In 2002, Mark Wenzel, his wife Teri, and childhood friend Sean Ginocchio (who sold his interest in 2010) founded August Hill Winery on the hilltop land his grandfather August Engelhaupt had farmed, occasionally with Wenzel’s help. Located in Utica, Illinois, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago, in the ensuing years August Hill has expanded to include caves for aging wine, a tasting room, and a sparkling wine label called Illinois Sparkling Company.
Wenzel is both business partner and winemaker. Although he took a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida, he had always had an interest in wine and experimented making small batches through the years. Once he learned that, unlikely enough, northern Illinois was developing as a viable vineyard region, the Illinois countryside and his farm boy roots beckoned to him. After seven years as an engineer, Wenzel decided to add a new career and immersed himself in the details of grape-growing climates, varietals, and winemaking while still working in engineering for an additional seven years before he could turn to winemaking full-time. Along the way, he received hands-on experience and support from others in the winemaking industry, from both Illinois and California. When he began the sparkling wine program, he consulted with industry experts as well as an expert from France, with whom he continues to work.
Teri Wenzel is August Hill’s visual taste-maker. She’s the creative eye behind everything from the product packaging to the tasting room environment.
The estate vineyard sits on a small hill surrounded by woods overlooking the Illinois River. The mere four acres have been in the family for over 100 years, and previously supported corn, soybeans and hay. Not quite knowing what would work and what wouldn’t, a variety of arcane cold-climate grapes were planted in the first year, including La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac, Marquette, and Frontenac Blanc. Some just survived, and some thrived. These grapes are now primarily used in August Hills’ sparkling wines. Other growers, most based in Illinois and as well as other Midwest states, provide many of the grapes for their red and white still wines. Some grapes come from California for the red wines that contain vitus vinifera varietals.
The ambitious portfolio includes seven whites, 10 reds, three rosés, five dessert wines, and 10 sparklers. There are also five “bubbling infusions,” sweet sparkling wine that has been flavored with such things as almond, cranberry, or raspberry.
A blend of Illinois-grown Frontenac and Chambourcin grapes, Berlyn’s name comes from the combination of the owners’ middle names (Mark Bernard and Teri Lyn Wenzel). Frontenac and Chambourcin are hybrids created in the mid-20th century.
This wine looks like Pinot Noir in the glass; ruby red and transparent. There are moderate aromas of plum, raspberry, and sweet cherry. These same flavors continue in the mouth, with delicate acidity and no discernable tannins, as the blend is un-oaked, rare in a red wine. August Hill characterizes this wine as “semi-dry,” but it is actually quite sweet, verging on Welch’s grape juice. Frontenac is particularly used in cold-climate growing areas (it was developed at the University of Minnesota). Although unusual, these grapes can make good dry wines, but Wenzel allows their innate sweetness to dominate. Too much so for me. That being said, Berlyn is August Hill’s most popular wine.
The ABV is a relatively low 11%, so not all of the sugars are being fermented to alcohol. The winery also claims an “aging” potential of two years, but with no vintage on the label how would you know? I suggest if you like this sort of wine (light, sweet, and fruity), drink it as soon as possible, and serve it well chilled.
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