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The Decanter is a wine connoisseur's paradise.

The present-day three musketeers, Kevin Graham, Jay Emrich and Mike Delaney, share the same motto as their counterparts in Alexandre Dumas' 17th Century story about three colorful friends: "One for all, and all for one."
But rather than hanging out together sipping suds at the Hotel Treville, they instead hang out at The Decanter in Decatur, the fine wine shop that has become the area's top destination for serious wine connoisseurs.

This emporium of fermented fruit is the realization of a dream by these entrepreneurs to open a business that would fulfill a need in the community and provide them with continued employment. Jay had put in 27 years at Intermet-Wagner when the company suddenly announced it was closing in 2005. Mike had accepted a buyout from Ameren about the same time, leaving Kevin as the only member of the trio that was still employed. He is director of counseling services at Millikin University. Neither Mike nor Jay wanted to leave the area, so they began looking at various employment options, and after several weeks of discourse that produced no serious objectives, Jay's wife, Nancy French, a local CPA, suggested the obvious: open a wine shop.

That flicker of light turned into a beacon and the trio was suddenly headed in a direction that resulted in the opening of The Decanter. "It was so obvious once we thought it," Jay said. "Kevin was teaching a wine course at the time and we all liked wine, so, duh, let's do it." They first paid a visit to the Tabor Business School at Millikin University where Sharon Alpi and Mike Vitale helped the trio fine tune their business plan. Along the way, the City of Decatur helped them get the necessary liquor license, and some area vintners they met at the wine tent at the Illinois State Fair grounds during an annual wine judging event, offered their suggestions as well.

"Kevin was the most knowledgeable one among us, so we depended on him for many of the selections that we offer today, though we all depended to a great extent, too, on suggestions from our seven distributors," says Jay. "Beyond that, we also relied on some professional wine tasters whose results are published regularly in Wine Spectator Magazine, among others." He added that they wanted to carry a selection of fine wines that might not otherwise be found in Decatur, and by utilizing all of their resources, Jay said they were able to come up with a store filled with great wines at competitive prices.

With the selection process ramping-up, the trio began looking for a suitable location for their new business, one that would preferably keep them downtown. So, when the building at 215 N. Main St. became available their plans were complete, and on June 30, 2006 they opened the doors. A year later, The Decanter celebrated its first year in business with a free wine tasting event and some light food and prizes.

While The Decanter sells several imported wines, as well as some domestic varieties, from wineries in several states, including two from Illinois - Owl Creek from Cobden and Illinois Cellars from Carrollton - their most popular wine is a white Riesling from Germany. "The Moselland ARS Vitis, at $12.99 comes in an interesting bottle with a 'picture window' that displays various scenic vistas as you look through it," Mike said. "Our best selling red is an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. Our French Champapagne that range in price from $30 to $160 for the Dom Perignon, are also very popular as are the desert fruit wines made from cranberries, blueberries and cherries that we get from the Tomasello Winery in New Jersey."

Kevin explained the old argument that European wines are somehow superior to domestic wines, especially some of the varieties from California, is more myth than truth, pointing out that The Judgment of Paris in 1976 at least partially dispelled the illusion. "For a long time, most people believed the assertion that wines from the Bordeaux region of France, for example, were far superior to all other wines, and for many years that may have been true, but a blind tasting in Paris in 1976 changed all that."

The wine competition was organized by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant. Eleven judges,-only the votes of the French were counted-compared top-quality chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines from France and California. When the votes from the blind testing were counted, the California wines won both categories, surprising Spurrier who, until then, sold only French wines. One of the French judges was especially surprised. He had just uttered, "Ah, back to France," only to discover he was sipping a chardonnay from California. The French judges were all shocked at the results and immediately denied the validity of the tests, but the die was cast. America was quickly becoming a major competitor for top-wine honors. It was clear by this time too that the California wine industry had come of age.
Later comparisons confirmed the "Judgment of Paris." In 1998 and 1999, during blind-taste tests in San Francisco comparing the same wines, California wines took the top three places.

The seismic shift in the balance of power comes as no surprise to Graham who teaches four courses on the subject in periodic classes at the Decatur Club. "Winemaking has become more of a science and with modern technology, making good wine is less mysterious," Kevin said. "But what everyone needs to keep in mind is it all comes down to personal likes and dislikes. If you like a particular wine, it's the best wine as far as you're concerned. "As people progress in their knowledge of wine, their tastes often change. We've have some people coming in now that were confirmed sweet wine drinkers, but as they've progressed in their pursuit of finding the best wine for them, they are now trying some of our drier varieties."

Wine Spectator Magazine agrees that it all comes down to individual taste and notes further that blending practices which use experts from Bordeaux, for instance, tend to wind up with wines with a similar taste, which could, in some degree, explain the test results. The wine-blending process today is less opaque than pondering the physics of string theory. "Blending wine has become a science, and because of better science, we have more and more winemakers who are becoming very efficient at it," explains Kevin.

He said Illinois wines may or may never reach the level of perfection of the best of California or Bordeaux, but he said that is not the point. He explained we can still celebrate the variety of taste we get from Illinois grapes.
"It's the Illinois weather and soil conditions that give us wines with a good range of character and taste," says Kevin. "Some vintners, for example, allow some of their grapes to hang on the vine a little longer, which yields a different wine than that made from grapes harvested earlier. It's that difference we celebrate."

The Decanter now carries three wines from Owl Creek, a winery on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail in Southern Illinois. The area has recently received the vaunted American Viticultural Area designation - the first in the state - which acknowledges the esoteric nature of the unique soils in the area and allows the wineries to display "Estate Bottled" on their labels. And, they have a much wider selection of Illinois wines to choose from thanks to the recent strides in the industry in Illinois. The growth in the number of wineries in the last decade alone is nothing short of phenomenal. There were just over a dozen wineries in the state in 1997. By 2007, that number had increased six fold to seventy wineries, grossing more than $250 million dollars annually, according to the Illinois Grape Growers & Vintner's Association. While the recent growth in the industry is spectacular, the industry is rooted in the 18th Century.

The first winery in Illinois was established in 1778 at Nauvoo (near Quincy) by French settlers who brought the old world-technology with them as emigrants. Emile Baxter and his son's opened a winery in Nauvoo in 1857 that is now operated by the fifth generation of Baxters. By 1900, Illinois was the fourth largest wine producer in the country, but the Prohibition Act of 1920 stopped all legal wine making activities, though a few vineyards remained to provide table grapes. The period from 1979 to 1995 marked the beginning of the comeback as wineries began popping up all over. By 2001, 27 wineries were operating in the state. Today, that number has risen to 70 and continues to grow. Many have added bed and breakfasts and gift shops.

But the best news is: you don't have to drive all over the state and the nation, or the world for that matter, to try wines from a particular area unless you just want to. That's because many of the wines from near and far are now, or soon will be, available at The Decanter.


Ralf Pansch | Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 12:00 am | Decatur Herald and Review

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