It’s been nearly 25 years since Prairie State Winery began making wine. They were the first commercial winery in DeKalb County.
Prairie State Winery was established in 1998, a time when there were very few wineries in Illinois. They were number 16. Now there are about 165 wineries in the prairie state.
Owners Rick and Maria Mamoser were former high school teachers who decided to turn their hobby of home winemaking into a business. Being a chemistry and physics teacher, Rick says, “It blends my interests of science and art. Winemaking marries the two.”
But the process from home winemaking to commercial winemaking came with a steep learning curve. “I took advantage of education through university programs and seminars. To know the career, you have to invest in education. Next came the self-teaching,” explained Rick.
“With my science background I understand the chemistry of grapes – what style of wine they produce,” the vintner said. “Granted, with years of experience, our wines have improved!”
And that’s not the only change at Prairie State Winery. “We’ve made quite a few changes since we started in the wine business,” said Rick. They moved their winery across main street in Genoa, purchased the buildings, expanded to having an outside patio, added a kitchen and food, and established a wine club, among other changes. They started with three employees and now have 14.
Prairie State Winery produces over 35 unique wines – all processed just a few blocks away in their production facility.
Rick is the head winemaker; JT Anesi, his brother-in-law, is the assistant winemaker spending countless hours in production – from crushing grapes to bottling wine. Rick’s wife, Maria, runs the office and oversees the winery operations.
They purchase a variety of white and red grapes from growers in northern and southern Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York and California.
“As a winemaker, purchasing grapes from all over excites me,” said Rick. “You just have to know how to marry the grapes. Southern Illinois has a Cabernet Franc grape as good as a French wine.”
From grapes to bottle, it takes about three months to process white wine. Barrel-aged reds can take up to two years. They have perfected the art of co-fermenting different types of grapes to create unique fusion flavors, such as infusing honey and cinnamon into their Honey Apple Crisp wine.
Now is peak season for harvesting and processing grapes into wine, in September and October.
During harvest, some of their biggest challenges are weather-related and inconsistencies with the crop.
“Too much rain changes the sugar levels of grapes,” noted Rick. Other challenges have been high-priced sugar and supply chain issues, especially during the Covid pandemic.
This summer, Prairie State Winery was named the best winery in Illinois from Yelp, an internet-based website which reviews and rates businesses all across the country. It received 4.5 stars on the business review website. This top ranking also prompted coverage by NBC news in Chicago and ultimately has attracted customers from the east.
“The recognition is nice, but the biggest rewards are the relationships we have garnered with our customers over the years,” said Rick. “We have a small family-run business and in a small way we have a small impact on our customers’ lives.”
This time of year their seasonal wines are popular – for fall the pumpkin and apple wines. They also make apple wines for Jonamac Orchard in Malta.
Collaboration with other wineries in Illinois is part of the winemaking industry’s network base. “We’re all in this together, so we learn from each other,” Rick said.
Rick’s favorite wine is their Cabernet Franc, the most awarded of their red wines. It’s a southern Illinois grown classic varietal which is barrel-aged. Maria’s favorite is Cattleman’s Red, a smoky Chambourcin blended red wine.
What’s next for Prairie State Winery? They plan to expand by making brandy, which is essentially distilled wine, and fits naturally with their wine business.
With September being Illinois Wine Month, it’s a perfect time to take a drive to the northern part of the county to enjoy the winery and wine tasting experience. The atmosphere is welcoming – whether you take a sip at the wine bar or have a glass with lunch in their patio garden.