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'A little Napa in the Midwest': A vineyard has been quietly growing in Milan
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'A little Napa in the Midwest': A vineyard has been quietly growing in Milan

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Seven years after the vines were planted, a new winery is about to be uncorked in the Quad-Cities.

A family trio bought the former Old Oaks Steak House south of Milan on U.S. 67 in 2013. The next spring, they planted grape vines. They have been harvesting, pressing and bottling the fruit for several years while also growing a business plan for their winery.

Moline dentist Chris Larsen; his teacher son, also Chris Larsen; and nephew Seth Dessert have been quietly nurturing the vineyard while renovating the former steak house, largely out of public view.

The Larsens' interest in wine grew, as they say, organically.

"I went to California because I was playing baseball for the University of the Pacific," the younger Larsen said. "My dad would visit, and he'd go out to Napa, then come back and watch my games.

"He said, 'There are wineries in the Midwest but nothing like Napa.' When we bought Old Oaks, that was our idea — bring a bit of Napa to the Midwest."

Since they couldn't import California wine country's climate or soil, they knew a successful Quad-City-grown wine would require considerable experimentation and extra effort, beginning with the vineyard.

"It was all hands on deck for the vines for the first year," Larsen said. "We tried tractors and equipment, but the hills (behind Old Oaks) were too steep. We ended up hand augering (drilling) about three acres."

As the vines grew, the men studied grapes, vineyards and wine. They took online classes, reached out to other growers and read every book they could find.

They also renovated the 12,000-square-foot restaurant, dramatically altering the flow as they became more familiar with it and could better anticipate their needs.

"We also started in 2017 to blend and bottle," the younger Larsen said. "We haven't officially sold wine, but we've been experimenting with 1,000 to 3,000 bottles a year.

"We knew some of the challenges we would run into with our grapes, so we've been experimenting. It all starts with a great grape, so a lot of effort has been focused on the vineyard."

The science of wine making follows prime harvest times, and weather conditions greatly impact a grape's flavor. For instance, Larsen said, a lot of rain causes the sugars to drop in the grapes, which also reduces the alcohol.

"The acidity is better if you pick early in the day, too," he said. "Harvest time is mid-August to mid-September, and that's a full family affair. It takes us two to three weeks to pick and press the grapes."

Also a big part of the process has been remodeling the old restaurant to a footprint that best suits their winery and event center. It will accommodate about 200 people in the main dining area, along with another 50 in the barrel room and 30 in a private dining area.

They've also built a large outdoor patio on the 2-acre side yard, adding to the flexibility in event seating.

In addition to the wine-tasting room, Old Oaks Winery will have a whiskey bar that also will stock beer and mixed drinks.

Though it isn't scheduled to open until spring, the venue already is booked for eight weddings next year and several private events.

"My brother got married there in September, and we got sort of thrown into it quickly," Larsen said. "People noticed, just driving by. I threw a website together (oldoakswinery@wordpress.com), and we're on Facebook (Old Oaks Winery), and people started calling."

The Midwest is known largely for its sweet wines, Larsen said. In places like Napa, drier red wines are most popular. As people become more familiar with wine, he said, they tend to start sweet and move to dry.

At Old Oaks Winery, they hope to achieve a good mix.

"We also see the winery as a destination," Larsen said. "Coming out here will be like being away from the Quad-Cities for a little while."

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