ELKHART — Rather than pick up a pandemic hobby, Court Conn decided to plant a wine vineyard.
He owns Conn’s Hospitality Group, a conglomeration of restaurants, bars and other eateries, and event-related spaces.
Conn said the vineyard, however, was a business decision driven by the pandemic.
“Our businesses got shut down,” he said. “We were down several weeks with the pandemic. (I said) ‘Let’s do something different.’ And that’s why we got into winemaking.”
Conn and his wife Karen, originally from Springfield, purchased the historic Gillett Farm in Elkhart in 2018 and named the 30-acre property Elkhart Hill Farm & Vineyard.
“We decided to take five acres on the south-facing hill and put a vineyard,” Conn said. “We planted six varieties — five reds and one white.”
That was in 2020. Now, at the tail end of 2022 and with winter underway, Conn has released his first wine: New Kid Nouveau.
“It’s a semi-dry red wine. It is not sweet … it is a fruity wine, but it’s not sweet,” Conn explained.
He said a “nouveau” wine, French for “new” or “young,” is the first wine of the season.
“Typically, you wouldn’t get a wine this quickly,” he said. “We just harvested this in August. And now we have it crushed, we have it fermented, and we have a very nice wine, actually.”
The name was inspired by Conn’s grandson, Jude, now 5. Elkhart Hill now houses three generations of the Conn family: Court and his wife, one of their sons, Adam, and his two children.
“Jude helped us plant,” the family patriarch said. “He carried a vine is his hand and walked down the aisle throwing vines in the hole, but he never planted the one in his (right) hand.”
Jude now graces the bottle’s label — and fame is not lost on the young man.
“We did Thanksgiving,” Conn said, “and we had a few bottles of this (wine). And everybody that came to our house, he had to go get a bottle. He was carrying it around and showing everybody that it was him.”
The vineyard is more than a family product, too.
Conn said many people from the small village came out to help plant the vineyard — while socially distanced, of course.
“We had a group of people out here,” Conn said. “They’re all out planting out in the field, but they’re separated … nobody got COVID.”
The wine is being sold at the Elkhart Station general store, which Conn opened in March this year just off Interstate 55.
The store stands at the east end of a one-block downtown, home to cafés and knick-knack stores and a bar. Conn said Elkhart Station exclusively sells Illinois-produced goods and things grown and made by Elkhart residents.
“We were finding that people like to bring us things from their garden, giving it to us and letting us sell it,” Conn said. “Because, if the store succeeds, Elkhart succeeds.”
While he said he does not have any concrete plans for expansion, Conn does have two more wines releasing around springtime, a blush and a rosé. He added that he plans to have different wines for different palates.
“I have a case of samples at home that we’re doing,” he said. “We want to cross-section; we want lots of variety. A lot of people like sweet wines. Some like white. Some like red. We want to have variety.”
That does not mean he needs more space or more vines, he said. All of his vines are healthy, and he wants to get to 100% production before expanding past the five acres.
Out of the one section for the New Kid Nouveau wine — one-sixth of the vineyard — Conn said they harvested 2.5 tons of grapes. That produced about 860 bottles of wine.
All that wine came from one simple idea, Conn said: “Even if you’re at home in a pandemic, a good glass of wine would be a nice thing to have.”
For more information about Elkhart Hill or to schedule a tour, visit www.connshg.com/historic-gillett-farm/contact-gillett-farm.
Information about the Conn’s Hospitality Group can be found at www.connshg.com.
Contact D. Jack Alkire at (309)820-3275.