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Jul 26, 2012 09:17AM

Fruit of the vine: Two generations work side by side at Q-C vineyard

By Jane VanVooren Rogers
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Paul Colletti
Jennifer and John Mital, left, manages the grapes at Creekside Vineyards in Coal Valley while Bev and Don Mital operate the vineyard's bed & breakfast. As the years have gone by and the the grape vines have grown so to has the bed & breakfast's business.
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Paul Colletti
Creekside Vineyards in Coal Valley
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It was a dream 10 years in the making. Jennifer Mital, a high-school teacher, and her husband John, formerly in engineering, fell in love with wine culture when living off the Highway 94 Wine Trail in St. Louis.

"Then winemaking caught my fascination with my biology and chemistry background. My big dream was to bring it back to my hometown," says John.

But before Creekside Vineyards Winery & Inn could become a reality, the Mitals needed to find the right acreage, the right vines, and, of course, the right business partners. The Mitals approached John's parents about going into business together.

"When Don (John's father) retired, he was looking for something to do," says Bev Mital, John's mother. "He has an interest in hobby farming, and that paired with John's background in biology and microbiology. So we joined resources."

The result: a cozy bed and breakfast with a working winery right down the road, nestled in a secluded 30-acre valley just south of the Quad-Cities. Don and Bev run the inn, and John and Jennifer handle the winery.

Bev says having their grandson — John and Jennifer's son, Sawyer, 7 — nearby is their bonus. "That's our hidden agenda," she jokes. "They could've suggested a hog farm, and we would have done it."

Since purchasing the land in fall 2006, the Mitals have developed the area to include a building for wine production they've already outgrown, two homes — one is John and Jennifer's home, the other is Don and Bev's home and the inn — and 2,200 grapevines.

"We planted our first two acres in 2007 and have expanded our vineyard to four acres since then," Jennifer says.

The 2,200 vines consist of five grape varietals: Marquette, LaCrosse, La Crescent, Mars and Reliance. The first three varietals produce wines for Creekside Vineyards Winery; the latter two are table grapes to be enjoyed seasonally by guests, friends and family.

"We have to produce a little of everything to catch a little of everybody," John says. "We touch upon all styles from a dry red to a sweet white."

He finds that some people are surprised to discover that fine wines can be grown and produced in the Midwest. Jennifer agrees. "People aren't aware of varietals that can be grown in the Midwest, that not just California or New York have great wine."

Producing great wine starts with high quality grapes. John cites the slope aspect and low fertility soils as advantages of their operation.

The Mitals also use environmentally friendly methods in the vineyard and inn, such as geothermal heating and cooling, an integrated pest management system to avoid unnecessary use of chemicals on the vines, and on-site recycling. They have plans to incorporate solar panels on future construction.

In fall 2011, the Mitals had their first wine production season and hosted their first open-air tastings. Jennifer says it felt surreal to experience their first tastings, realizing they'd met their goal of making and selling wine and receiving positive responses.

"The nicest compliment we had all season was, 'We feel very lucky the Quad-Cities has this for us,' " Jennifer recalls. The intimate venue offered the Mitals the chance to get to know their guests and vice versa.

The Mitals released five types of wine last fall and plan to release nine in 2012. They also enjoyed a first harvest on their Mars and Reliance table grapes, did a U-pick with family and friends, and sampled some tasty grape jellies made from the Mars varietal.

They produced 3,000 bottles of wine in 2011 and are aiming for 7,000 bottles in 2012. Their ultimate, long-term goal is to reach the 15,000-gallon mark, which equals 45,000 bottles of wine.

"We've taken pasture and made a home and agricultural product and been so welcomed by the community," Jennifer says. "Patience is a virtue. With time, effort and dedication, anything is possible."

Jane VanVooren Rogers is a regular Radish contributor. Creekside Vineyards Winery & Inn is currently open 1-6 p.m. Saturdays for wine tasting on the terrace. For more information visit creeksidevineyards.com or call (309) 787-9463.

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