Susan Danenberger, in a maxi dress and snake-skin high heels, looks like she just stepped out of Vogue magazine. But don’t let the stilettos fool you, underneath that fashionable exterior, Susan is all country. Owner and operator of Danenberger Family Vineyards, Susan’s breaking the mold when it comes to farming in Central Illinois, and she’s doing at all with style.
It’s a drizzly day in April when I visit the vineyard, but inside, the tasting room is cozy and inviting and humming with a small crowd. Susan greets me with a smile and gives me a short tour before leading me to a quiet back room. Oak barrels sit in rows on the far wall and a long table in the front stands full of giant glass bottles and test tube-like mixtures. Susan points to a 5 gallon glass jar full of an amber liquid and with what appear to be floating rocks. “Those are butterscotch infused oak cubes, she says, we’re seeing if we can infuse that flavor into the wine.”
I am intrigued.
But mostly I want to know how the model-esque Susan Danenberger got into the wine-making business. “It began as a hobby,” Susan explains, “because I wanted to farm.” In fact, Susan comes from a 5th generation family of farmers. “Growing up, my father would talk about the land and how we are tied to it. To him, it was a living part of our family,” Susan explains. And so after her father retired and began renting out the land, it was Susan who felt the loss most acutely. So she began growing a small patch of vegetables. And then, after her husband Doug bought her a wine kit in 2004, she decided to embark on a new venture. “My husband bought me this kit and I was completely fascinated! But the kit was almost a hampering, because I thought, ‘well we can do it so different from what the kit wants us to do,’ and so I tweaked the first one. And from then on I realized, well we can tweak this! And then the experimenting began.” With that idea of growing grapes to experiment with wine-making in mind, her father helped her sample the soil and slope a plot of land ever so slightly so that it would drain well, and the first grapes went into the ground five years ago.
Planting grapes was one thing, learning how to make wine was another.
“I got a bunch of books and went back to school. First taking chemistry classes to get my chemistry back up.” She then began taking a variety of online and on-site classes from UC Davis. “I wanted to fit in as much information as possible in a short amount of time,” says Susan, who is currently finishing her degree in Viticulture and Enology from the UC Davis Department of Agricultural Science.
When a tornado hit the farm in 2006 and wiped out most of the trees and barns behind the house, Susan viewed the destruction as an opportunity. She knew that if she was ever going to have her own winery, now was the time. “I had a vision, and I wanted to go from there,” explains Susan, as she talks about how they rebuilt the area to include a patio and depot for guests.
The winery officially opened in September of 2013, but not without overcoming a few zoning technicalities. Susan is hoping that her experience will pave the way for future wineries to open in the area as well, viewing more wineries as a benefit to the local economy rather than extra competition. “It would give us a little trail and bring in more tourism, which would be a win-win,” says Susan.
Today, Susan has 1 ½ acres of land in grape production and a total of 800 vines, although she hopes to expand the farm to include five more acres of grapes in the future. Currently the vineyard is growing six different varieties of grapes, a few which have never been grown in the area before, and there are a few small test plots for other varieties. She also has a test plot of grapes with UC Davis which were planted on an angle to determine the effects of wind on production. Apart from her obvious green thumb and self-determination, it is clear that Susan’s fiercely scientific and inquiring mind and her fearlessness with experimentation has helped make the winery a success both in the field and in the wine.
Susan will be the first to tell you that she could not have done any of this without the help of her family, who are represented in various ways in the Danenberger Family Vineyards wine collections, from the naming of the wines to the label artwork.
In fact, the DFV trademark pixelated background image is actually a picture of Susan’s father who passed away 5 years ago. “I was scanning a picture of my Dad into the computer for a slideshow,” says Susan, “and the first time it came out in this pixelated colorful montage, and I was like, ‘Oh, what did I do wrong?’ And then after the third time, I was like ‘Dad!?’ and it felt like a sign, like he was trying to communicate with me or say hello.” She saved the picture and then, when the time came to choose original artwork for the label, it was one of the first things that came to mind. “It’s really pretty, and it pops out, and it’s my father, so he’s on every label. He’s a whole part of this.”
Those labels can be find on each bottle of wine in the both the red series and white series that Danenberger Family Vineyards has to offer.
The red series, Desagace’, consists of all dry red wines with French names, paying homage to the family’s heritage from the Alsace region of France, although the actual word is “Desagace’” is not a real French word. “It’s an amalgam that stands for Doug, Susan, Gannon, and Clayton,” explains Susan, who wanted to include her husband and two sons in the name of the series.
The white series, Aura Aria, was actually named by Gannon, Susan’s eldest son who is now serving in the military. He invented the name in tribute to the sound of the wind as it hits the trellises, Aura being the name of the Greek goddess of the breeze, and Aria being the opera term for a long song or expressive melody.
Susan’s youngest son, Clayton, has also helped make his mark on the vineyard. Clayton started working at American Harvest the summer they opened. “We went on opening night and Clayton asked the chef, Augie, if he could see the kitchen. After taking a look at the kitchen, he told Augie that he wanted to work there. He was fouteen and in 8th grade at the time,” says Susan. Later in the summer Augie let Clayton come shadow him and eventually agreed to let Clayton begin working at the restaurant if he could get a work permit. Clayton got the permit and started working prep on Saturday mornings. Within a year he had already advanced, and now at just seventeen works on the line three or four nights a week with dreams of becoming a chef.
Clayton’s close connection with American Harvest spurred the restaurant’s decision to serve food at the vineyard on Sundays, making Sunday a popular day for visiting, although you can visit any time between 1:00 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and by appointment on Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you can’t make it out to taste the wine on site; however, you can find Danenberger wines being sold locally at the Market on Koke Mill or being served at American Harvest and Norb Andys.
Also keep an eye out for additions to their newest series of wines. This pink series, Stilettos in the Vineyard, is all Susan, who loves high-heels so much she occasionally wears them while pruning grape vines. The first wine in the series, Rendezvous, is available now, just in time for Spring.
“I feel like everything has led to this path, and I just didn’t see it,” says Susan of her vineyard journey, “Some days I’ll sit upstairs in my bed and think ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I wanted, and it’s really happening.”
Proof positive that with hard work you can have everything you want, and you can get it all while wearing heels too.
By: Molly Gleason