My wife, Patricia, gave a little squeal as her feet plunged into the red-purple juice.
“Oh,” she gasped, “they’re so squishy and warm!”
We were shin deep in grapes piled into half-barrel containers. Enjoying the grape-stomp was the most hands-on, or feet-on, part of our visit to Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery. Located in the historic northwest corner of Illinois, the picturesque town of Galena is just separated from Iowa by the Mississippi River and is barely a stone’s throw from Wisconsin.
Which made it the perfect place for a weekend getaway.
In autumn, the weather is cool and crisp, the sky blue, and the rolling countryside painted in a fall palette of colors offering a sense of completion, fulfillment and ripeness that rivals spring’s floral new beginnings. And nowhere can you enjoy the ripeness better than an A-list winery like Galena Cellars.
The colors of the trees in fall were bursting as we made the short drive through the pleasingly hilly Galena countryside to the vineyard for its annual Fall Harvest Festival, held every year at the end of September.
It’s a luscious outing full of the season’s aromas, sounds, and tastes, all keyed to the winery’s production of award-winning vintages like Frontenac Gris, Traminette, and Chambourcin, among others.
But the taste of wine isn’t all we sampled at the harvest festival. At a little table an arm’s length away from vines sagging with heavy masses of plump, luscious grapes, Patricia’s face went beatific with one bite of soppressata and gruyere on toasted French bread. I gobbled aged Gouda on crackers like the cheese was manna from heaven. The live music tootled away nearby as we stuffed more of the cheese delicacies into our mouths.
But it wasn’t all sitting and nibbling; we also took a horse-drawn wagon ride through the vineyard, chose a couple of nicely crafted artisanal keepsakes, and even looked on as artists drew inspiration from the lovely setting, creating new works in the open air. As we took in the rows of green vines, Patricia nudged me. “Next time we’ll have to go to the Massbach Stomp at Massbach Ridge Winery.” “Battle of the grape stomps?” I suggested and she nodded, her eyes bright.
Galena Country in the fall is rich with agri-tourism built around the farm-to-table movement. At Dittmar Farms & Orchard we were delighted to learn that autumn’s harvest isn’t limited to grapes and wine. Family-owned and operated since before the Civil War, the orchard and farm hosts visitors for family-friendly fun all year, but it’s especially popular in the fall.
“So, what kind of pumpkin are we looking for?” I wondered out loud. Patricia decided on a round, medium-sized pumpkin, theorizing that our arms would get tired if we picked too large of a pumpkin.
I knew she was a smart one when I married her.
Near the cute country village of Elizabeth, Dittmar Farms spices the fall experience with blueberries, cherries, grapes and the delicious roasting ear hybrid Montauk, not to mention the laughter of families finding their way through the corn maze. There’s also a hay-bale maze for the little ones.
The orchard has nearly 800 apple trees with several different varieties, including Zestar, Galas, Honeycrisp, and Cortland apples. When the apples are ready for picking, Dittmar Farms offers the opportunity for visitors to pick apples off the trees themselves to take home. These apples are not just great for eating, Dittmar Farms recommends baking them as well.
We spread out a blanket and munched the delicious Dittmar apple-cider donuts while surveying the surrounding hillsides covered with hardwoods showing their best late-season colors to the sun. Wagon hay-rides rumbled past, and there always seemed to be a member of the Dittmar clan bustling around helping guests, hauling pumpkins or talking about the orchard’s deliciously crispy and juicy apple cultivars like Gingergold, RubyMac, JonaStar, and the Royal Red Honeycrisp that manages to be as pleasing to the eye as it is to the taste buds.
It’s all kept as low impact as possible using Integrated Pest Management—a system that uses insect sampling and non-chemical techniques to all but eliminate spraying for bugs. The result is a country setting sparkling with natural charm, and products with a low impact on the environment but a big impact on enjoyment.
“We could get used to this farm living,” Patricia said, lying back with a forearm protecting her eyes from the bright sunshine.
We had heard so much about the fairs in the area, just visiting one wouldn’t do. As luck would have it, two fairs happened on the same weekend and were only a short drive from each other. We started our day at the Autumn Craft Fair in Hanover. Over 120 vendors offer unique gifts and part of the sales goes to support local students. We grabbed a pumpkin cinnamon roll and wandered the vendor aisles, taking in homemade candles, toys, jewelry and more.
When I finished licking the remnants of the delicious, sticky bun off my fingers, we got in the car to drive to the Galena Country Fair, a two-day celebration of arts and crafts. We drove down winding roads that led us through the Tapley Woods Conservation Area. Trees lined each side of the road so close together that it was easy to imagine that we were the only ones on the road. We turned off the music and took a minute to just appreciate the red, orange, and yellow leaves on the trees, a soft breeze blowing stray leaves to drift to the grass below. It was gorgeous.
We parked and walked over to Grant Park where more than 150 vendors—juried, to ensure high quality wares—were spread out beneath the park’s trees, along with community organizations offering refreshments and games like the Eyeball Toss. (It’s a Halloween thing.)
A highlight is a stroll past the dramatic Belvedere Mansion and Gardens, a Victorian home at the edge of the park. Its 19th century style and careful landscaping put us in just the right frame of mind to enjoy this fall outing.
A band played from a picturesque white gazebo as we meandered from booth to booth, smiling at cute yard gnomes here, admiring the workmanship of hand-wrought jewelry there, developing ravenous appetites at a tent selling delicious salsas, jellies and preserves. We assuaged that with brats, made even tastier than usual by open-air grilling, and washed them down with a couple of frosty brews.
Later we tried some more with caramel apples—nuts for her, no nuts for me—and some heavenly pumpkin bread from the bake sale. And then there was the fudge, funnel cakes, fresh pastries and more wine tasting. All in all we were able to satisfy our appetites very, very well at the festival.
Along the way we admired the reenactors’ period attire, portraying Civil War generals and their ladies, entirely appropriate for a community whose favorite son is Ulysses Grant, chief Union general during the war and later president of the United States.
“This is darling,” Patricia said, stopping in her tracks next to a selection of beautiful hummingbird feeders. “Wouldn’t this look nice on the patio?” I was more taken by a piece of folk-craft, a scrap-metal hound dog riding a Schwinn bicycle—with training wheels, of course. We compromised and got a hummingbird feeder.
As the afternoon went golden into the early evening, we found a park bench and sat looking across the river to the west. Galena’s downtown is right across the water, and the dropping sun cast the colorful riverbank trees and carefully preserved 1800s era buildings into sharp, sepia-toned contrast, like a vintage photo, with the sky turned blue and coral behind.
It was a sight we’ll be back next year to see again.