A taste of Southern Illinois

The day begins like any other; the sun rises over dew-coated fields, a hand wraps around a warm cup of black coffee.

Soon, the loud hum of the wine-bottling machine fills the quiet air, and coffee mugs are replaced with pruning shears.

Julie Harvey, marketing director of Alto Vineyards, said the winery began planting in 1981, specializing in a French-American hybrid species, but did not start selling wine until they opened the doors in 1988, selling out of wine in three days.

Now, Alto Vineyards produces about 30,000 gallons of wine a year.

Aurelio Hernandez, an employee of Alto Vineyards for ten years, said the preparation for harvest season is just as taxing as the harvest itself.

“Spring means it’s time to get busy, and the work begins,” Hernandez said.

Some of the spring work for Hernandez includes taping the vines that spread across the vineyard’s eight acres, mowing the fields, spraying for insects and clearing the trunks of the vines that do not produce grapes, which steal nutrients from vines that do.

Besides the weeds and the insects, springtime also brings the risk of bad weather.

Jonathan Rains, cellar manager at Alto Vineyards, said this year has been particularly worrisome. With the mild winter and early spring, the vines are beginning to bud early, but a heavy frost could destroy them, which would mean 50% loss of the vineyard’s crops.

Rains began working at Alto 17 years ago when it needed to hire a maintenance man.

“I was a home wine brewer since 1988, so I knew what the process was, just not in this big of a scale,” he said.

Now, Rains oversees much of the production process and repairs the machinery.

“We used to have seven people on a line making 300 gallons a day,” Rains said. “Now we use two people with the bottling machine and make 1,000 gallons a day.”

Harvey said one of Alto’s goals this year is to increase the amount of fruit development and reduce fungal growth by implementing a new trellising system, which supports the grape vines.

“Alto is known to pioneer new ideas, and we’re playing with a couple new vines,” Harvey said.


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