Smile Politely

Sleepy Creek Vineyards Worth the Trip

Rarely do new businesses call on voters to approve their plans. Before producing wines from thousands of newly planted vines, Dawn and Joe Taylor had to call for a referendum in their part of Vermilion County (Catlin Township) that was still dry from prohibition. The overwhelming voter support (more than 88 percent of the electorate supported them) speaks volumes about these two. Dawn smiles when recollecting how they became part of the community, and how all their neighbors pulled for them. Sleepy Creek Vineyards fills a niche in East Central Illinois, giving us a number of solid wines grown and made just up the road. It’s time for all you farmer’s market disciples to drink local, too.

Prior to housing some 4,300 vines, the land provided habitat for an avid hunter’s pheasant flock. The two began planting vines in 2002. Initial plantings of two sibling hybrids, Marechal Foch and Leon Millot, were followed by Vignoles, Rougeon, Frontenac, Marquette and Le Crescent. While these grapes can all make good juice, their relative obscurity helps limit the pretensions too often accompanying a decent drink.

Joe calls what they make folk wine. They want customers to drink what they like and help make new tasters feel comfortable ordering something new. Visitors find amiable people offering accessible wines. Most wine drinkers claim only to like dry wines. However, nearly all of the big sellers in the US are a bit wet (read: sweet, but not like soda), yet people are embarrassed to ask for something off-dry or sweet. As a whole, the wine industry uses sophistication as part of the experience of wine, and dry is sophisticated. This outdated image predisposes people against trying something new. Dawn and Joe only care that you like what you are drinking.

Sleepy Creek also provides an artistic venue for their area with an art gallery and frequent live music. Their current show is their annual “sow’s ear” contest. For 2008 entries reclaimed e-garbage for a new life (check out the George Clooney toaster!). Musical guest perform for intimate crowds in the tasting barn.

Prior to my visit, a number of bad experiences cultivated my own bias against the country winery / art gallery combo. But these guys get it right. The folk wine, folk art, folk music mantra works. Joe doesn’t set out to make the world’s best wine. While what he makes is delicious, he is interested in creating a direct connection from vineyard to mouth. They want people to understand all the work involved in each bottle, to see where the grapes grew and to smell and sense everything leading up to pulling the cork.

Here’s what you can expect:

Dreamer Seyval 2006 I got to taste the very end of last year’s vintage. Sadly, all this is gone, but it hints at good things again for the 2007. Classic Seyval with sweetness balanced by perky, lemony acidity.

Sour Puss 2007 A blend of the Vignoles grown in the vineyard and some Cayuga from southern Illinois. Wonderfully floral and delicate on the nose. Ripe pear and green apple round out the mouth. This may be a bit sweet for my normal taste, but the acid balance is remarkable. This is really drinkable and perfect for a hot muggy summer night.

Bullheaded Red 2006 What a treat! Tones of blackberry and black cherry fruit framed by modest tannin, cola spice, licorice snap and a dry finish. About two-thirds Chambourcin, grown near Carbondale, with estate grown Rougeon providing the balance and that lovely deep purple color. Highly recommended.

Bashful Ewe 2007 Summertime beckons ice-cold rosé. Yeah. 100 percent Frontenac. Just a beautiful color in the glass. Juicy, with strawberry, cherry and a hint of cocoa. Sweet, for sure, but the acidity keeps things from being cloying.

Hen Pecked Red 2007 There are very few sweet reds out there, and even fewer are worth drinking. One hundred percent Frontenac from the vineyard, just like the rose. Joe soaks the skins on this for a week longer, and gets it just right with ample blackberry leaping from the glass. Think curried lamb chops with a black raspberry reduction.

These wines are sold only at the winery. But hey, the trip only took about 25 minutes door-to-door. And while you are there, check out the birdhouses left from the last show, walk around the pond and get over your own pretensions and drink a wine slushy, a new summer favorite. It will go perfectly with the free hot dogs on Fridays. If you need more info, contact them:

Sleepy Creek Vineyards
8254 E 1425 North Road
Fairmount, IL 61841

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