Sunday, March 30, 2008

Willett's Winery

Last night, Becka and I were invited to Willett's Winery in Manito for a lovely evening of wine, a cooking contest, and a cooking demo. I can't say enough good things about the owners Cris and Dan. They were very hospitable and even took me on a grand tour of his wine making operation. In the short time that we discussed wine making, Dan taught me several pointers that I will be immediately putting into practice tomorrow when I begin the fining process on my own wine.

Chef Kevin has worked closely with the Willetts to organize a series of contests where local residents can enter their recipes. Each contest's theme correlates with a dining course. The winner of each contest will have their recipe prepared by Chef Kevin as part of a complete "Wine and Dine" dinner on April 12th and June 14th. The catch is, each recipe must be prepared with Willett's wine.

Last night's theme was desserts, and I was honored to be invited as a guest judge. There were only five entries last night, a few less than the other competitions. It was a tough decision with first place being decided by a mere point. The winner featured a 75 year old chocolate cake recipe that called for vinegar and water. The contestant substituted Willett's Midnight Cherry wine and it was a smash hit! The texture of the cake was unbelievably moist and tender - I doubt if I could have baked a better cake. She iced it with chocolate fudge icing and served it with a chocolate cherry sauce that also included the Midnight Cherry wine.

I must say that Willett's is rustic, yet classy, but never pretentious. The wine speaks for itself. Which brings me to a short rant about Illinois wines. I've heard so many people taste a local wine and proclaim it to be "good, but not quite like a Cab or Pinot Noir." Well, the truth is, it's never going to taste like those wines, and shouldn't be expected to. I find them neither better or worse than "world class wines," but a refreshing alternative that should be appreciated on it's own merit. Why would I want to travel to Manito to drink a wine that tastes just like a wine that I could buy in the grocery store? I will say that I was floored by their Chamborcin, a dark red with a spicy tobacco character. I had never tasted a wine with this particular smokey and spicy edge, yet it was still well balanced. I liked it so much that I came home with three bottles of it, and yes, I will be holding on to them just as if they were an absurdly priced bottle of wine (which they are not). Plus, I have the added pleasure of knowing that I am supporting local agriculture.

Lastly, Dan crafts and bottles all of his wine by hand, and is truly passionate about his trade. Dan and Cris both have an enthusiasm that is contagious, but from the moment you walk into the winery, you are put at ease. You will never be made to feel uncomfortable for being unfamiliar with Illinois varietals or not knowing what you like. Samples are offered freely and the atmosphere is relaxed. It's almost as if you are stepping into another time and place, and you just can't help but to smile.

And, of course, I snapped some photos:

A stunning array of their currently available wines. Notice the two medal winners.

The winning recipe. Chocolate cake made with Midnight Cherry wine.

Another over the top chocolate dessert with raspberries and chocolate sauce.

A sneak peek at Dan's wines inside his giant walk in cooler. Brilliant!


Chef Kevin said...

And what is really magnificient about the Chambourcin is that even though it has those tobacco and smoky characteristics, it is actually aged in sees no oak.

Keith Shank said...

Exactly. I would have bet money that it was aged in oak. The characteristics of these grapes are phenomenal. Go Illinois wine!

Rebecca said...

SO FREAKIN' SWEET. I just can't get over what a wonderful time I had.