WATERMAN – The Tuntland family in Waterman has spent the past 20 years growing grapes in corn country and turning them into wine.
Waterman Winery and Vineyards will celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend with an open house and open vineyard featuring a smorgasbord of activities and samplings.
“What’s really unique to the winery is that we only use our grapes to make wine and that’s pretty unusual for Illinois wineries, many of them have to source from California or New York,” said Trisha Tuntland, part owner of the winery.
The Tuntland family started its homegrown operation in March 1998 when it imported 400 grape plants from California, grafting the grapes onto thick stems in an effort to make them more robust. The majority of those grapevines, however, died within the first year. Determined to continue the journey the family had begun, the Tuntlands brought French-American hybrids to the vineyard.
Those plants have lasted. Today, they have 40 different grapes growing in the vineyard and make about 18 different wines.
“The fact that we were actually able to plant French-American hybrid grapes and successfully get them to grow, that’s what’s really been able to drive the sustainability of the business,” Tuntland said.
The venture into the world of wine came about when Terrie Tuntland, then a science teacher, talked about what he’d like to do after retirement. This discussion happened over wine, and hearing his friend’s idea of making wine, he became enthused with the idea of growing his own grapes to craft wine on the property of his family’s century-old farm in DeKalb County.
Terrie’s wife, Lex Tuntland, was also a wine connoisseur, and before long the pair of Northern Illinois University graduates were attending wine workshops and traveling to universities across the Midwest to figure out how to make wine in northern Illinois.
Terrie Tuntland said they were told at the various workshops that they were wasting their time.
“You can’t do it in the Midwest because a lot of farmers use herbicides that will kill the grapes, and so a lot of guys told us don’t even try it, you’re wasting your time,” Terrie Tuntland said.
The Tuntlands pressed on through the discouragement and in late 2002 the family opened the Waterman Winery and Vineyard for business.
“I feel really good about it. Especially when we started out and people said you couldn’t do it,” Terrie Tuntland said.
Trisha Tuntland, Terrie and Lex’s daughter and also an NIU alum, said the family’s unique approach to attracting visitors was to offer an authentic agricultural experience, enabling people to better understand how the growing operation has sustained itself for two decades. The vineyard frequently hosts educational events where small groups are able to learn more about how the farm-to-bottle wine operation works.
“It’s not only that you’re coming to taste wine but you’re coming to learn,” Trisha Tuntland said. “I think that’s one of the aspects, when people visit us they get excited for that reason, they always say ‘wow, this is such a neat experience.’”
It’s moments like those that Lex Tuntland said makes her the proudest.
“There’s moments where we share what we’re doing with the public and you can feel the interaction with the community,” she said.
Lex Tuntland said the business receives harvesting help from family and friends at the end of August and September when the grapes when are ripe.
On Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, the winery will host an open house to celebrate 20 years of business. Guests will be offered a complimentary wine spritzer and given the opportunity to drive through the vineyards. Guests also can pop homegrown popcorn while the corn is still on the cob.
Lex Tuntland said she hopes people who may have visited when they first opened come back and taste what they now offer because the quality of grapes have grown over the two decades they’ve been open.
“The maturity of the vine becomes really peak in production and the flavors are good after about 10 years,” she said. “So it would be really great if some of the folks who haven’t visited us in a long time would come back and try the wine again.”
In addition to those experiences, the Tuntlands have created what they’re billing as a soybean adventure. Terrie Tuntland said he thinks it’s important to teach people about the under-considered crop. The legume is grown on the farm, with one full-time employee outside of the family, alongside corn and the aforementioned grapes
“Illinois is the top soybean producing state in the nation and yet there is no soybean festival in the state,” he said.
On Aug. 13, the winery will host the 5K Vineyard Run. Safe Passage of DeKalb County is a partner in the event and will receive a portion of the winery’s sales on race day.
For the Tuntland family, it’s about being more than just a place to drink wine.
“It’s about creating an experience versus what you might experience going to, for example, Cooper’s Hawk, where you’re just going into a building or restaurant,” Trisha Tuntland said. “When you come to the winery you’re actually on a farm, you’re on a working farm.”