Double dose of local sips in Grafton, Illinois.
By Hope S. Philbrick
In terms of the Real Estate maxim that the best choice is always “location, location, location,” the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus is hard to beat: It’s in the heart of historic Grafton, Illinois, along the Great Rivers Scenic Byway overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Grab a seat on the spacious patio or near a window in the equally large dining room and you’ve got a spectacular view of natural beauty in any season: colorful sunsets, flowing water, soaring eagles, rustling leaves, and plenty of fresh air.
Just 15 minutes from Alton, Illinois and 45 minutes from downtown St. Louis, Missouri, the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus is popular with both locals and tourists. To keep up with rising demand, owner Mike Nikonovich is expanding the business. We recently caught up with him to learn more about planned changes and expansion projects already underway.
Grafton Winery & Brewhaus was the first to hold dual licensing as a winery and a brewpub in the state of Illinois?
Yes. We didn’t know that but recently learned it from a journalist and right after that had another winery call us up and ask, “How in the world did you get a license to do both?” Well, we applied for both and got approved. It’s really caught on; the Midwest Wine Press recently noted a number of wineries are getting into craft beer and distilling—it’s catching on in Ohio, too.
Have you always been a restaurateur and winemaker?
We had a small winery before this one. That one opened 2006 and we opened this in 2008. Before that I actually worked at a steel mill for about 20 years, but I prefer doing this.
How did you get into winemaking?
Really, it was kind of reverse thing. My wife and I went to wineries for 20 years prior to opening one and we enjoyed the atmosphere, the people that were there and got to know a few owners. When we first got married we’d owned a service station for five years and enjoyed everything about being self-employed. I really didn’t see myself staying at the steel mill another 15 years, I actually never thought I’d work there but when the kids were young bills had to be paid. I thought that I wanted to get into the wine business and control the product. I didn’t know how to make wine, I just knew how to drink it. I started with a franchise that I don’t believe is around anymore but they showed us the basics and the rest is trial and error. You experiment and learn as you go. Our first winery was much smaller: It was a good stepping stone for this. If we’d tried stepping into this we would have been overwhelmed.
Are you still the winemaker?
Yes, I am. When we get the new facility opened up it will have a larger production area and so we’ll probably bring in a winemaker. I would still work with that individual as we still want control of the product: We know what we want and how we want it, so I will definitely be involved day to day.
What is your winemaking style?
We run the gamut from sweet wines to very dry. In the Midwest the sweet wines are the bigger sellers, but the dry wine drinkers we get are very passionate and very particular. I don’t like harsh wine, so I don’t want heavy tannins even in Cabernet. I want more fruit forward, even in dry wine, which compliments instead of overpowers the food. I don’t like a lot of alcohol as I don’t like a hot burn at the back of my throat. I like a more pleasing taste on my tongue. I like a softer style, so you can enjoy the grape.
Where are your grapes sourced?
Our new location will have a vineyard but right now we bring juice in: a lot from the West coast, some from Missouri and Michigan. One issue is availability: We want to make sure we have enough volume so we don’t run out of something. The West coast does it well, they have the perfect climate. But people want to try what’s local and we’re going to work on that with the new vineyard—we’re also going to experiment with growing some of our own hops as well.
Tell me more about the new location.
That’s going to be at Eckert’s Farms in Grafton, which is about four miles from this location. Eckert’s has apple orchards, peaches, blackberries, strawberries—it’s the largest pick-your-own orchard operation in the nation and has been there forever [since 1837]. It’s a great place. We work well with the Eckerts and are purchasing part of the farm to house an 11,000-square-foot building that will have the wine production facility, a tasting area with indoor seating, a pavilion that seats 300 people for weddings and events, vineyards, and we’re putting in a new lake plus there’s the orchards behind us with rolling hills—we couldn’t ask for a prettier setting. We’re excited about the new place and the automated bottling line will make life easier.
It’s less than a 10-minute drive from this location and we’ll have a passenger van so if people want to go out there for a tour and barrel tasting we can take them out there and just keep the van going back and forth. One location will complement the other; it will be a nice set as we’ll move the production up there and expand the beer production here. We’ll be bringing in an all grain system and doing more with the beer.
You recently launched a new menu. What changed?
The main reason for the new menu was that we wanted to try to get away from just bar food. We’re known for our half-pound burgers and they remain on the menu—never frozen, hand-formed patties—but we added wraps, nicer salads, entrée pastas, shared plates and specials. We started testing dishes and it went over well, so really the clientele demanded the changes. Bar food is widely available in Grafton and we do have two certified chefs so it’s been nice for them to expand the menu. We added lamb—we’re the only place in town where you can get lamb—more seafood, an apple-glazed pork chop, shrimp scampi, lobster mac and cheese, and a lot of specials like Chilean sea bass. The new menu launched in July and it’s gone over real well. We eliminated things like onion rings and potato skins and have not heard any complaints. Our whole thing is about quality, whether it’s our food, wine, beer, musical entertainment, comedians or whatever. Toasted ravioli is big in the St. Louis area and everyone had the same square ravioli you could buy at the grocery store; we wanted to be different so our round ravioli is breaded in house. A small thing like that attention to detail is a way to make sure you have the best quality.
Do you source product locally?
We try to; whatever we can we do. We use a local produce company and especially this time of year it’s great. With our new location at Eckert’s we’ll have access to fresh fruit and our chefs want to put an herb garden out there. Whatever we can source locally, we will.
Who are your chefs?
Chris Leith and Matt Cox. They work perfectly together, no egos, not afraid to try anything. We’re lucky to have them.
What is your beer making style? Are you also the brewer?
No, I’m not. Mike, Jr., [my son] makes the beer. The only thing I’m allowed to do is filter the pilsner, which is not a fun job. He makes the beer but also works full-time, so he’s here on the weekends mostly. We do expect our volume to pick up and so we might possibly add another brewer as well. That’s a side of the business we’ve not put enough into, we’ve been so tied up with the wine side and the food side takes so much energy.
How many different beers do you currently product?
Five. We’re going to add more space to do more and will also have a cider. We plan on adding a couple of sparkling wines as well.
Grafton Winery & Brewhaus
300 W. Main St.
Grafton IL 62037
– Photos courtesy Grafton Winery & Brewhaus