Alto Pass


Alto Vineyards Constructing New Facility

July 29, 2012 By Brent Stewart |

ALTO PASS — Southern Illinois’ first winery is in the midst of a major expansion.
A new, 6,000-square-foot facility is under construction at Alto Vineyards. When finished, the new building will feature a large, open area for regular use as a year-round tasting room, but also for wedding receptions or special events.

A small kitchen in the building will allow for catering of special events and a limited food menu during regular hours.

There will be a rooftop deck looking out over the hills of Alto Pass, including a view of Bald Knob Cross, and a large outdoor patio.

The expansion marks the first major facelift for the almost 30-year-old winery.
“I knew there was going to come a time when we needed to build an indoor facility,” said owner Paul Renzaglia. “This was going to happen. This was something that was due.”
When Alto Vineyards first started, Renzaglia said, there were only six wineries in the state. In those early days, it was all about the wine. Sometimes they would have large festivals, but most weekends the experience was about tasting something new in a small tasting room.

But times have changed. Renzaglia said his family had $25,000 to start their winery. Now, millions of dollars are spent on large, extravagant facilities that sell beer and even mixed drinks in addition to their wine; they regularly have live music and offer full food menus.

And Renzaglia said Alto Vineyards had gotten to the point where they needed to provide a space for special events that would also be comfortable for their patrons year-round.
“I think we’ve been very successful at drawing people from further and further away,” Renzaglia said. “So I’m seeing that a facility along with the winery and vineyard is just part of what you do now. It’s able to sustain itself. I think that with a nicer indoor facility, it’ll help draw more people to our area.”

Alto Vineyards will also begin selling beer, another major change for the winery. On July 10, the Alto Pass Village Board unanimously passed a new liquor ordinance that created five classes of liquor licenses in the small Union County community and expands the number of available licenses for wineries and restaurants, some of which allowed the sale of beer.

Renzaglia admits he’s a purist in keeping the winery’s focus on their wine, but concedes the addition of beer to their menu was necessary, especially because they are hoping to attract more wedding receptions with the new expansion. “We have to have beer now, just to compete,” Renzaglia said.
But Renzaglia also doesn’t want to lose sight of the original vision for the vineyard, pioneered by his late father, Guy.

Renzaglia said he hoped to find a way to plant grapevines closer to the new expansion building, so visitors can get a first-hand look at how the wine-making process begins.
Eventually, Renzaglia also wants to replant some of the original vines his father planted when starting the winery as a memorial to the man who essential created the Southern Illinois wine industry.
“It was his idea,” Renzaglia said. “I give him credit for seeing this was a possibility.”

Midwest Winemakers Expect Early Harvest, Lower Yields

July 25, 2012 By Mark Ganchiff |

Winemakers across the Midwest are now preparing to harvest their grapes. For many growers, the warm winter, the spring freeze and now the ongoing drought have combined to push harvest dates forward by two to three weeks. The harvest for some varieties could start within the next fortnight. Yields at many vineyards are expected to be down significantly from last year, but some winemakers say the dry conditions will produce a high quality crop.

In Indiana, where about 40% of the state is in extreme drought, at the Country Heritage Winery in the north, winemaker, Kevin Geeting says that unless it rains during August, they will be harvesting two to three weeks ahead of schedule. Geeting has 21 acres of young vines – the oldest are 2 years old – including Cayuga White, Traminette and Vignoles.

Irrigation has allowed his youthful vineyard to cope in the heat he says he suspects the current conditions will make the sugar levels in his crop high and the fruit quality very good. Geeting partly attributes the healthy state of his vines to planting French-American hybrids that are better suited than vinifera to the extremes of climate in the Midwest and says anyone planting vinifera, “could be struggling in these conditions.”

However in Missouri, 30 miles east of Kansas City, where conditions are just as hot, winemaker Michael Amigoni’s five acres of vinifera seem to be coping in the ongoing heat. Most of the vineyard is planted with Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and according to a posting on Amigoni Winery’s Facebook page on Friday, irrigation is keeping the Chardonnay vines healthy and they expect them to be the first ones ready for harvest in about three weeks.

At his 10 acre, family owned vineyard in the Shawnee Hills of Illinois, Alto Vineyard’s Paul Renzaglia says they’ve only had three inches of rain since late February. “I’ve been in southern Illinois for fifty years and I’ve never seen anything like this where it [the drought] started so early and lasted so long and the heat has just been oppressive.”

Even overnight he says temperatures rarely drop below 80 degrees. Alto Vineyards does not irrigate and many vines are only a year or two old. But the Renzaglia says that while his vines are showing signs of stress, like lack of vigor, even the youngest ones are so far coping with the heat. Renzaglia attributes this drought resistance to the distinctive soils at the vineyard: sandy on top allowing for good drainage, clay two to three feet down that could be helping with water retention and also subsoil at three to four feet. “That helps a lot for handling this drought,” he says.

Renzaglia’s yield estimate is much the same as other winemakers and viticulture experts across the Midwest. He expects his harvest to be down by about 25% and says the same drop is expected at the four or five vineyards they purchase grapes from. A week ago, he was also concerned about how the drought could impact sugar levels and fruit quality.

Due to the lack of vigor in the vines, Renzaglia suspected that the grapes had not produced any sugars for several weeks. However, recent tests confirmed that sugar, pH and tartaric acid levels are much the same as last year. Curiously, the grapes are not maturing as fast as they are in other parts of the Midwest so Alto Vineyards expect their harvest to start within a week of last year, so during mid-August.

Winemakers we interviewed expect the lower yields at harvest time to force prices of some grape varieties up. However, rather than the drought, most of the current upward movement in the price of grapes is a result of the spring freeze. For example, Renzaglia says the Concord juice they buy in from Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania has gone up 30%. Winemakers can’t absorb all of that increase, he says, so it’s very likely some wines will become more expensive.

In Central Illinois, Bradley Beam, Enology Specialist and winemaker at Willett’s Winery says he could start bringing in his 7 acres of irrigated grapes within two weeks. “We’re a little past veraison (the onset of ripening when the berries change color) at this point, in fact I just tasted some fruit that seemed dangerously palatable. It made my eyes jump out a little bit!”

He says they probably only have a couple of weeks before they should start harvesting early ripening varieties like Frontenac and Leon Millot. Beam says their yield will be down because of frost damage to primary buds earlier in the year and also the current heat. Secondary buds that survived the frost and budded afterwards tend to have smaller clusters of grapes (if they produce grapes at all), and; even with irrigation, the extreme heat has decreased grape size and weight by reducing water content.

Beam says berries they expected to weigh 1.5 grams are 1.2 grams because of the hot conditions. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw 25% lower yields across the board,” he says. However because the drought will reduce the amount of water in the grapes and concentrate the flavors and sugars, Beam says fruit quality – and probably the wines that result – should be excellent.

Beam at Willett’s also said that some clusters are ripening unevenly. Further north in Illinois, Bill Shoemaker, Viticulture Specialist at the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences, near Chicago is concerned about how uneven ripening could affect fruit quality. “We will need continuing rain or I think we will have problems with ripening and the integrity of the fruit,” he says.

And, if the drought continues on into mid to late August, Shoemaker estimates grape crop losses could be as high as 40%, about half of that loss attributable to the spring frost, the rest to the current dry conditions. Like Beam, Shoemaker expects the harvest to start two to three weeks earlier than usual. He says the white grape, Brianna will likely be the earliest gathered in, closely followed by varieties including Leon Millot, Foch and Aurora.

Diane Brown from Michigan State University’s Berrien County Extension in Southwest Michigan reports in MSU’s July 24th Grape and Wine Newsletter that “we expect to see the beginnings of veraison soon.” She said that young vines in the area are showing the effects of heat and lack of soil moisture.


Alto Vineyards Receives Gold Medals in National & International Competitions

Alto Pass, IL – The Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) is recognized for its distinctive wine-making qualities. Alto Vineyards continues to uphold that reputation with a Double Gold for their 2008 Chambourcin in this year’s American Wine Society Competition. They also received a Gold medal for the 2010 Porto Di Guido in the Women’s International Competition held in Sonoma, CA.

“The 2008 Chambourcin was all estate grown, right here in our vineyard. I believe this is an exceptional vintage, and it proves that we can grow the best Chambourcin in the world in the Shawnee Hills AVA. We’ve won many top awards with this particular grape and are continuing that tradition,” said Alto Vineyards owner and wine-maker, Paul Renzaglia.

Alto Vineyards was the only Illinois winery to receive recognition in the 2011 American Wine Society Competition with a total of five medals including three Silvers for the Dawg House Red, Chardonel, and Porto Di Guido.

The judges at the 2011 Women’s International Competition in Sonoma Valley felt differently about the 2010 Porto Di Guido, sending it home with an international Gold medal. The field of entries included wineries throughout the United States, including those in Illinois, Virginia, Texas, and New York plus international entries from Canada, Greece, New Zealand, and others. This year was the first time Alto Vineyards entered the Women’s International, and all three wines submitted gained medals, including a Silver for the Chardonel.


Alto Vineyards Supports Heifer International

Alto Pass, IL – Alto Vineyards hosted the first Heifer in the Vines event on May 22, 2011.

Heifer in the Vines is a fundraising event to heighten awareness of Heifer International’s work to end hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. The afternoon event includes local entertainment and food, as well as a silent auction to support the initiative to “Pass on the Gift”.

Heifer International’s “Pass on the Gift” offers people the opportunity to buy an animal as a gift for a family in need. Before that animal is gifted to a family —for milk or eggs or income opportunity—Heifer works with and educates the family about the animal’s welfare and utility.

“I personally embrace the concept of giving aid to needy families who are then able to "Pass on the Gift" to other needy families in their area.  I think that the "Pass on the Gift" expectation is a phenomenal concept,” said Heifer in the Vines volunteer, Julie Sikorski.

In addition to Heifer’s “Pass on the Gift” approach, the organization emphasizes environmental awareness and sustainable development, animal well-being, and community involvement. Heifer International volunteer, Shirley Krienert, experienced the concepts in action last summer as part of a Heifer Study Tour to Honduras.

“I might say that the trip to Honduras with Heifer was life-changing for me,” said Krienert, “I learned first hand what a difference a cow can make in the life of not just a family, but a community.”

Local communities in Southern Illinois have joined the campaign to support the Heifer in the Vines, including General John A Logan Elementary School in Murphysboro where students have raised over one-thousand dollars for the Heifer organization.

“Southern Illinois is a rural area, and most Heifer communities are rural areas too.  We have many things in common.  We care greatly about our families.  We are proud.  We also help one another when the going gets tough.  We have a sense of community.  Supporting Heifer builds bridges between individuals, communities and countries,” said Krienert.

The battle against poverty is not isolated to developing countries, but is close to home. Sixteen counties in Southern Illinois have been placed on either the Poverty Watch or Poverty Warning lists in the 2010 Report of Illinois Poverty. This report is produced annually by the Chicago-based organization, Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights.

According to the Heartland Alliance report, results indicate that counties all across Illinois struggle with poverty related issues, and that the 2010 Watch and Warning lists “must serve as a wake-up call for leaders to begin deliberate efforts to reverse these trends in their communities”.

 “… I certainly believe that the education of the recipients is key to them being able to become self reliant.  It is also important to me that sustainable/environmentally friendly farming techniques and climate appropriate livestock and plants are part of the education process. I believe that these values are shared by the folks at Alto Vineyards,” said Sikorski.

“It is important for the public to attend the Heifer in the Vines because individuals can make a difference.  Giving someone hope and the ability to dream . . . I can't think of a greater gift,” said Krienert.

Alto Vineyards Brings Home the Gold
from 2011 State Fair Competition

Alto Pass, IL – For many, the annual state fair means cotton candy, corn dogs, candy apples, and marks the end of the season.  For wine makers of Illinois, however, the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition is an opportunity to strut their stuff.  Alto Vineyards, the oldest and most award-winning winery in Southern Illinois, brought home several awards including three Double Gold metals in this year’s competition. The 2010 Heartland White, 2010 Cherry Berry, and 2007 Porto di Guido were among the top rankings.

“We are really proud of the all the wines we submitted for competition this year,” said third generation owner, Kara Hopkins-Renzaglia. “The Chardonel and Villard are two particularly crisp and refreshing wines appropriate for the season, and both received Gold medals.” The 2006 Chambourcin and Dawg House Red were also among the four Gold ranking wines for Alto Vineyards.

Alto Vineyards Rocko Red, Heartland Red, and Heartland Blush were recipients of Silver medals, as well as the Traminette, and Chambourcin 2008. Of the Alto Vineyard wines entered into the 2011 Illinois State Fair Wine competition, 95 percent came home with a metal. The Double Gold wines will be on display at the state fair.

“Judges were blown away this year,” said Bradley Beam, Illinois State Enologist. “Most [judges] have been here for 5 years, and this year there were one or two new judges from the food industry.”

So how are wines evaluated? Judges use the Davis Scorecard at the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition, which gives each wine a numerical rating relative to its quality. Wines are judged on several characteristics including appearance, color, aroma, acidity, body, flavor, sweetness, and bitterness - just to name a few. Each category carries a numerical weight with a total ranking out of 20 points.

Alto Vineyards wins Double Gold

Local winery takes Double Gold and more at Great Lakes Wine Competition.

Farmington Hills, Michigan (May 21, 2010) – Alto Vineyards, Ltd., the leading provider of locally grown and produced wine in Southern Illinois, today announced that they have received a Double Gold at the Great Lakes Wine Competition for their 2009 Cherry Berry, fruit wine. At this competition, a double gold is difficult to earn because it requires two tables of judges (not one table) to give the wine unanimous support. Alto Vineyards garnered 3 other gold medals for wine made from Illinois soil and the list includes their 2005 Chambourcin, Heartland Blush and Rocko Red. The Great Lakes Great Wine Competition, staged by the culinary instructors and students at Oakland Community College in Farmington Hills, Mich. deliver an accurate snapshot of quality in a region ever challenged by climate and birth place of wine east of the Rocky Mountains. Seven states and one Canadian province bordering the Great Lakes comprised the competition's geographic boundaries.

Alto Vineyards, Ltd. has continually demarked itself by the quality of regional wine grown and produced from Illinois soil. After launching its first vintage in 1988, Alto Vineyards has inestimably contributed to improving the quality of wine grown throughout southern Illinois, being the first winery bonded in southern Illinois and one of the original 5 in the entire state. “We are very pleased that our 2009 Cherry Berry has been recognized as one of the best fruit wines in a wine competition that offers competition throughout the upper and eastern mid western US, eastern US and Canada.,” said Elissa Hopkins- Renzaglia, Marketing Director. “My dad, Paul Renzaglia, is a fine winemaker”.

Alto Vineyards, Ltd. now plans to capitalize on the recognition it has garnered by the award winning results and looks forward to participating in the Illinois State wine competition being held in Champaign, Illinois at the University of Illinois June, 7 – 9 .

About Alto Vineyards, Ltd.
Founded in 1981 by Guy Renzaglia, Alto Vineyards, Ltd. is the maker of the popular wines; Heartland White, Heartland Blush, Heartland Red and Shawnee Gold. The company’s mission is to produce the best possible product beginning in the vineyard and finishing at your table. Alto Vineyards, Ltd. currently serves over 300 clients in the Midwest and employs 12 people throughout central and southern Illinois. It has won hundreds of awards for its locally produced wine.

ISBDC nominates Alto Vineyards for state honor

January 15, 2010

By Christi Mathis Fri, 15 Jan 2010 19:14:52 GMT

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Illinois Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has nominated an Alto Pass vineyard for a statewide business award.

Alto Vineyards Ltd., with Paul A. Renzaglia as winemaker and general manager, is the nominee for the Jeffrey Butland Family Owned Small Business award from the Small Business Administration. The Butland award goes to a family owned business with ownership passing from one generation to another as the company logs at least 15 years of successful operation.

The Illinois SBA presents the Jeffrey Butland Family Owned Small Business award and other small business recognitions during ceremonies each spring in Chicago. In addition to a plaque and special recognition, statewide winners are eligible for national awards presented in Washington, D.C.

“Alto Vineyards Ltd. is one of the true business jewels of Southern Illinois,” said Lynn Andersen Lindberg, director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center and director of manufacturing enterprise development and business innovation at SIUC. “I have had the pleasure of knowing for many years the Renzaglia family, who are the heart of Alto Vineyards, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch the company grow from one man’s dream to the foundation business of a tourism industry that reaches across Southern Illinois and throughout the state of Illinois. The development and success of Alto Vineyards truly exemplifies the importance of family owned businesses in the spirit of former SBA New England regional administrator Jeffrey Butland, to the Illinois and U.S. economies.”

Guy Renzaglia, Paul’s father, founded the winery in 1984. Working in viticulture is a family tradition tracing its roots to a small seaside village in Italy. Alto Vineyards produced its first wine in 1988. The company sold out its first 1,200 gallons of wine in just one weekend. The vineyard now employs 14 with annual sales topping $1 million. It became a third-generation business in 2003 with the addition of Elissa Hopkins-Renzaglia to the management team. Alto Vineyards now bottles about 30,000 gallons of wine each year.

Current general manager, president and winemaker Paul Renzaglia has twice been Illinois Winemaker of the Year. He’s an alumnus of SIUC, earning a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice in 1980 and completing coursework but not his thesis for a master of science in special education as well.

Alto Vineyards currently produces 21 different types of wine. Located on a 50-acre plot along Illinois Route 127, the vineyard includes acres of grape vines along with bottling and production facilities, coolers and storage rooms, a retail sales and wine tasting room, company offices and a large, open air locale for special events. Planning is under way for a 7,000-square-foot event facility offering seating for up to 200 people during festivals, banquets and special events. Alto Vineyards anticipates opening the new facility later this year.

Alto Vineyards is the recipient of more than 750 national and international wine competition awards. In addition, Guy Renzaglia was in 2004 the first recipient of the Guy Renzaglia Industry Achievement Award from the Illinois Grape Grower’s and Vintner’s Association, an award created to recognize longtime service in the industry. Paul Renzaglia won the same award in 2009.

“What makes Alto Vineyards special is not just its success as a small, family owned business. It is the support that they have given to other businesses throughout Southern Illinois,” Andersen Lindberg said. She notes that the winery has loaned equipment, provided storage, and even sprayed crops for other vineyards while also giving generously to the community and the region’s people and organizations.

“I am hard-pressed to think of another family owned business in Illinois that has become such a vital member of a rural economy and is more deserving of this award than Paul Renzaglia and Alto Vineyards,” SIU President Glenn Poshard said in his letter of recommendation for the award.

- Don't Forget, Illinois has its very first A.V.A., right here in Southern Illinois. Please send us an email if you have questions about the Shawnee Hills A.V.A.

- Alto Vineyards now offers custom labels for various occasions. A personalized bottle makes the perfect gift for that special occasion!