separate from the rest of our state. Picturesque farmsteads and rolling cornfields share space with the bluff, eagle and cedar of Mississippi river topography. Such sights provide a gateway to the seamless up-and-down farther west toward the continental divide. Across the river, Huck and Tom remain alive as tourist (trap) sights of Hannibal, Mo. Here the influence of our rising shore flows inland. Here a local culture and legend pervades, just as around the Chesapeake or Gulf. This intangible resource deepens the experience these wines provide.
Taken together, their wines express a cohesive sense of place, and each expresses a true sense of the grape. Matt chooses to stick with well-known hybrid and native grapes to help create a unique and local specialty. He says, “California proved you can make damn good wine in America,” (a reference to the 1976 Judgment of Paris) with Cab, Chard, etc., and he feels no need to try to outdo their great efforts. Instead, Matt wants to create local classics, true Midwestern Grand Crus. He loves Chambourcin (and you will too once you taste his) and thinks Norton makes exceptional, long-lived wines. His Nortons won Gold and Silver at the 2008 Illinois State fair along with medals at other competitions. All his wines are made from a combination of his own fruit and other grapes grown in Illinois.
By far the coolest part of this story is how it shows the best of what Illinois wine has to offer. Matt only moonlights as winemaker. His wife, Karen, runs the tasting room. They built an amazing temple to great wine with magnificent views of the river basin in 2007. Matt hand-hewed the support timbers and finished the last coat on the cedar bar (made with wood from the forest out back) the same morning they opened. Their kids schlep and sweep and polish and cork. Their sweet dog, Brandy, wants nothing more than for you to come rub her tummy while you sit surrounded by natural beauty. Spirit Knob isn’t some distant chateau. It’s a magical triumph of passionate people who built something awesome in what my wife called “the middle of frickin’ nowhere.” Part of being a Midwesterner is our well-honed skill at self-deprecation that often takes the shape of “there’s nothing to do around here.” Well, here’s something spectacular just up the road, so plan on making a trip to Ursa this summer to drink the wines. Or go for the Luau on August 9th. Or hit the month of Oktoberfest this fall. Or swing by the Mark Twain Cave over the bridge. Or stop trying to find an excuse, and just get in the car.
I shall refrain from giving away all the flavors ahead of time. Here is a preview of my favorites.
Chambourcin Estate Reserve 2007: Unbelievable aromas of cola and black cherry pour out of the glass and smack of pure delicioso. Medium weight tannin and stellar acidity make this a natural pair for roast chicken, grilled pork or spicy fajitas. Matt ages his wines in American oak, and the toasty, herbal notes add complexity, weight and strength to this solid red.
Chardonel 2007: Peach, apple and marshmellowy toasty on the nose give way to a balanced and refreshing type of appley zip on the end. Not a clone of sweet or insipid chards from California. Good balance in this full-bodied white makes for a white you can drink with bold food.
Vidal Blanc 2007: A bone dry Vidal with personality and complexity to spare! Tea, cucumber, nectarine, grapefruit and earth on the nose. A hint of oak frames the golden flavors of tropical fruit, lemon and mineral. Super yummy.
Norton Estate Reserve 2007: This needs some time in the bottle to develop. Solid structure underneath will give this at least 8 more years and likely more. Fruit, fruit, fruit right now hides the smoky, earthy and meaty flavors lurking amongst the deep color. Don’t drink this there; instead, buy 3 (or more) and sit on them until after 2011.
By the way, many of their wines are available locally in Champaign-Urbana. However, they don’t sell limited wines anywhere else, so pack a bunch of steak sandwiches, call ahead, ask them to decant the 2005 Norton Reserve and prepare to be blown away by the meaty goodness.
Spirit Knob Winery
2213 E. 640th PL
Ursa, IL 62376
P.P.S. Vintage Illinois, a tasting with dozens of wineries and hundreds of wines is less than two months away! Plan on joining me up at Matthiessen state park September 20-21. More to come in two weeks.