• Alyssa Collins

Central Illinois Winery Defines Growth

When Darrell Simmermaker and his brother started planting vines on their family farm, Tina Simmermaker didn’t think much of it. When the vines grew from 20 to 1200, she realized this was more than just a hobby.

Darrell Simmermaker co-owns West of Wise Winery with his wife Tina Simmermaker. West of Wise, located on the family farm in Kilburn, Illinois, has been a work in progress. With personal funds and a loan from the bank, the Simmermakers finally broke ground in 2014 and officially opened their doors in February of 2015. Despite the challenges of opening a small business, especially here in Illinois, West of Wise has seen their share of success. This past year, the small family owned business saw a 20 percent growth.

"We have hesitations every day, and I think that would go for both my husband and myself,” says Tina Simmermaker. “Taking that venture into small business is a big step for us. We always had fairly permanent jobs.”

Darrell Simmermaker began this journey by making wine from kits in his Louiseville, Kentucky home. As he progressed and learned more about winemaking and its industry, the kits were no longer enough. With family back in Central Illinois, Darrell Simmermaker decided to make use of his family’s farm. This came as quite a change for the Simmermaker family. They had to commute to and from Illinois several times a month before eventually moving to Illinois in 2011. For their two daughters this was less than ideal.

“At that point Kate was halfway through college and Beth was halfway through high school,” says Tina Simmermaker. “Kate was upset because when she would come home, home wasn’t really home. It wasn’t Louisville Kentucky. Beth wasn’t real thrilled as most teenagers wouldn’t be to transfer mid of sophomore year. That’s why we’re called West of Wise, because the wise decision was to stay is Louisville.”

Despite the relocation, West of Wise has been a family business since its inception. There are only three part-time employees outside of the family. With Tina Simmermaker’s background in human resources, she was hesitant to hire until absolutely necessary.

As the vineyard continued to grow, Tina Simmermaker knew they were way over the limit for legal consumption. At this point, the family started selling grapes to get their foot in the industry. As this hobby grew into a small business, the Simmermakers took the necessary steps to register and open up their family winery. The process was not easy, and Tina Simmermaker notes it as being one of their biggest challenges.

“Well first of all licensing is very difficult, not only to just start a new business, but when you have alcohol involved it’s almost two or three times more complicated,” says Tina Simmermaker. “I wouldn’t say that Illinois makes it very clear how to get set up.”

Not to mention, starting a winery is not a cheap or timely endeavor. For a small premium winery, the company on average has to invest almost $14,000 per acre. This cost excludes the cost of land itself, says Jerry White of the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. Not only does the cost exclude cost of land, but it excludes the cost of your time. According to White, It takes almost five years for a small winery to yield a positive net income, which is why the growth of West of Wise is a notable accomplishment.

Aside from licensing and cost, the Simmermakers had to learn how to make this hobby into a business. While they knew how to grow and sell grapes, making wine is a different ball game. Darrell Simmermaker took online classes at local universities in an effort to expand his knowledge and his company. Their daughter, who was originally upset about the winery business, is now in charge of their marketing. Tina Simmermaker believes this is a part of the reason they’ve seen such a large growth along with the quality of their wine and word of mouth.

When building the winery, the Simmermakers decided to build it further up from the vineyard so that the winery was located off of IL-97. They figured this would get more foot and car traffic. West of Wise not only has a tasting room that frequents 50 to 60 people a weekend, but they host events and pop up at festivals. With such an intimate space, the Simmermakers host a lot of wedding and baby showers. Throughout the Summers, they host their own events such as Yoga and Wine and their Summer Concert Series. To attract customers outside of their cozy Central Illinois community, West of Wise goes to festivals such as the Ottawa Lobster and Wine festival.

Illinois may not be known for its wine, but in the early 2000s it retained its rank as the fifth largest wine consuming state in the country, according to the Illinois Wine and Vintners Association. Nonetheless, the wine industry in Illinois differs from that of big wine states such as California. Tina Simmermaker says the culture is more than inviting.

"I would say the community is close,” Tina Simmermaker says. “People were more than happy to give us information about how they set up their wineries when we first started. That, at least, is how Illinois does it.”

Many of those who offered advice in the beginning were technically competitor wineries. Tina mentions that even as competitors, they try to help each other out when possible.

“It’s just the experience that you offer,” says Mike Lets, General Manager of Danenberger Family Vineyards. “In the small community, in the small winery business, you have to sell yourself and the experience as much as you sell the product and the wine.”

Between the wineries of Central and Southern Illinois, Tina believes they all offer a different take on wine. In doing so, they can draw in different crowds. Hill Prairie Winery, for example, has a much sweeter menu of wines than West of Wise. Danenberger Family Vineyards has an extensive menu of reds. West of Wise, Tina Simmermaker says, has it all. One side of the menu offers wines from very dry to semi-sweet, the other side features semi-sweet to moscato sweet. The Simmermakers find their broad menu to be incredibly useful.

Astounded by their growth this past fiscal year, the Simmermakers hope to take this next year to grow internally. They hope to expand retail sales and attract new customers by continuing their marketing expertise.

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