“A Little Napa in the Midwest”: A vineyard grows quietly in Milan | Business – Local News
BARB ICKES Quad-City Timetable
Seven years after planting the vines, a new cellar is about to be opened in the Quad-Cities.
A family trio bought the old Old Oaks Steak House south of Milan on US 67 in 2013. The following spring they planted vines. They have been harvesting, pressing and bottling the fruits for several years while developing a business plan for their cellar.
Dentist Moline Chris Larsen; her teacher son, also Chris Larsen; and his nephew Seth Dessert quietly tended the vineyard while renovating the old steak house, largely out of sight of the public.
Larsens’ interest in wine developed, as they say, organically.
âI went to California because I was playing baseball for the University of the Pacific,â said young Larsen. âMy dad would visit and he would go to Napa and then come back and watch my games.
âHe said, ‘There are wineries in the Midwest but nothing like Napa.’ When we bought Old Oaks, it was our idea: to bring a little Napa to the Midwest. “
Since they couldn’t import the climate or soil of the California wine country, they knew that a wine grown in Quad-City successfully would require considerable experimentation and extra effort, starting with the vineyard.
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âEverything was on deck for the vines for the first year,â Larsen said. “We tried out tractors and equipment, but the hills (behind Old Oaks) were too steep. We ended up hand augering (drilling) about three acres.”
As the vines grew, the men studied the grapes, vines, and wine. They took online classes, contacted other producers, and read every book they could find.
They also renovated the 12,000 square foot restaurant, dramatically changing the flow as they became more familiar with it and could better anticipate their needs.
âWe also started blending and bottling in 2017,â said young Larsen. âWe haven’t officially sold wine, but we are experimenting with 1,000 to 3,000 bottles a year.
âWe knew some of the challenges we would face with our grapes, so we experimented. It all starts with a good grape, so a lot of effort was focused on the vineyard.â
The science of winemaking tracks the best harvest times and weather conditions have a huge impact on the flavor of a grape. For example, Larsen said, a lot of rain drops the sugars in the grapes, which also lowers the alcohol.
âThe acidity is better if you pick early in the day too,â he said. âThe harvest period runs from mid-August to mid-September, and it’s a family affair in its own right. We need two to three weeks to pick and press the grapes.
Much of the process also involved remodeling the old restaurant to give it an imprint that best suits their cellar and event center. It will seat around 200 people in the main dining room, another 50 in the barrel room and 30 in a private dining room.
They also built a large outdoor patio on the 2 acre side yard, adding seating flexibility for events.
In addition to the wine tasting room, Old Oaks Winery will have a whiskey bar which will also offer beer and cocktails.
While not scheduled to open until spring, the venue is already booked for eight weddings next year and several private events.
âMy brother got married there in September, and we kind of got into it quickly,â Larsen said. “People noticed, just in passing. I made a website ([email protected]), and we’re on Facebook (Old Oaks Winery), and people started calling.”
The Midwest is known largely for its sweet wines, Larsen said. In places like Napa, drier red wines are the most popular. As people become more familiar with the wine, he said, they tend to become sweet and dry out.
At Old Oaks Winery, they hope to achieve a good mix.
âWe also see the winery as a destination,â said Larsen. “Coming here will be like being away from the Quad-Cities for a little while.”