A Memorial to Gary Orlandini, Southern Illinois Wine Pioneer
Sometimes people ask “Why did you start Midwest Wine Press?” The answer is because the story is so good. Our Midwest wine industry was left for dead after Prohibition and it stayed moribund for decades. Then a few pioneers started planting grapes and making wine in the Midwest because they heard it had been done successfully a long time ago.
Sadly, during December of 2012, one of those pioneers, Gary Orlandini, passed away. Gary was the owner of Orlandini Vineyard in far southern Illinois. Gary grew tired of the seasonal bleakness of Northern Illinois, so in the late ’60s, Gary left Chicago to grow grapes and make wine in a far off land called Little Egypt. (He also owned an insulation company in Makanda, Illinois.)
When I bought vacation property in far Southern Illinois in 2004, I was vaguely aware of a wine industry there. So my wife and I started to venture out from our vacation home at Lake Egypt to explore the wineries of Southern Illinois.
At the time, Blue Sky Winery had just opened in the Shawnee National Forest. A $3 million Tuscan villa on a gravel road located in a GPS “danger zone,” Blue Sky Winery was, and is, a spectacle to behold. The road to Blue Sky is paved now and the signage is lot better, but when Blue Sky opened, getting lost on the way was just part of the adventure.
On the supposed way to Blue Sky, we came upon a hand made wood sign by the side of the road that read “Orlandini Vineyards.” We were both tired of being lost and since we had found an actual winery, we decided to pay a visit.
From the main road, the gravel driveway to Orlandini extended up a steep grade for about 50 yards. In the middle of the driveway was a large tree. Fortunately, the drive veered sharply to both the left and right of the tree providing an escape route. But the design begged the question, “Why not just have one driveway that stays away from the tree entirely?”
At the top of the drive was a clearing to park the car next to an old aluminum barn. There was not another car on the property or any sign of life. Susan, my wife, has learned to endure my misadventures, so we got out of the car to look around. On the back of the barn was a door which I opened a crack and said “Hello.” Out came a large man with a huge smile who was dressed like he was working at hard physical labor.
“C’mon in,” he said. “I’m just making wine, nothing to be afraid of.” Gary proceeded to tell us at length about the grapes that were growing on his property. Not knowing much about wine, I found it interesting that he talked more about growing grapes than the end product. The passion with which he discussed his vineyard was contagious. “Could we see the vineyard?” I asked, not knowing if this was an appropriate question to ask a winemaker.
Of course, the answer was “yes.” Gary walked the vineyard with us and explained trellising, pruning and the importance of sunlight which were completely new topics to me at the time. I remember wondering, “Why is this man being so nice to me?” But that’s the way Gary was to all visitors. To him, it was as much about the story as it was about the wine.
We all went back inside the barn where the winemaking facility is located. We had been at the Winery a half hour and finally another car pulled up. It was Andrea Barkley and her partner “Tippy Toe” from the Global Gourmet restaurant in nearby Carbondale. Had Andrea not shown up, I’m not sure if I would have had my first barrel tasting on that day. Gary did not seem to mind that Susan and I stuck around while he poured his wine for us and the local restauranteurs.
Writing about what wine tastes and smells like is difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, I will not even attempt describing what Gary’s wine tastes like, other than to say that they taste like Southern Illinois. If you want to know what Southern Illinois tastes like, take a trip to the area and spend a few days. There is something very distinctive about this region that sits where the Ozark Plateau ends and the largest rivers in the hemisphere meet.
And that brings me to another reason that I love Midwest wine. The best Midwest wines are artistic representations of the place from which I am from. People like Gary Orlandini take the qualities of the land and the culture and put it in a bottle for us to enjoy.
A celebration of Gary’s life was held at Blue Sky Winery last month. Blue Sky was just one of many wineries in Southern Illinois that Gary helped to get started.
As Gary said, “We’re just a winery; that’s all we are is just a good quality winery.” Thanks for introducing me to quality regional wine Gary. You are missed already.
For more information about Orlandini Vineyards, which moved out of the barn to a new building years ago, see http://orlandinivineyard.com/