It’s an improbable sight, nestled among the new subdivisions along Aptakisic Road in the northern suburb of Long Grove, but there it sits, looking like a transplanted slice of the Napa Valley: an estate vineyard, with ten rolling acres of grapevines surrounding a brick-and-stone winery.

Neither a mirage nor the hobby farm of a wealthy eccentric, Valentino Vineyards is a serious business. Last year, according to proprietor Rudolph Valentino DiTommaso (who was named after his father, who was named after the silent-film star), the vineyard produced 10,000 bottles of wine from its own grapes. Over the next two or three years DiTommaso expects to double that output. But quantity isn’t his primary concern. With his custom blends and varietals, DiTommaso aims to disprove the popular supposition that good wines come only from California or abroad. His confidence in his ability to do so is rooted in the soil under his feet. “I’m getting excellent grapes from this property, and I expect them to get even better,” he says.

DiTommaso, who declined to give his age but looks to be in his 50s, has been in the wine business since the spring of 1996. Before then he was a professional home builder: between 1983 and 1996 DiTommaso built and sold around three dozen houses in Hawthorn Woods, Barrington, and Long Grove.

The winery is the unexpected outcome of an ordinary development deal. In the spring of 1990 DiTommaso acquired a 20-acre plot in Long Grove. The land had formerly been part of an 80-acre commercial plant nursery, 60 acres of which were being developed into a housing subdivision by another builder. Di-Tommaso was planning to erect about 20 houses on his land and sell them. “I would have pulled about $6 million out of this property in five to seven years,” he says.

Between 1990 and ’95 DiTommaso busied himself with preparing the lot for construction, taking down trees, excavating two large ornamental ponds, and surveying the sites of the houses. His plan was to break ground for the houses in the spring of ’96.

He also did something with the land that had nothing to do with building the subdivision: in 1994 he planted a half acre of Marechal Foch grapes. DiTommaso had been growing grapes in his backyard in Long Grove for years, but when the time came to make his wine in autumn he’d always been obliged to augment his modest crop with grapes from California. With the additional half acre, he hoped to become a self-sufficient home vintner–until it came time to build a house on the plot where the vines were growing and sell the property. “It was just going to be for my own consumption, my family and friends,” he says.

But as the vines took root in the earth, an idea took shape in DiTommaso’s mind. Late in the summer of ’95, DiTommaso was relaxing on the acreage with a glass of wine made from his backyard grapes. It tasted good to him–“robust but smooth,” he says. Suddenly it dawned on him that the subdivision was never going to happen. “I was sitting overlooking the pond and the property, and it grabbed me,” he says. “Can I do a vineyard on this? Should I do it? It’s a huge undertaking.”

In December DiTommaso went to Long Grove’s board of trustees with a proposal to build a commercial winery in lieu of two dozen new houses. He half expected to be turned down; instead, he says, “they went crazy for it. A winery is an attraction.”

After consulting with his wife, Vivian, DiTommaso sold his family’s 5,000-square-foot home in the Country Club Estates section of Long Grove, moved into a Buffalo Grove town house, and plowed the leftover equity into the vineyard. He continued to build and sell houses for another year, but since then he’s devoted his energies exclusively to the winery.

There are no quick start-ups in wine making: it takes at least three years for newly planted vines to produce wine-quality grapes, and they don’t reach their prime until a few years after that. DiTommaso didn’t incorporate Valentino Vineyards or open it to the public until the spring of 2000, but he had no problem keeping busy in the meantime. He planted new vines every spring, adding DeChaunacs, Canadices, and Venturas to his original plot. Now he has about ten acres under cultivation, supporting 5,000 vines that will eventually yield 16 varieties of grapes (he expects to have the other half of the land planted within three or four years). And at the center of the acreage he built the 6,000-square-foot building where juice from his grapes is fermented into wine, aged in wooden barrels in the cellar, and eventually bottled.

Every phase of the wine-making process is laborious, but the vines are particularly demanding, requiring constant manual upkeep. A substantial minority of DiTommaso’s vines are European vinifera, which, unlike the hardier lambrusca species native to North America, can only survive Illinois winters if they’re buried below the frost line and then dug up again in the spring.

DiTommaso says he typically works between 80 and 100 hours a week, but he also gets help from his family. His youngest and eldest daughters, Nina and Alissa, pitch in occasionally, and his middle child, 21-year-old Briana, is a full-time partner, involved in every phase of the operation and responsible for running the tasting room and catering the meals served in the winery’s dining room.

In the past two years DiTommaso’s wines have won more than a dozen medals from the Indianapolis International Wine Competition and Illinois State Fair. Now he wants to prove himself at a larger forum. “Where I really want to get into now is the California competitions,” he says. “I have to take some medals there. That’s what I’ve got to do.”

If the notion of Illinois as a wine-producing state strikes people as odd or even comical, it’s because they don’t know their history. According to Karen Binder, marketing director for the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council (IGWRC), on the eve of prohibition Illinois ranked fourth among grape-growing states and was home to 400 wineries that produced around a quarter of the nation’s wine. Most of that, says Binder, was inexpensive table wine consumed by working-class immigrants from wine-loving countries like Italy, Germany, and Poland. “But that doesn’t mean that upmarket wines, wines of distinction, can’t come from Illinois,” she says. “It’s just that prohibition cut off the regional winemaking tradition at an early stage, in its infancy. And after prohibition ended, Illinois wine didn’t really bounce back.”

It’s definitely bouncing back now, though: in 1990 there were only 5 commercial wineries in Illinois; in 1998 there were 14; now there are 34, and 4 more are scheduled to open soon. The resurgence, says Binder, has been facilitated by the IGWRC, a state-funded body established at Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus in 1997 to provide research support, technical training, and marketing advice to Illinois vintners and grape growers, and by the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association (IGGVA), a nonprofit group with a parallel mission. Binder points to California as an example of what such programs can achieve. “For the longest time California was seen as a place that made mass-market wines like Riunite,” she says. “It’s not until the 80s that perceptions began to change and people began to take California wines seriously. But that wasn’t something that just happened: the state put a lot of money into promotion, and California vintners worked together to raise perceptions of their product.”

Binder sees the cultivation of a home market for Illinois wines as the necessary first step toward putting the state on the wine map. “Luckily, Illinois ranks fifth for wine consumption among the states,” she says. “Chicago especially likes wine–it’s second only to LA. People in Illinois spend around $600 million a year on wine. The problem for us is that Illinois wines account for only 1.1 percent of that. But it’s only an infant industry right now, and we’ve got to prime the pump. That’s going to take some work, but it’s something that can be done.”

Binder declined to comment on Governor Rod Blagojevich’s recent decision not to renew the IGWRC’s funding for 2004, except to say that she felt it was “based on a misunderstanding.” The cuts were made after Blagojevich’s staff noticed that the council had left three-quarters of its $500,000 budget unspent in 2002.

“We hadn’t spent the money because we still have six key council appointments to fill, and it would have been irresponsible to spend the money without a quorum,” says Scott Lawlor, a member of the council’s marketing committee and general manager of Galena Cellars Winery in Galena. “This is a very shortsighted decision. Illinois has already lost a terrific viticulturist, Imed Dami, to Ohio State University, and we’re going to lose the rest of our people too if there’s no future for the program. All of our neighboring states are supporting their own grape and wine industries–Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota. It’s just in Illinois that we’ve decided to pull the plug, and after all of this remarkable growth, that’s like throwing no money after good money.”

Lawlor expresses particular concern for recent start-ups like Valentino Vineyards. “It’s bad for everybody, but it’s the people who are just getting under way who are going to get hurt the most.”

“I think they made a huge mistake when they cut the funding,” says Valentino. “It’s especially bad from the marketing point of view. Having the technical help available is good, but the council’s marketing assistance is absolutely crucial. And Blagojevich’s people aren’t taking into account how good wineries are for the tourism economy. We’ve had people come to visit us from all over–not just from the other midwestern states but from the northeast, from California, from Italy, Scotland, Hungary, Ireland, and England. Wineries and vineyards aren’t just businesses, they’re also attractions. We need them to rethink this in Springfield.”

Briana DiTommaso can attest that her father has always understood the uphill nature of the battle he has joined. “When I was little and the winery wasn’t open yet, we were always told not to tell people what was on this property because they’d think we were crazy,” she says. “When they asked what my dad did, I just said, ‘He works at our property.'”

DiTommaso says he doesn’t remember issuing any such orders, but adds that if he did, the secrecy was justified by the need to “get it right” before the world started peering over his shoulder. According to Joe Armagno, a stay-at-home dad and wine hobbyist who volunteers at the vineyard, that’s typical of DiTommaso. “Rudy’s a passionate perfectionist to the extreme,” Armagno says. “He’s not going to do this if he’s not going to do it well.”

DiTommaso’s concern with details doesn’t prevent him from flouting conventional wisdom at times. There is, for example, the matter of the pH level of his vineyard’s soil. Much of the soil in northern Illinois has a low pH, meaning it’s acidic; tests on DiTommaso’s land revealed the pH to be unusually high, skewed toward the other end of the scale. “According to the books, a good pH range is 5.6 to 6.0 for good grapevine vigor,” DiTommaso says. “My soil was in the 7.2 to 8.4 range, so I had thought I’d have a growing problem.”

Experts from the IGGVA and the IGWRC prescribed deep applications of leaf mulch and ammonium sulfate twice a year for three years to bring the pH down at least a point. DiTommaso laid down one application of the pH-lowering substances in the spring of 1996, but then decided that further treatment was unnecessary: his vines “were doing beautifully” no matter what the numbers said. “I wasn’t going to fix what wasn’t broken,” he says.

The dry weather of the past two summers has given him particularly good harvests, says DiTommaso. “A vine in stress–a little stress, not a lot of stress–gets a finer grape, a more concentrated grape,” DiTommaso says. “I got a fuller-flavored wine, higher quality, than I’d been getting.” Two of the highest and driest sections of the hilly property, on the far east side and the western edge, provide the raw material for Di-Tommaso’s reserves, the portions of his yield set aside for the longest aging. “The water drains off those higher places, so the vines are under more stress and their grapes are richer,” DiTommaso says.

At some wineries the locations of the reserve plots are a closely kept secret, but Valentino Vineyards isn’t surrounded by competitors; the nearest commercial vineyard is in Deerfield, about five miles away, and the largest in the Chicago region, Lynfred Winery, is in Roselle. The latter, in operation since 1979, represents the peak of what has so far been possible in Illinois wine making: Lynfred sells about 25,000 cases a year, won international awards for its 1983 chardonnay, and enjoys special distribution deals with Marshall Field’s and Charlie Trotter’s.

DiTommaso’s wines are available in a handful of nearby restaurants, but about 98 percent of his sales are made at the winery, he says. That’s how it goes for most Illinois wineries, explains Bill McCartney, executive director of the IGGVA. “You can’t get into a lot of restaurants and stores with your product yet, because Illinois wine isn’t accepted as a special thing yet,” McCartney says. “So most of the wineries sell their product right at the winery, in a gift shop, or their own dinner theater or mystery theater.”

DiTommaso has steered clear of dinner theater in favor of straight dinner. On Friday evenings between 5 and 9, Valentino Vineyards offers a prix fixe meal (prepared by Briana and a friend) and wine tasting at $37 a head. (The dining room and kitchen can also be hired for private affairs like birthday parties and corporate functions, beginning at $50 per person.) On Saturdays the winery is open to the public for tastings and tours from 11 AM to 5 PM, on Sundays from noon to 4 PM.

It’s not the easiest way to make money, and black ink is still a long way off. “The company I buy my glass bottles from says it’s about three to five years before a winery turns a profit,” DiTommaso says. “Two thousand three is the third year, so I’ll say it’s five years before I’m profiting.”

Asked how long it will take before he reaches the $6 million he would’ve made on the houses he never built, he replies, “Never. It won’t happen.”

Briana takes a longer view of the matter. “He won’t see it,” she says. “But my children will.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.