by Sally Colby
When Pam and Ken Rosmann moved from Iowa to Illinois in 2003, Ken was trading a world of experience in agriculture for another facet of agriculture; one with which he wasn’t familiar.
“I spent 30 years in production agriculture where you want to maximize yields,” said Ken. “Growing grapes is more horticulture and you need to optimize yields. You can’t overcrop or you’ll damage the vines for the following year.”
The Rosmanns’ original idea was to establish a grapevine nursery at their new farm in Freeport, IL, but decided to establish a vineyard and winery after realizing that a value-added business made more sense. Although Ken had some winemaking experience when he was in college, he became too busy with farming to continue. “I picked it up again and starting learning more about wine about 16 years ago,” he said. “I helped and observed at several wineries in Nebraska.”
Pam said they planted the vineyard in 2004 shortly after their move. As they were working the ground and preparing to plant, the Rosmanns found numerous fossils on the property. The most outstanding example, the “famous fossil” was a receptaculites (sea sponge) that was unearthed when the Rosmanns started planting their vineyard. The Rosmanns continued to learn as they grew grapes, and opened the winery after the first harvest in 2008.
The Rosmanns cultivate five acres of grapes at the winery, and also work with four other growers who grow grapes for them. Pam says the arrangement turned out to be an especially good business move this year. “This past spring, we had a serious frost on Mother’s Day weekend and it took about 40 to 60 percent of our red grape vines,” she said, describing the damage that occurred at soft bud stage. “But not all of the growers were affected, so it was nice to be able to spread that risk.”
Most of the Rosmanns’ other growers are growing grapes specifically for Famous Fossil and Pam and Ken have selected the varieties. Some are experimental varieties, and the Rosmanns are in the process of determining whether the selections are cold hardy varieties that will make good wine. Once they see several harvests and vintages, they’ll be able to provide the growers with input about which varieties to grow if they decide to add more vines.
Famous Fossil’s red varieties include Marquette, Frontenac, St. Croix and Petite Pearl. Ken also selected several newer reds including Verona and Crimson Pearl; a sister to Petite Pearl. “We also have some vines that were developed by a breeder in Minnesota that aren’t named,” said Ken. “They have vinifera in their background, and their flavor is rather neutral, but they have a lot of tannins so we use them as blending wine to add tannins.”
Whites include La Crescent, La Crosse, Prairie Star, Louise Swenson, Brianna, Lorelei and Petite Amie. Another white, Aldamina, is recently named Elmer Swenson variety. In addition to keeping notes on his own vines, Ken pays close attention to university research and watches for new variety releases.
Since Ken had a background in organic production, he tried growing grapes organically but found it difficult to manage fungal diseases without synthetic chemicals. “We still use Stylet-oil and other products,” said Ken. “We had a problem with quackgrass so we were using a herbicide for that, and we have that under control. We’re going to try cover crops, especially legumes to add nitrogen, under the vines and mow instead of using herbicide sprays.”
The Famous Fossil winery building is nestled into a hill, which provides several cool rooms for fermentation and storage. “One cools and the other has a refrigeration unit,” said Ken. “We can keep the fermentation temperature steady in the white wines.” Destemming takes place in the crush area, then fruit is brought in for pressing.
Like most winemakers, Ken enjoys the chemistry aspect of winemaking and works with each vintage to achieve what he’s after. “We take samples of the grapes, squeeze them by hand through a mesh screen to get some juice, then test the pH of the juice,” he said. “We also test total acidity.” Ken added that he isn’t concerned about sugars early in the process, and tries to pick grapes based on flavor and pH rather than sugar levels.
Famous Fossil wines are made primarily with native fermentations, and in most cases, no yeast is added. “If something comes in that has quite a bit of rot, we’ll pitch yeast to get it going sooner,” he said. “Keeping the fermentation temperatures cooler means that fermentation takes longer. With reds it’s about two to four weeks and whites it’s up to six weeks.”
Ken finds that pH can be adjusted, but if it gets too high it’s more difficult to work with and it makes the wine somewhat unstable. “The pH is generally the lifeblood of the wine so it should be within certain ranges for whites and reds,” he said. “We test and make adjustments before fermentation. We let it start fermenting either on its own or by adding yeast. Then we check daily to make sure everything is moving along as planned. If it starts kicking off some hydrogen sulfide, we can add nitrogen to compensate for that.”
After racking, wine is filtered to clarify and remove harmful yeasts and bacteria. Famous Fossil relies on a plate and frame filter, which Ken refers to as the main workhorse filter, followed by a cartridge filter for polishing close to bottling.
A six-bottle filler, corker and a labeler complete the process for the wines made at Famous Fossil.
Although variation in wine from year to year is inevitable, Ken tries to maintain consistency for each wine he makes. “With reds, the fermentation time on the skins varies according to the year,” he said. “If it’s been a warmer year where the fruit flavors developed, we’ll leave the juice on the skins a little longer. If it’s a cooler year where the flavors didn’t fully develop, there might be a little more herbaceousness and we don’t ferment on the skins quite as long. That affects the body of the wine. Whites are generally destemmed and pressed immediately. We try to keep the same styles, but they vary from year to year according to the grapes.”
Ken says people who visit the tasting room usually know what they like, but may not always understand styles. He explains to guests, “drink what you like.” “Some weekends we’ll sell more sweet wines, and the following weekend we’ll sell more dry wines,” he said. “It just depends on who’s in that day.” With 15 different wines, there’s something for everyone, including popular rhubarb, blackberry and raspberry wines.
“People ask us if it is as much work or if there’s anything we didn’t anticipate,” said Ken, referring to his former farming days. “We tell them we knew it was going to be a lot of work, and it’s more work than we anticipated, but it’s also more fun than we anticipated.”
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