Mistie Hill Vineyard in Will County looks to expand and go retail

Groundbreaking for tasting room and bar set for May, opening expected in October

Recently pruned grapevines are starting to bud at Mistie Hill Vineyard on Saturday, April 13 in Custer Park.

Rich and Debbie Strylowski bought a couple of grapevines on sale at Walmart one year, and from that sprung the origins of a Will County vineyard.

The Strylowskis are not buying their grapes from Walmart anymore, but planting those first vines yielded a surprising discovery that led to the creation of the Mistie Hill Vineyard in Custer Park.

“We planted them on our fence line, and they took off,” Rich Strylowski said.

Grapevines stretch arce several acres at Mistie Hill Vineyard on Saturday, April 13 in Custer Park.

Strylowski did some research and determined that the sandy loam soil of their Kankakee River Valley land is ideal for growing cold-weather grapes.

“My wife and I have always been wine lovers, so I said, ‘Let’s try this out,’” he said.

The first harvest and first wines were in 2011. Mistie Hill Vineyard has since won several awards at state competitions for its wines. The Strylowskis have been able to place their wines in a number of restaurants, bars and liquor stores in northeastern Illinois, including Joliet and Lockport.

However, Strylowski said they are getting out of the wholesale business and going retail, planning to primarily sell their wine themselves.

The Will County Board in March approved their plan to build a 3,400-square-foot facility that will include a tasting room with a bar for visitors who will be welcomed to their 5 acres of vineyards along Ohlhues Road.

The plan is to break ground in May and open in October.

The new facility could make Custer Park, a quiet community along the Kankakee River in southern Will County, a stopping place for wine lovers looking for new tastes and experiences in Illinois.

Mistie Hill Vineyard owner Rich Strylowski points to the area that the new wine tasting and processing building will be built on Saturday, April 13 in Custer Park.

Strylowski said he is confident that the tasting room will attract visitors based on the experience of other Illinois vintners in what is a growing business in the state. Having a vineyard in Will County, however, is a rarity.

“When I tell the story about how well grapes grow here, people are always surprised,” Strylowski said.

The Strylowskis apparently are the first to produce a commercial wine out of a Will County vineyard but are not the only ones working on it.

Bishops Hill Winery in Joliet is growing grapes at its location in the city and partner Damon Zdunich said the intention is to produce a wine from the vineyard when the crop is ready.

“It could be in next year’s batch,” Zdunich said. “I don’t know if we’ll have enough. It takes a few years to develop a vineyard.”

That’s one of the challenges in growing grapes, which makes it a small specialty crop in Will County, said Mark Scheidewind, executive director of the Will County Farm Bureau.

“Most of them are less than a half-acre,” Schneidewind said of local vineyards. “They only have about four or five rows. They can grow enough of them if we don’t have a rough winter.”

Local grape growers may sell to people who produce wine for themselves or make grape jelly, Schneidewind said. He noted that while grapes have never been a cash crop in Illinois, it’s not unusual for farmers to grow some on their own for a private stock of wine.

Mistie Hill Vineyard’s Petite Pearl recently won the Double Gold Best in Class at at Illinois wine competition.

The farm bureau, however, has heard from wine lovers who look for new tastes and experiences in Illinois.

“We have been getting calls from people,” Schneidewind said. “People want to do the adventure.”

Schneidewind said he expects Illinois wine tourists to head to the new tasting room when it opens at Mistie Hill Vineyard.

Those who go will meet the Strylowskis, who moved from Oak Lawn for a place in the country and now love to tell of the potential to be found in the soil of the Kankakee River Valley.

The glaciers that produced the contours and soils of Illinois provided the Kankakee River Valley with the sandy loam that provides a fertile growing environment for cold-weather grapes, Strylowski said.

“The soils are throughout the valley and miles from the riverbanks,” he said. “We are 2 miles from the river, and they go farther than that.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the Mistie Hill Vineyard is the start of something big in southern Will County, but Strylowski is optimistic based on his interactions with other Illinois winemakers.

“I know the tasting room is going to be successful,” he said. “I’m following the lead from other tasting rooms in the industry in Illinois.”