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Road Tripping: Lynfred Winery (Part 1)

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Oct 27, 2009 6:00PM

"We had a booth at the Windy City Wine Festival last month and I told plenty of people who don't own a car how easy it is to reach the winery by train," said Lynfred Winery marketing director Christina Anderson-Heller as we met at the Roselle Metra stop. "Almost all of them asked, 'What train?'" And it is a fairly painless trek, although navigating Union Station during morning rush is something out of the Divine Comedy. When my train stopped at Roselle, Anderson-Heller was there waiting to drive the final mile to the winery. I've long had an open invitation to tour Lynfred's facilities, and last week they received a 30-ton shipment of petite syrah grapes. "Would you be interested in seeing the grapes being processed? Maybe help out in the winery and taste out some barrels?" Anderson-Heller asked.

The winery itself is a historical landmark. The original winery was built as a home in 1912 for the Hattendorf Family on land originally owned by town founder, Colonel Roselle Hough. Like all the craft brewers I've met over the years, Lynfred founder Fred Koehler started the winery out of a hobby that grew too big. in 1979 Koehler and his late wife Lynn planned on opening a small winery after careers managing country clubs and transformed the Hattendorf home into the winery, adding 18-inch walls in the basement for cellaring. In 1983 the Koehlers won gold medals for their Chardonnay at the National restaurant Association trade show and Harrah's Wine Competition. the winery was expanded in 2002 and the Hattendorf home redesigned to become Koehler's personal residence; a tunnel now connects the two and serves as extra cellar space. 30 years later Lynfred makes over 25,000 cases of wine a year, with a 5,000-member strong wine club and restaurants such as Geja's, Ben Pao, the Bristol and Charlie Trotter's carrying their offerings. "I like to tell people that Lynfred is a California winery in the heart of Northern Illinois," Koehler said.

Having sampled our share of Lynfred's wines in recent years, it's a fair statement. Lynfred makes over 50 varieities of wine, sourcing the majority of their grapes from Lodi, with the rest coming from Sonoma, Napa, Oregon, Washington State. Koehler is now semi-retired, handling off general managing duties to winemaker Andres Basso. The Chilean-born Basso honed his craft on the west coast at Merryvale vineyards in Napa Valley and Gordon Brothers Family Vineyard in Washignton's Columbia Valley. This is Basso's second go-round at Lynfred. "After I left Lynfred my first time, I was working at Tarara Vineyards and Winery in Virginia and ran into Fred at a trade show," Basso said. "He asked me if I thought about coming back. My wife and I loved the area, so we jumped at the chance to return."

With Basso shouldering more of the GM load, the task of making the wine rests largely with winemaker Sergio Benavides. Once introductions were made, Benavides led me to a half-ton pallet of petite syrah grapes, rolled up a shirt sleeve and dove his hand into the grapes. He pulled out a bunch and inspected them, juice rolling down his forearm. With a word to his cellar master, the pallet was raised on a forklift over an auger. An assistant winemaker sliced open the box, allowing the juice at the bottom to empty into the auger. Then he took a rake, turned on the auger and processed the grapes through the auger, which de-stemmed them as they were pumped to a holding tank. the auger processes a ton of grapes in about 10 minutes. By 1 p.m., nearly the entire 30-ton shipment was in tanks being macerated. Benavides worked with some yeast, slowly adding small amounts of wine to balance out the temperature and maximize the yeast's ability to feast on the sugar from the grape juice, facilitating fermentation.

While the grapes were being macerated, Basso and I sampled wine in various stages of development, from fresh-pressed juice to straight out of barrels. I asked Basso if he felt the variety of wines he makes may be an obstacle to some oenophiles, given the emphasis of vineyards to focus on growing select grapes. "Not at all," he answered. "I don't think anyone is going to mistake Roselle for Napa. Being able to source our grapes means we have a leniency to make the wines we truly want to make."