Desire for "something different" sparks summer destination


By Mary Ann Ford

When Mary and Rudi Hofmann decided to move from their German home of nearly a quarter of a century to Mary’s native McLean County about 20 years ago, they knew they wanted to farm but hadn’t decided the type of crop.

We always wanted to farm and we wanted to do something different,” said Mary.  “We thought about strawberries.”

But a trip to find a new camper that took the couple past Mackinaw Valley Vineyard changed their focus to raising grapes.

Initially, the couple planned to grow grapes on their recently purchased acreage in White Oak Township, near Carlock (just northwest of Bloomington-Normal) and sell them to others who made and sold wine.

When they learned those who make wine also grow their own grapes, they set out to do the same, attending seminars and a winemaking school at University of Missouri – reading all they could about the art of winemaking.

After successfully getting their property rezoned, passing a state winery inspection, and getting a federal license, the new venture was started.

The Hofmann’s planted more than 4,000 white and red grapes on eight acres of their farm. When the winery opened to the public in 2011, they had seven varieties of wine to offer their patrons in their tasting room, a remodeled log cabin home with a wraparound porch.

The first year of operation, they produced about 1,000 gallons of wine. Now, they have 6,000 plants on 12 ½ acres and produce about 4,500 gallons a year. Their selection has increased to 18 active labels and another one in the making.

“We’re making a port, a fortified wine,” said Mary.

The “Bernese red” is being made by putting 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 grapes in a barrel and adding brandy, she said.

“We’re going to try and bottle it,” she said.

The couple has other plans as well, including building a large facility for indoor weddings. (They currently offer outdoor weddings and typically host about six a year.)

Their plan, however, was sidetracked in February when another winery trademarked the name Mary and Rudi had been using for their business, forcing them to forfeit the name and find a new one – Sunset Lake Vineyards & Winery.

The change was an expensive undertaking and required them to obtain new licenses, labeling, and signs.

“We have a true customer base. That’s what held us through,” Mary said.

“Overall, looking back we have realized whether you call it a dream or not, it’s been good,” she said. “Neither one of us would have ever imagined the diverse people we’ve met in six years.  They’ve been from all over the world.

On a recent summer afternoon, a couple from Florida stopped by as they always do when they travel through the area.

Another couple, new to the area, came in to try a taste of the wine.

“We met our best friends the first weekend we opened,” said Mary.  “They were perfect strangers but kept coming back” and the friendship grew.

Added Rudi: “I like the kind of work we do here but didn’t realize how much work was involved.”

The couple runs the operation alone with only some occasional help.

Besides the tasting room, the sale of bottles of wine, the occasional wedding, and summer entertainment, Rudi and Mary also offer winery tours for groups through pre-arrangement by calling 309-376-2960.

Sunset Lake Vineyards & Winery is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays from April through September. The winery is closed January and February and has winter hours beginning in October.

Wine tasting is available for $5.  Bottles of the Hofmann’s wine range from $17.50 to $18.50.