Galena, Illinois

Fruits of the Land

Sampling nature’s sweet offerings in Galena Country

Ever since my wife and I had our kids, it’s been hard to have any one-on-one time with each other. Every trip has been a family vacation. The idea was planted in my head to take a romantic trip, just the two of us. After poking around online, I found Galena Country had numerous award-winning wineries that I knew my Sara would love, and it wasn’t even a far drive from our urban home in Chicago.

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Taste test

There turned out to be quite a bit of history packed into Galena, a town of some 3,400 people. Former Civil War General and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant had lived there and worked in his father’s leather goods business. The town had once been a prominent steamboat hub, and was the site of the first major mineral rush in the United States. (Galena is a mineral form of lead.)

Galena's Historic Main Street

But we weren’t there to dig for metal; we were there for the fruit. We booked a room at Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery, a tasteful suite perched above the tasting room.

After checking in, we set out for Galena’s charming Main Street. There, we explored and found the Massbach Ridge Winery tasting room. We learned about the winery—a small-but-mighty operation founded by Peggy Harmston, a farmer turned winemaker who still uses milk coolers to maintain the temperature of the wine. We sat at the bar and sampled some of the wines. My favorite was the Daffodil, a sweet white wine in which I noticed peach and honey flavors. Sara liked the Velvet Hour, a bold red. (She’s more interesting than me.)

We spent some more time strolling down Main Street hand-in-hand, stopping off for some light shopping here and there, before our stomachs led us to Vinny Vanucchi's for a late lunch. While we were in the area to visit wineries, we decided to pace ourselves and have lunch without a glass. But, we got the idea of where to go when we asked our waiter about wineries in the area—Rocky Waters Vineyard.

The scenic drive to Hanover led us through rolling fields and quaint communities. We spent most of the drive with quiet, and relaxed, smiles on our faces.

Once at Rocky Waters Vineyard, we had an even better view of the same beautiful hills from the drive, dotted with the stunning multicolor hues of the leaves changing. We sampled two wines: Pear Tree Blush, a wine made from grapes that gleans some of its flavor from the winery’s pear tree that graciously drops its fruit into the soil beneath the vines, and Twisted Oak, a very mellow Chardonnay that gets a subtle buttery flavor due to being the only oaked white wine. Delicious.

We made it back to the Galena Cellars, where we took a tour and enjoyed a tasting. We each ordered sangria, which was zesty, delicious and packed the right amount of punch. While admiring the great view (are you noticing a pattern here?), Sara and I learned all about this winery’s family history. Chris, the current winemaker—who has been named Illinois’ winemaker of the year four times—took over the winery after her parents founded it more than 40 years ago. Right now, Chris is in the process of shifting the winemaking to her children, Eric and Britt. Soon, Eric, his wife, and Britt will be taking over the business and Chris can enjoy her well-earned retirement.

Pick your favorites

After enjoying the whirlpool tub and a restful night, we woke up to a view of the beautiful grounds from our windows. The sunrise beamed over the hills and splashed its warm colors all around. After admiring the serene view together and sharing a quick good morning kiss, we started our day with coffee and a yoga class outside—the peaceful nature of the vineyards pairs excellently with yoga.

Like many others, my wife and I had made an increasing effort in recent years to buy local and support local growers. Another couple at Galena Cellars mentioned that they had spent the day visiting a couple local orchards, and we decided to follow their lead.

Dittmar Farms & Orchard has been owned by the same family since 1854. The fifth-generation owners, Rick and Peg, are a retired postmaster and nurse practitioner who now focus on being friendly to visitors and growing pumpkins, apples and sweet corn.

During our visit, the Gala and Honeycrisp apples were juicy and ready for picking. We also took a hayride and got a peek at the enormous pumpkins. Our kids would love this place! Speaking of kids, the Dittmars had also set up a corn maze on the property, plus delicious apple cider donuts, gourd launching, pony rides, and more. The entire experience would make for affordable family fun, and we decided that we would come back with our kids.

Then we jetted over to Orchard Landing Apple Farm, which has a grass runway for planes and an airplane hangar where you can find apple cider donuts. We also bought a bag of Pink Lady apples and a jar of honey.

For the last stop of our weekend in the driftless area, we visited Terrapin Orchards, home to more apple varieties than I’d ever heard of. My new favorite: Honeygold. It tastes like a Golden Delicious apple kissed with honey. Owner Matt Meade had clearly been perfecting his craft for a while. He first decided to become a grower in sixth grade, and it showed in the quality of his fruit. The couple who told us about the orchards advised us to bring our own bucket because Matt lets guests pick their own.

As we hopped back in our car, filled with a couple bags of apples, a jar of honey and four bottles of wine, I thought about how this time together was exactly what we needed. And now we know this beautiful and bountiful strip of land along the Mississippi River will always be waiting for us, with our without the kids.

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