by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
Susan Danenberger and her family’s Danenberger Family Vineyards are not what you picture when you think Illinois wine or Illinois vineyard. Most of us associate Illinois wine with something very sweet or even syrupy.
Early in our marriage, Carol and I thought it very special when we were able to include a bottle of wine in our food budget. Often it was Mateus or Lancers in their odd shaped bottles. Times have changed, and we now have developed a taste for drier wines. Susan Danenberger’s passion has been to develop dry red wines, and I applaud her for it.
Have you been to Danenberger Family Vineyards in New Berlin? With our warmer fall, it appears there will still be a few pleasant weekends for a short trip to the country.
First a little about Susan and Danenberger Family Vineyards. The Sullivan Farm was established in the mid-1800s by her great, great grandfather James Sullivan and his son, Jeremiah.
Susan understands the importance of being a good steward of the land and utilizes sustainable farming practices. She pays tribute to her father and graces every bottle with his image.
She likes to tell everyone that her father and his ancestors understood what “green living” was before it became a popular movement. One example is that the only source for water is their 100-year-old well, and they collect all of their rainwater in 10,000 gallon tanks used in the vineyards. All harvesting is done by hand. She has been producing wine (often in her stilettos) for some eight years, and in 2011 started taking classes at the University of California-Davis learning viticulture and enology from some of the finest in the industry. This year she will be producing over 12,000 gallons of wine (six new tanks purchased just this year) and currently produces 14 varietals-yes, there are some sweet ones.
It is hard work and she plus her family (husband Doug, the builder/project engineer, and son Clayton, the chef) are out there seven days a week. Every time we visit, there is something new to see and experience. The latest Doug Danenberger project is the Cargo Pavilion. Try to picture four double stacked shipping containers that make up a large seating /performance area for approximately 150. The storage units have traveled the world, and one can be tracked to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
In addition the winery provides several gathering areas (inside and out), fire pits, a bocce ball court and of course a tasting room. They have several events throughout the year; pruning and planting parties plus corporate events can be arranged.
Besides great wine, the vineyard is developing a reputation for special event dinners. We first enjoyed Clayton’s food at a Japanese dinner he prepared while employed at American Harvest in 2014. After learning from Jordan and Aurora at American Harvest, he went on to become sous chef at Island Bay Yacht Club under Chef James Hamilton. Clay has now taken on the position of executive chef and Tasting Room manager at the vineyard.
Joining Clay in the kitchen and vineyard is Zachary Leepper. Zach thanks Chef Sean Keeley (former owner of Ross Isaac and now lead culinary instructor at Lincoln Land Community College) for teaching him the basics, and “did it all” including a stint as pastry chef. Additional experience was gained at Indigo, Nick and Nino’s, Panther Creek, and Alinea in Chicago. Alinea is considered by many to be one of the top 10 restaurants in the world (yes, world!). Opened by Chef Grant Achatz, the restaurant is a three-star Michelin award winner, and dinners are an 11 to 20 course experience. Zach was there for six months and left with the title chef de partee. He compares Alinea to military discipline, working 13-hour days, six days a week. Alinea is on our personal bucket list and watch for a future “GoFundMe” effort to help us pay the $700 plus tab.
Three weeks ago we joined 30 other guests at Danenbergers for Clay’s and Zac’s Harvest Dinner: a five-course meal matched with Susan’s wines. The night started with an amuse course of monkfish ceviche: charred sweet corn, pickled red onion, Anaheim chiles, lime, all served in a tiny roasted pumpkin. The accompanying wine was the award winning 2015 Clair De Lune. A Gewurztraminer hybrid in an Alsace style, paying homage to the Danenberger family that originated from France.
The next course was cornmeal dusted snapper. Doug informed us that the snapper was just two days out of the water and was flown in from Seattle to the Springfield airport that morning. The snapper was lightly dusted with sweet soy Anaheim chiles with creamy red pepper romesco, served with chile asparagus with hoisin sauce. This course was matched with Danenberger Angel Moon 2015.
The palate cleanser was very colorful watermelon that the chefs called “steak tartare”- lime based infused compressed watermelon. Not even bottled yet, Susan served her 2013 Rouge right out of the barrel. Similar to previous years, the Rouge is primarily Syrah grape with notes of chocolate, espresso and black pepper. It is deep, inky, smoky, blackberry and complex- a great standalone wine to enjoy by the fire.
My favorite course was next: Syrah grapeseed encrusted (first time we ever experienced this preparation) beef filet, a Syrah grape demi glaze with white truffle risotto wrapped in grape leaves. The accompanying wine was also my favorite: her 2013 Carmin Reserve-another award winner. Susan describes this wine’s profile as “aged 28 months in new French oak. A serious Cabernet Franc with nose of red fruits, mahogany, black pepper, dried currant announcing earthy spice with sage and mushroom. Its persistent finish contains hints of dusty dark chocolate. Mineral, leather, grippy tannins.” This continues to be my favorite, and if you closed your eyes you would think you were in Sonoma enjoying a classic full bodied red. The dinner ended with Bananas Foster bread pudding served in a chocolate bowl, drizzled with spiced rum caramel.
I invite you to visit Danenberger Family Vineyards and be greeted by their winery dogs. It is a wonderful escape to share with friends. Currently their tasting hours are (check their website danenbergerfamilyvineyards.com) Thursday and Friday 12-6 p.m., Saturday 12-8 p.m. and Sundays 1-5:30 p.m. Small picnic items are permitted during the week, and on Sundays local food is prepared by Chefs Zac, Clayton and other local chefs. Two upcoming events are an Oct. 29 spooky Halloween Party with a D.J. and showing of Beetlejuice. Their next dinner will be a Bunn night featuring Bunn Farm/Gourmet products and is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 10. I suggest you make reservations soon for seating is limited.
My thanks to Susan, Doug, Clayton Danenberger and also Zachary A. Leepper. Clay provided the following recipe for Bread Pudding.
Wine [is] a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
― Benjamin Franklin
1 loaf of French bread
1 quart of heavy cream
1 cup of sugar
10 egg yolks
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
1 stick of butter
1/2 cup of brown sugar
8 ounces of spiced rum
Begin by cutting the bread into one inch cubes and layer your bread in a baking pan. In a pot add cream and sugar, bring to a simmer. Once at a simmer, temper the cream by slowly pouring while whipping it into the egg yolks vigorously. After your cream is fully tempered, pour it over your bread and let it soak for 10 minutes.
While the bread is soaking, we’ll make the bananas foster sauce.
Melt your butter in a small saucepan, add the brown sugar, cinnamon and bananas. Turn this on a high heat now, and add the rum, burning the alcohol off. Pour over your bread pudding mix in your baking pan, cover with foil, and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.