On Saturday, Feb. 2, the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association presented Rick Mamoser of Prairie State Winery with its winemaker of the year award.
Mamoser taught high school science for 13 years in suburban Chicago before he and his wife, Maria, also a teacher, opened Prairie State Winery in Genoa in 1999.
The Mamosers produced 500 gallons of wine that first year; last year’s vintage produced almost 13,000 gallons and the winery has steadily expanded its selection over the years.
“We have over 30 wines, and for us to stand alone as a winery, you need about 30 varieties to cover every wine palate,” Rick Mamoser said. “When someone comes in for a tasting either here or at our tasting room in Sycamore, I feel that I could find a wine that they would enjoy. Whether they like the sweetest wine, dessert wine, fruit wine, or if they don’t like wine at all because they drink beer, I have a wine that tastes like grape juice that’s a great wine for them to try.”
Mamoser is continually honing his wine-making skills and promoting Illinois wine. All of his wine is made in Genoa from grapes grown in Illinois.
“My happiest moment as a winemaker is to have someone come in and say, ‘Illinois wine? I don’t know about that.’ And then they try the wine and say, ‘Whoa, this was made in Illinois?’ And I get to say, ‘I made it myself. I made it right here.’”
Mamoser talked to MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg about his latest award, his love of wine and the Illinois winemaking industry.
MidWeek: Were you surprised when you received the winemaker of the year award?
Rick Mamoser: Three of our wines won best in show three years in a row in the Illinois state competition, and I don’t think that has ever occurred before in this state. I think in the United States, one winery in North Carolina might have won three times in a row. It’s just a really nice honor. And I won winemaker of the year two out of those three years.
It’s just a great honor. There are some great winemakers in Illinois, but all of us are in this together. Any press or great recognition for the kinds of wine we produce in Illinois is good for all of us.
MW: Is that because you don’t think people appreciate Illinois wine enough?
RM: The biggest thing winemakers in Illinois are trying to overcome is the idea that the middle of the United States can’t produce high-quality wines to the extent that New York can, or California, and that’s simply not true. …There’s a lot of great wine potential in the Midwest. Part of my job is to make the best wine possible with the best grapes possible to share with people and let them know that we are making high-quality wine.
MW: What kinds of wine do you make?
RM: They’re not all sweet wines. The three wines we won “best of show” with are all barrel-aged dry reds. We do make sweet wines because there’s a whole new area of the market that are drinking sweet red wines. If you notice nationally, sweet reds, which you couldn’t find on the market five years ago, are becoming more and more popular. In fact, moscato is the fastest-growing variety in the United States.
MW: Where do you get your grapes?
RM: The grapes are from southern Illinois. I like the dry red grapes down there. We bring them up and I just love making the wine right here in Genoa.
MW: Is the northern Illinois climate not as good for growing grapes?
RM: The northern Illinois climate is not good for the kinds of grapes that people are familiar with – cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, pinot noir, pinot grigio – these can’t really grow in the Midwest. …The key is making good-quality wine, but not necessarily with the varieties of grapes they are familiar with.
Some of my whites do come from northern Illinois. …People don’t realize that there are 300 varieties of grape wines in the classic wine-growing regions of Spain, France, Argentina, Chile, Yugoslavia (now Kosovo), Germany. There are a lot of grape varieties out there that are not the top five or 10 that people think of, but they really make high-quality wine and that’s what gives a lot of variety to this industry. You never get tired of drinking wine because there are so many choices out there.
MW: What about your white wines?
RM: We do some sweeter white wines. We make a wine that’s very similar to Riesling made with all Illinois grapes. We do a dry white, which is like a chardonnay. We do a dry white from (grape hybrid) Vidal that is like a pinot grigio.
MW: What can you tell me about some of your wines that are made from fruit?
RM: That’s the fun thing about the Midwest. Way back during Prohibition, people were allowed to make their own wine but grapes weren’t available because all the vineyards were torn up. So people started making wine from other fruits, and that’s really where fruit wine came into play.
MW: I have noticed that at wine tastings, a lot of people like to try the fruit wines.
RM: People who come into a winery are hopefully looking for a unique wine experience. That could mean trying a pumpkin wine in the fall, or that could mean they could try out cabernet Franc, a serious red wine grown in the Midwest.
MW: Do you blend your wines?
RM: One of my favorite parts of my job is blending. We ferment the wine, and then we take the wine from barrels and stainless steel tanks to create that wine in the bottle with the flavor that I’m looking for. …Some of our white wines are blends. It’s all about finding that certain niche. Rieslings are really popular, but we can’t grow Riesling in Illinois. I wanted to make a wine that was similar in style, and that’s our Kishwaukee Blue. We have had that for 12 or 13 years now and it’s one of our most popular wines. It’s got a really good following.
MW: How much changes from year to year, from the taste of the wines to the variety?
RM: That’s one unique thing about small or boutique wines. First off, the big wineries are looking for consistency from year to year so they are pulling grapes from many different wineries in many different regions and they are blending them. But true wine-making shows a difference in vintage. With a small producer, you are only relying on a vineyard or two, and that vintage changes from year to year. This last year we had a very dry, hot summer so the amount of grapes is down quite a bit, maybe 30 percent. However, the quality is way up.
MW: So the drought will result in better wine?
RM: The quality of 2012 is going to be fantastic. The vines like stress and they like drought to a certain extent, but the grapes are more concentrated in flavor when there is less water absorbed into the plant.
MW: Do you specialize in red wine?
RM: The reds are my passion. I like to barrel-age them and it takes a while. It takes time for those wines to mature and develop in the barrel.
MW: It sounds like there is a lot of science involved in wine-making. What is your background?
RM: I am actually an ex-high school science teacher, chemistry and physics. I got my master’s from NIU in biology but they needed more chemistry and physics (teachers) at the school I taught so I ended up getting more hours in those. …Many of my winemaker friends refer to me with their science questions. The science really helps in the wine making. There’s an old saying about winemakers. They say, “If you own a winery you’re a farmer in the morning, you’re a chemist in the afternoon and you’re an accountant in the evening.”
MW: Did you start by making wine at home?
RM: Not until I moved out here about 20 years ago. A neighbor down the road had an apple orchard, so I started making wine during the summers and in the fall when I had some time. I just loved making wine at that point. And then my wife and I, she is a schoolteacher too, decided to try something different. By that time I had been making wine for several years and we just decided to go for it. It was the one thing I made that I liked that other people liked. My family and friends would try it and say, “Wow, this is really good.” Of course, that gives you the confidence to keep on going. I probably made wines from 50 different things and hundreds of batches before going commercial.
MW: So you learned as you went along?
RM: Oh absolutely. I immersed myself in as much education as possible. I read as much as I could, and I went to seminars in California, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. …You just never stop learning.
MW: Do you have a lot of tourists who come to Genoa just to try your wines?
RM: We do. We have a lot of people who go to illinoiswine.com, that is the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, and that lists all of the wine growers by region. People will come to Genoa based on that website from the Chicago suburbs or Rockford or anywhere specifically looking for wineries.
MW: What is it that gets you excited about wine, compared to beer or spirits?
RM: It’s everything. You know, there is no known pathogen in wine. You cannot get sick from wine like you can with all these other foods. Wine can go bad – it can taste bad – but it will never hurt you. Vinegar is healthy for you. In the old days, before refrigeration and good sanitation, water was more dangerous. If you really cared for your guests, you would offer them wine instead of water. Two thousand years ago, wine was healthy and water was questionable. …Wine is so complex. There are hundreds of different isolating substances in wine that make every wine different. The way it pairs with foods, the way it’s part of ceremony and celebration.
MW: What are your thoughts on the conflicting reports about the health benefits of wine?
RM: There is a little conflict, but for the most part I feel fairly confident in saying that a glass of wine is healthier than no wine at all. Red wines have more antioxidants, which are very heart-healthy.
MW: Is there anything else you would like people to know about wine or the winery?
RM: I would say to give Illinois wine a chance. There a lot of people, and I mean a lot of people, who have very set notions about what wine should be and where wine should come from. There are people going to restaurants who feel snubbed by ordering a white zinfandel. Wine should have absolutely no snobbery or judgment with it. If you want a dry red and your friend wants a white zinfandel, don’t make them feel bad. You wouldn’t do that with a beer. Some of the snobby sommeliers and connoisseurs have kind of done a disservice to wine in a sense that wine has to be a certain style or from a certain region to enjoy but honestly that is really changing. Moscato, which is a sweet white, is the fastest-growing wine in the market now.
MW: What is the root of the misconceptions about Illinois wine?
RM: It’s not just Illinois wine, people in Missouri and Indiana and Iowa and Kentucky are saying the same thing. It’s just that any region that is not known for wine, people aren’t willing to give it a shot. Illinois has a great history in wine. In fact, southern Illinois and Missouri had a thriving wine industry before California was even on the map.