Ah, the mixed bag that is August. You know that as soon as the county fair rolls out of town one of your friends is going to post about the coming of pumpkin spice season, thereby ushering in the posting-about-pumpkin-spice season (PAPPS?).
But on the other hand, (lovely, lovely) summer. Whether one is going by the calendar or the temps, there is still so much of it left. What to do in these in-between days?
In “if you can’t beat them, join them” fashion, I always prefer to go where the weather indicates. With the recent cool spell, I thought the time was perfect to take advantage of Sleepy Creek Vineyards’ Wieners & Wine event, held every Friday from the beginning of April through the end of October from 5 to 8 p.m.
This event perfectly demonstrates the uniquely close relationship between producers and consumers we are privileged to enjoy in our area. Sleepy Creek provides the hot dogs, fixins, campfire, and live music; you buy the wine. It’s less “come buy our stuff” than “come to our party, and be the awesome guest we expect you to be.”
All manner of people aged 21 and over should love this event, but as a parent I especially appreciate what it has to offer families. Raising kiddos can feel truly isolating at times, as staying in and cooking dinner is almost always preferable to the mental and financial toll of hauling the whole gang out for a night. Same goes double for hiring a sitter.
At Wieners & Wine, the hot dogs are roasted freely on the campfire by young and old alike. The grounds, including a picturesque little pond (if not an actual creek) are bounded by rows and rows of pretty, mature grapevines. A free-roaming kitty cat chose to make camp with us during our time there, to the delight of everyone in our group.
Keep in mind, Sleepy Creek emphasizes that its welcome mat is out to “well-behaved and supervised children.” Again, it goes back to being an awesome guest. Their FAQ page has a lot of good advice if there's anything else you're curious about. To it I will add that you can probably leave your folding chairs at home; in addition to the picnic tables on the grounds and the benches around the fire pit there are charming Adirondack chairs you can tote to wherever you'd like to sit.
Going in, we knew we were going to purchase their beverages (no outside alcohol is allowed, and they carry a variety of non-alcoholic beverages as well), but I didn’t know what sounded good on a unusually chilly August evening. Typically, I would have ordered a wine slushy.
Wine lovers, I’m talking directly to you now: If a wine slushy sounds like something that goes against everything you hold dear, I’m begging you to keep an open mind. Don’t go your whole life without trying one of Sleepy Creek’s slushies. They are lightly sweet, perfectly balanced, and utterly refreshing. On a hot summer’s day, they can’t be beat.
However, as I mentioned, our visit took place on an atypical night, weather wise. I asked the gal pouring the samples what she would recommend, given the fact that we were in the mood for more of a warm-up than a cool-down. She suggested we sip the Calavera con Gato (their site describes it as “a smooth, lightly oaked dry red wine made from 100% Noiret grapes”).
If you’ve tried Illinois wines, you know that they don’t taste quite like what comes from the more temperate locales of the world. They have a bit more...character, I guess? A friend of mine once said they taste like pickles. Quite often, they’re also sweeter than a standard wine (I’m talking Chardonnay, Merlot, the Cabs, the Pinots). I personally enjoy them, but only to the tune of a glass or so a year.
Having said that, I thought the Calavera con Gato could hold its own among some of the better wines I’ve tried. It was dry as a bone, and while I can’t pretend I’m good at picking up the subtle flavors that wine experts are able to detect, I can say I enjoyed its depth and complexity. It did indeed warm us up nicely.
It sells for $18 a bottle, which seemed a pretty good bargain once the free weenies and the live music was figured in (the musician played on the stage inside the store, but we could hear the music pretty well outside). I thought to ask if they would seal the wine we didn’t drink for the drive home but didn’t. Instead, I ended up recorking it and putting it in the trunk to avoid running afoul of open container laws.
In addition to their wines they had cheese to sample (and purchase) from Ropp Jersey Cheese in Normal and Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in nearby Fithian. We ended up falling in love with a Ropp garlic-horseradish-bacon cheddar and giving it a good home.
We brought a few side dishes to have with our dogs (a lot of people bring food with them; again, see the rules in the FAQ). We also brought some marshmallows to roast but then decided against it. No one else was putting anything over the fire that Sleepy Creek didn't provide, and we thought we'd be walking into a whole lot of "They have marshmallows? Where???" if ours came out.
On the way to Sleepy Creek we passed Obie's Arctic Chill in Oakwood and, in light of the marshmallow situation, decided to hit that for something sweet on the way home. To my extreme excitement, I found that they serve Madison, Wisconsin's own Chocolate Shoppe ice cream. This is not to be taken lightly, folks — please plan to go have some as soon as you can. My husband and oldest son each enjoyed a scoop of the peanut butter and banana forward Fat Elvis, while my daughter and I found This Just Got Serious, with its mysterious little salty bits, appropriately named.
All in all, the combination of the two venues is something my family is eager to hit again before October ends, taking this unique experience with it until Spring.
Sleepy Creek Vineyards is located at 1425 North Road, Oakwood. Weiners & Wine is every Friday from 5 to 8 p.m., through October. Vineyard hours and directions are available here.
All photos by Rachael McMillan.