From his vantage point in southern Illinois, Jim Ewers doesn't think adding his new winery to the state's growing list will squeeze the market dry.
"We have not reached critical mass in terms of wineries," he said from Blue Sky Vineyard, tucked among the rolling hills and vistas about 15 miles southeast of Carbondale.
Winemaking isn't new to the Midwest, where Illinois used to be among the nation's top producers before Prohibition laws forced them out of business. Illinois's oldest winery -- Baxter's Winery in Nauvoo -- dates to 1885, when wines reportedly sold for 25 cents a gallon, a barrel for $12.50.
Over the past eight years, the number of state wineries has more than quadrupled, from a dozen in 1997 to nearly 60 today, said Bill McCartney of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.
Gib Frier, the state Agriculture Department's bureau chief of marketing and promotion, said: "We've got new wineries applying for licenses all the time," making it difficult for the state to keep its numbers updated.
By McCartney's estimates, the Land of Lincoln makes 500,000 gallons of wine a year in what has become a $60 million industry statewide. Along the way, Illinois's grape acreage has blossomed from 140 in 1997 to about 1,000 now, he said.
Vintners and experts cite various reasons for the proliferation, including the appeal of alternative farming in a state that already leads the country in producing horseradishes and pumpkins. Observers also point to consumers' increasing thirst for wine, and the state's topography and soil that lends itself to growing grapes.
Aggressive marketing hasn't hurt, either.
"My sense is that most of those [Illinois] wineries have no problem selling their wine," said Cyril Penn, editor of the Wine Business Monthly, based in California's wine country.
Illinois wine is often described as fruitier and more pungent than its counterparts elsewhere. And while winery businesses here are thriving, the state is not close to reaching the success of California, maker of 90 percent of the nation's wine.
U.S. wine sales have grown yearly since 1993, doubling to $23.2 billion in 2004, according to the California-based Wine Institute. Domestic sales last year were 668 million gallons, up from 570 million gallons in 2000 and 449 million in 1993, the institute said.
Blue Sky, which opened July 4, was financed by Ewers's father-in-law, Barrett Rochman, and takes up about one-sixth of the 600 or so acres he owns. Inspired partly by the project's romanticism, Rochman has spent nearly $2 million on the vineyard.
The winery expects to make 12,000 gallons in its first year and run the gamut from full-bodied, dry reds to lighter, sweeter wines.
Blue Sky, with about 12 acres of about 10 varieties of grapes, reaped 7 tons of the fruit in its first commercial harvest last fall. The winery has bought 50 tons from other Illinois growers and hopes to grow to 65 tons on site.