On a warm day about a week ago, I ventured out to Sleepy Creek Vineyards, located in Fairmont, about 35 minutes or so from Champaign-Urbana. The drive due east is fairly uninteresting, as most routes through Illinois cornfields are. I took exit 206 (Oakwood), and after just a few short minutes down the road, pulled up to the vineyard nestled along the curve of route 850. Part of the vineyard lines the long, unpaved driveway, and is a teaser for the beautiful barn building that houses the tasting room and sipping area, the wine-making room, a B & W (bed & wine), and a small loft that features art exhibits.
There isn’t anything pretentious about this place. Like the driveway, the parking lot is unpaved, and the entrance to the building isn’t overly fancy or grandiose. It's almost like you're stopping by a friend's house. The building is clearly new, and the craftsmanship and attention to detail nod to an appreciation of art, craft, architecture, and country living. You immediately feel at home upon entering; this is the woodsy-but-modern vacation house your parents never had. Directly in front of you is the tasting bar, which wraps around moves back to the wall. On your left is a small sales area featuring Sleepy Creek Vineyards t-shirts and other trinkets and bobbles. The staircase to the B & W and the art loft is also on your left. To the right of the entrance is a seating area with plenty of tables and chairs to accommodate groups large and small. In the right corner is a small stage for live music. On the right wall is a sliding glass door for exiting the building and entering the outdoor side yard. This side yard has a fire pit (used for Wieners and Wine, 5-8 p.m., every Friday through October), and some picnic tables and chairs, and a lovely little pond. This outdoor area is quiet and serene, with small glimpses of the vineyard located just behind a line of trees.
Beyond the building and trees are rows of grapevines that yield the grapes that eventually become the wine. The vineyard is large — about ten acres — and houses approximately seven different varieties of grapes. The rows of vines are wide enough for two or three people to walk side by side through the aisles of luscious grapes. Some of the vines are covered in netting, as birds have been a bit of an issue this summer; I suppose you can’t really blame the birds for wanting a piece of those tasty grapes — I’d try and steal them too.
Sleepy Creek Vineyards founder, owner, and vintner Joe Taylor gave us a tour of the property. He led us through the grapes, pointing out the different varieties and allowed us to try them. Wine grapes have seeds, which many "table" grapes — the kind you get at the grocery store, for instance — do not. As with most homegrown produce, the taste is miles beyond anything you can pick up at the grocery store. All of the varieties of grapes were incredibly rich and flavorful; the skins and fleshy interiors were ripe with a delicate balance of sweet and tart. The skins seemed to be thicker and more bitter than regular grocery store grapes, but despite this slight tangy bitterness, the grapes were succulent and delicious. Taylor also grows a few vines of two different varieties of seedless table grapes; these aren’t used for wine making, but they were equally developed and rich in flavor. Taylor was kind enough to allow us to take a few home, and there was no comparison to the organic red seedless grapes I’d picked up at the grocery store earlier in the week. The grocery store grapes tasted like nothing — they were simply sad sacs of mildly flavored water. Taylor has started selling these table grapes at Urbana’s Market on the Square on Saturday mornings, so look for them there.
Walking among the grapes was magical. The land and the grapevines are incredibly beautiful, and the combination of vineyard, barn, and pond creates this wonderful, completely relaxed sense of bucolic nostalgia. It’s as if everything has been perfectly composed as nature intended, and lucky us for being able to take advantage of it all. Of course, that’s hardly the case, especially for Taylor and his crew, who are the keepers of that wonder and work very hard to ensure that you, the visitor, have a delightful time (which I did, for the record).
After our tour of the vineyard, Taylor took us through the winery, right into the heart of where the hard work — the wine making — happens. This clean, bright room houses the stainless steel tanks that hold and ferment the grape juices. They also have a few oak barrels for making their driest red, Bull Headed. This room is part of the barn building; it’s essentially the back room. The stainless steel tanks are huge, and gleam in the bright, clinical space. There are a few other shiny machines help with the wine making process. There’s a machine for crushing the grapes and separating the skins and seeds (for white wine, reds ferment with the skins). There’s a little handy device for corking and another one for labeling. There are unfilled boxes and full cases of wine being stored in this space, too, and it’s clear that Sleepy Creek is on the verge of outgrowing it’s current setup.
Right now, Sleepy Creek is a manual operation: all bottles are filled, labeled, and corked by hand. Really. It’s probably worth mentioning, too, that all of the grapes are harvested by the hands of the Purple Finger Club, a group of ambitious and hardworking volunteers. It takes twelve pounds of grapes to yield a gallon of wine, and a gallon of wine produces about five bottles. Sleepy Creek produces 6,000 gallons of wine a season, give or take. That’s 30,000 bottles of wine, and 72,000 pounds of grapes. That’s quite a large amount of grapes. And wine. And callused hands.
While on this charming tour of Sleepy Creek Vineyards and hearing about the hand picking and bottling and labeling, I couldn’t help but think of contrasting imagery of a drunk and ruddy Bacchus (or Dionysus, if you prefer) surrounded by his naughty satyrs crushing wine grapes with their dirty little hooves. My inclination is that Joe and the rest of the Sleepy Creek staff also think about the silly, naughty, and ridiculous that can indeed come with an extra drink or two. The names of the wines reflect their sense of humor (Sour Puss and Little Woody are particular favorites of mine). This jocular attitude eliminates the stereotypical elitism and pretentiousness one often associates with wine production and consumption. I can say with certainly that there isn’t any wine snobbery at Sleepy Creek unless you bring it, and I suggest that you check that at the door. If you’re looking to find out more about the culture of Sleepy Creek, stop by Wieners and Wine on a Friday night, or watch their web "sipcom" Up the Creek.
One place you could have your own private drunken debauchery is at the B & W — the bed and wine. This riff on a bed and breakfast is perfect. The lodging is located on the second floor of the building, and in addition to sleeping accommodations for eight, and a beautiful, full kitchen, you also have a private porch overlooking the vineyards. The entire space is gorgeous — it could have easily been decorated in a woodsy, cheap-and-cheesy-cabin décor, but it is not. It’s modern, fresh, and comfortable. There are 1,000 square feet of living space that’s nicer than most hotels. The apartment has a beautiful iron spiral staircase that leads to a small loft that holds two twin beds. There are two bedrooms, one with a king bed, one with a queen. There’s a large bathroom, and a washer and dryer. This space is ideal for a ladies’ weekend or anniversary getaway. You only need to bring a few grocery bags of food to get you through a weekend; you can buy your wine downstairs!
Sleepy Creek serves their wines by the glass and bottle, and visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic and enjoy a glass (or bottle) of wine on site (responsibly, of course). They offer four whites and five or six reds (depending on availability), and a handful of specialty wine items (on site only) including wine slushies, sangria, and their unique tomato/jalapeno wine they call Winey Mary. You can purchase bottles or mix and match cases (12 bottles, case discounted by ten percent). Food writer Ben Barber and I tried all of these wines on our visit, but you’ll have to check back next week for part two of this installment to find out what we thought about them.
In the meantime, check out my interview with owner Joe Taylor:
Smile Politely: Can you share Sleepy Creek’s origin story, and how you came up with the concept?
Taylor: After 10 years and some success with my last business (Taylor Studios in Rantoul), I had the bug to start another business and wanted something that could help pay a mortgage on some land. I was looking into different forms of alternative agriculture. Nothing seemed to connect until I ran across some articles about growing wine grapes in the Midwest. Wine making seemed to combine several of my interests: history, science, art, and food. Once I started reading about it, I was hooked.
SP: How has your concept shifted in the last 6 years?
Taylor: Things have gone pretty much as I planned, only taking twice as long and costing twice as much as we thought it would (just kidding, ok, no I’m not). The goal has always been to be a place that people would want to come and hang out. The wine was a draw but we wanted to make it about more than that. We wanted it to be a place you could relax and be comfortable.
One thing we have learned is that it is hard to survive on wine sales alone when you are a small producer. Adding a vacation rental (our Bed and Wine), and becoming a venue for events has helped us survive as a business.
SP: What would you cite as your biggest accomplishment(s) with Sleepy Creek Vineyard?
Taylor: I think just going from nothing to something. When we started this, we didn’t know anything about growing grapes or making wine, and we just had to do the work and figure it out. This property was just a blank canvas when we bought it and it’s fun to see the progress after 11 years. Even though we still have a lot of work to do, I’m proud of how far we’ve come. I really love the creation process.
SP: Can you share with us one of the largest obstacles the business has had to overcome?
Taylor: One of the biggest was finding out we were in a dry township. All the towns around us sold alcohol, so I never thought there would be a problem. We ended up having to get signatures from 25% of the voters to get a referendum on the ballot and then getting everyone to vote in favor of changing the law. Luckily, the voters understood what we wanted to do and we were able to get over 80% of the vote in our favor — most liquor referendums are closer to a 50/50 vote.
SP: What drives you to succeed professionally?
Taylor: We have a great staff and I want them to have some stability in their work life and not have to worry about things like health insurance, etc. I also fear having to get a “real” job myself. I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life, so I don’t think I’d make a good employee for someone else. I’m also a short guy; I probably have a Napoleon complex.
SP: One thing I noticed while visiting the vineyard was that the atmosphere, the staff, and the wines were approachable. Could you share with us your approach to approachability?
Taylor: We know that wine can be intimidating to a lot of people, and we also realize that we are NOT Napa Valley. A fancy Chateau Blah Blah Winery in rural Vermilion County would not fly (and we could never pull off “fancy” ourselves). From the beginning, we wanted it to feel fun and comfortable, like a brewpub.
We really focus on hiring staff that are friendly and fun. They play the critical role in people having a positive experience here.
SP: Speaking of friendly and fun staff, you guys clearly have a sense of humor — I’ve seen your sipcom web series. How does this sense of humor influence your winemaking?
Taylor: We are not afraid to try something different. Experimenting is the fun part of winemaking. Our Winey Mary (tomato/jalapeno wine) was a product of an experiment. Plus, we have wines named Sour Puss and Little Woody, enough said?
SP: What’s the wine market like in Central Illinois?
Taylor: It’s good, I think people like having a local option for wine. We grow grapes you can’t grow in California. There are several Illinois Wine festivals throughout the year and they are always overflowing with people.
SP: Talk to us about grapes. How do/did you choose which varieties of grapes to grow, and when to add or subtract different varieties from your vineyard?
Taylor: It’s always a balance between something that is productive, something that the customer wants to drink, and something that would survive on our site. Most of our varieties were developed either by Cornell University or University of Minnesota and can survive the cold winters. The University of Illinois and Purdue had done research a while ago about what would grow well in this area and that was a helpful guide.
SP: What’s your favorite part of the winemaking process?
Taylor: Having Tony Jacobson, our winemaker, do all the hard work! I’ve passed the torch to him a couple years ago and the wine quality has improved.
Harvest is a very exciting time with lots of things happening in a very short time period. It’s like a big puzzle that you have to put the pieces together in a certain order.
We are currently harvesting and if people want to literally have a hand in next year's wine, they can come help pick! We will be picking the next couple weekends. No experience is necessary and we feed everyone, as well as give him or her other perks for helping. They'll get a t-shirt, discounts, harvest party, and free gossip (they'll hear it through the grapevine). Anyone interested can email Kayla.
SP: What makes Sleepy Creek wines unique among other wines, particularly other Midwestern wines?
Taylor: We strive to make something for everyone, regardless what your tastes are. There has been some very interesting research about how wine style preference is related to your genetics. You shouldn’t let someone tell what you should like. Come try it for yourself, and if you like it, it’s a good wine for you.
SP: Winey Mary is incredibly unique. I’ve never tasted any wine quite like it. What series of events led you to make wine from those ingredients?
Taylor: We had a customer that had a bunch of extra tomatoes a couple years ago. Tony and I were discussing if we thought it would make a good wine. He is also a home-brewer and had made some killer pepper infused beers, so we decided to throw some jalapenos in it. It worked out better than we thought it would be, tasting like a light, refreshing Bloody Mary.
SP: If there were a dream wine that could make in the future, what would it be?
Taylor: We’ve got a team of highly trained scientists locked away in a bunker working on that. We are thinking about doing a higher alcohol sparkling cider this fall if we have the time.
SP: If you were to time travel to 10 years in the future and visit the vineyard, what would you want to see?
Taylor: We are going to have to make some decisions soon on expanding the winery space. It’s starting to get crowded. We’d also love to build another building for special events. The tasting room can only hold about 75 and we sell out many of our current [live music and theatre] shows. We are also working really hard on getting the vineyard more productive and healthy.
SP: What’s your favorite Sleepy Creek wine and food pairing?
Taylor: Sour Puss is fantastic with Thai food, Little Woody is great with dark chocolate, and Winey Mary with nachos!
SP: We’ve talked concept, grapes, and finished product. What’s one lesser-known tidbit about Sleepy Creek Vineyard you’d like SP readers to know?
Taylor: Although wine is how we pay the bills, I wanted Sleepy Creek to be a playground for creativity. We host art show, film festivals, original music and theater. Also, we’re pretty sure there is a Sasquatch that lives in our woods and eats the grapes at night.
Sleepy Creek Vineyards is located at 8254 E 1425 North Road in Fairmont. They're open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. For additional information and upadates, check out their Facebook page.
All photos courtesy of Chelsea Fisher.