Two decades ago, when Eduard Seitan was a server at bygone Michelin-starred restaurant Blackbird in Chicago’s West Loop, a couple of regulars came in with a hankering for a great white Burgundy. Seitan suggested a barrel-aged Chardonnay from Wyncroft Wine, a then unknown winery in southwest Michigan. “Absolutely not!” they replied incredulously. “Give us a great French white Burgundy.” Seitan promptly opened and decanted the $120 Wyncroft anyway. The couple gushed over the lush, floral, full-bodied liquid, certain it had come from the prestigious Bâtard-Montrachet grand cru appellation.

“Then I showed them the bottle,” Seitan says, shrugging at his pricey little bet. “It was the only way I could convince them there’s good wine being made in Michigan.”

Seitan now works next door at Avec, as a partner at One Off Hospitality. It’s not inconceivable that he’ll deploy similar tactics for Illinois wine here — specifically rosé, which the state is betting big on and he’s championing at every opportunity.

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“Rosé is the best wine that Illinois produces,” Seitan says.

In fact, it has been the state’s official wine since 2016, and few people have tasted more Illinois-made juice than Seitan, who has judged the state’s annual wine competition and appeared at state fair wine festivals for eight-odd years. Of course, he wasn’t responsible for making dry rosé the state’s sanctioned style.

The Illinois Rosé Project began in 2015 when the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Alliance (IGGVA) convened with state enology specialist Bradley Beam to determine whether the roughly 150 wineries across the state — with its wide-ranging weather and growing conditions — could go all in on a single style.

It’s a tall order for a state known better for leading the nation in corn and soybean production to take on the global juggernaut that is rosé. It’s also one that Illinois has embarked on with a fraction of the marketing and R&D spend of domestic powerhouses like California and Oregon, and even neighboring states like Michigan and Missouri.

The Meteoric Rise of Rosé

Rosé has grown astoundingly popular in the United States. Between 2010 and 2020, off-premise rosé sales increased by 1,433 percent, according to bw166, a global market research firm for alcohol beverages. I associate it most with summer parties at friends’ houses, when everyone contributes a bottle or 6-pack of something crisp and refreshing. As long as it’s billed as bone dry, I’ll buy it — meaning I usually go for pale, salmon-hued rosés from Provence. Me and almost everyone else, it seems. In 2022, French rosé accounted for 71 percent of sales for the category on online retail giant (rosé accounted for just 2.5 percent of the retailer’s total sales value).

Can Illinois make a meaningful dent in this number?

“I really do think the Chambourcin grape is the reason Illinois is capable of making great rosé. It’s so versatile.”

“It boils down to dollars and open-mindedness,” says Lisa Ellis, IGGVA’s executive director.

“We’re kind of led as consumers to believe that only wines from France or California can be good. And you know? That’s just not the case. You can make excellent, world-class wine anywhere.”

Chambourcin: the X Factor?

IGGVA established the Signature Series Rosé program in 2017 — the year of the state’s bicentennial — with funding help from a Specialty Crop Grant from the Illinois Department of Agriculture in early 2018. Each year winemakers submit their wines, made from 100 percent Illinois-grown grapes and with residual sugars below 3 percent, for review, from which the judging panel determines that year’s official selections. Some of these are blends, featuring the cherry-scented, French-American Frontenac grape (like multi-year state fair winner Prairie State Winery’s Frontenac rosé); blue-black Marquettes; and even small percentages of bubblegum-like Niagaras. But most comprise Chambourcin grapes, a red French-American hybrid dating back to the 1860s.

“I really do think the Chambourcin grape is the reason Illinois is capable of making great rosé,” says Hanna Wichmann, who co-owns Wichmann Vineyard in Cobden with Don Moberley. “It’s so versatile, with a little extra acidity. It also offers a little fruitiness that you don’t always get with a red grape like that, but still has nice tannins and a nice dark color.”

Chambourcin was the thread connecting the most exciting, marketable Illinois-made dry rosés out of almost two dozen Seitan and I sampled on a sunny Monday afternoon in October in Avec’s private dining room. Blue Sky Vineyard’s estate-grown Chambourcin rosé was highly acidic, “bursting with raspberries and rose petals,” Seitan noted with approval. I, on the other hand, kept returning to Wichmann’s Crush for its inviting freshness and crisp, fruity notes of cherry and — was that kiwi?

“It takes not a village but a state, to rally behind unifying techniques and winemaking. It also takes investment from the state for things to move faster. These winemakers are flying by the seat of their pants.”

The grapes are harvested early “when the sugar’s a little lower and acid higher,” meaning every year the flavor notes vary, from strawberry to grapefruit and tropical fruit, Wichmann says. It’s deep pink in color, produced from grapes grown exclusively in the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area, which was officially recognized in December 2006 following Wichmann’s dad Ted Wichmann’s successful petition. Crush has been selected for the state’s Signature Series every year since Wichmann started producing it in 2020.

Wichmann is also the president of the Shawnee Hills Wine Grape Association, which hosts vineyard tours, guest speakers, and workshops in which makers taste unfinished wines and share feedback. Collaboration is essential, she notes, given that experience can be an especially unforgiving teacher for a farmer.

It Takes a State

Indeed, it takes trial and error to know what pH and sugar levels to test for in the vineyard or that too much rain will lower the wine’s acidity and impact balance. But for bootstrapping winemakers here, a seemingly simple fix like moving up the harvest to avoid a deluge becomes a challenge due to budget constraints and insufficient seasonal help.

“It takes not a village but a state, to rally behind unifying techniques and winemaking,” Seitan says. “It also takes investment from the state for things to move faster. These winemakers are flying by the seat of their pants.”

Some producers have been understandably slower to get on board with drier rosé when there’s still demand for sweeter blush and fruit wines that their tasting rooms were built on to lure locals road-tripping through the picturesque Shawnee Hills.

“One producer doing one good wine isn’t going to move our industry. I wish all 150 wineries were making great wines.”

“Those folks have tended to have a sweeter palate,” says Scott Albert, winemaker at Kite Hill Vineyards, and owner and winemaker at The Holotype Wine Co. Albert has been making dry rosé from 100 percent Chambourcin grapes since 2010, a relative veteran in a young industry. (Illinois had just seven wineries as of 1992.) Kite Hill Vineyards’ Flyway rosé won the gold at the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and has featured in the Signature Series since it began.

The Illinois Rosé Project has rallied and incentivized winemakers to improve and learn from their mistakes through a little healthy competition based on a standardized style, he says.

“People realize that one producer doing one good wine isn’t going to move our industry,” he adds. “I wish all 150 wineries were making great wines. Right now it’s only some of us.”

Even if they all were, who would know?

Moving the Needle

Ellis acknowledges that there hasn’t been a steady stream of revenue for Illinois to market the wines produced here compared to surrounding states like Missouri and Michigan. But thanks to recent grants, IGGVA maintains a good level of search engine optimization marketing on terms like “local wine” and “wedding venues.” (“Illinois winemakers have to be one of largest providers of live music across the state — it’s every weekend, almost,” Ellis says.)

The most effective way to move the needle, Ellis says, is to get the wine into people’s mouths.

At last year’s annual conference, Seitan and his fellow judges tasted fresh, current-vintage rosés from five states, including California, Virginia, and Illinois, plus Château d’Esclans’ Whispering Angel, the world’s No. 1-selling rosé, with roughly 1 million cases sold each year in 106 countries — half in the U.S. alone. The Provencal-style French wine was voted among the least favorite; the overwhelming favorite was Prairie State’s Chambourcin rosé.

Whispering Angel, with its corset-shaped bottle and millennial Pink hue, went all in on wealthy influencer marketing a handful of years ago, selling its bone-dry juice as affordable, year-round luxury.

What story will Illinois rosé carve out, and will drinkers buy it?

Wichmann focuses on education at her tasting room, opening visitors up to the beauty of less sweet wines and emphasizing that quality comes from using locally grown fruit. Albert schleps his experimental wines up to Chicago, where restaurants like Avec feature them in ticketed dinners uplifting local producers alongside coursed, chef-driven plates.

“In Romanian we have a saying: ‘Pofta vine mâncând,’” Seitan says. “Your appetite comes by eating. The more you eat, the more appetite you have. The more you drink, the more you’ll like and appreciate it.”

And if you don’t order it, he may just pour it for you.