GALENA, Ill. — With fertile valleys and optimal growing conditions, vineyards and wineries began to appear in California around 1769. The first ones were founded by Catholic missionaries from Spain.
Family names like Mondavi, Gallo, Masson and Beringer quickly became associated with California wines.
With ancestral roots in powerhouse wine countries like France and Italy, these Golden State winemakers set the standard for wines not just in the U.S. but around the world.
In the Midwest, Galena Cellars — the winery founded by Christine Lawlor-White; her brother, Scott Lawlor; and their parents, Robert and Joyce Lawlor — is giving them a run for their money.
Christine’s son, Eric White, 32, operates the production side of the business as head winemaker. He recently was named 2019 Winemaker of the Year by the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintner’s Association.
He’s not the first family member to be so honored. His mother won the award four times; however, it is the first time a second generation winemaker has taken home the coveted prize.
To understand the legacy of Galena Cellars, one has to start with the curious, inquisitive and always-learning family patriarch, Robert. He was the catalyst behind what now is a third generation winery.
“He always liked trying different things,” Eric said. “He took a home winemaking class at a local community college, and suddenly, he thought he was a winemaker.”
“My mom always said my grandpa was a ‘Why not?’ kind of person,” said Britt White, 30, sister and brand ambassador for the winery. “So, why not wine?”
Christine got her teaching degree at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. But before she had a chance to use it, her father proposed a different path.
“It was the ’70s, and there were really no wineries to speak of in the Midwest,” Eric said. “So, he suggested she go out to California, study oenology and come back to the Midwest, and they’d make wine. Sight unseen, she and my grandma got into the car. They drove to California and dropped my mom off at Fresno State.”
It was one of only a few schools that offered a program in oenology, the study of winemaking. Christine was the only female graduate in a program with 12 students.
“After graduation, it was highly suggested that you stay in California and do internships at the wineries,” Eric said. “But my mom said she was going back to the Midwest to start a winery. And they all laughed. They said, ‘You can’t grow grapes there. You can’t make wine there. It has to be a Mediterranean climate.’”
But the family was determined to prove them wrong.
With grapes lacking in the Midwest, Christine’s first year in business produced 50 gallons of cherry wine, made with Door County, Wis., cherries. It is a wine that continues to be produced by Galena Cellars.
She went on to run successful wineries in McGregor, Iowa, and La Crosse, Wis., before the family founded Galena Cellars in 1985.
Since then, wine production has exploded in the Midwest, as has the growing of grapes.
“There are now about 1,500 acres of grapes in Illinois,” Eric said. “That’s small, compared to corn or soybeans, but it’s huge in the wine industry.”
Galena Cellars acquired a farm six miles outside of Galena in Scales Mound in 1991 and now has a five-acre vineyard on the property, with tasting rooms and retail locations on Main Street in Galena and in Geneva.
Eric said the vines didn’t produce grapes good enough to make wine until 1995.
Eric, who got his oenology degree from California Polytechnic University and worked for several years at California wineries before returning to the Midwest, oversees the vineyard’s operation.
“If you do it right, after three years you can get enough for a small batch,” he said. “Most winemakers say high-quality grapes don’t come for at least five years.”
As children, Eric and Britt began learning the ropes at an early age.
“We worked summers in the winery. Looking back, it was an amazing experience,” Eric said. “At the time, we didn’t look at it that way.”
In 1999, when Eric was 12 and Britt was 10, they each made a wine with their mother’s guidance. The result was Eric the Red and Britt White.
“We came up with the idea, the label design, everything,” Eric said. “I really enjoy experimenting. I call it inspiration by fermentation. I love experimenting with different aging vessels — concrete, terra cotta, stainless steel.”
Eric’s wife, Oniqueh Giles-White, is a California native. She was a wine industry veteran when they met in her home state. She oversees Galena Cellars’ wine club.
Eric’s uncle, Scott, operates the business side, while Britt concentrates on marketing and branding, as well as events.
“We really went different routes,” Britt said. “Eric really took to the chemistry and artistry of winemaking. I went into the marketing side. And it’s worked out really well.”
Britt also spent time in California, honing her wine marketing skills at family wineries like Benzinger and Windsor Oaks in Sonoma County and J. Lohr in San Jose. She also earned an associate’s degree in wine marketing to complement the marketing degree she had previously received from St. Thomas University in St. Paul.
Robert passed away in 2016, followed shortly after by Joyce. They had been married for more than 60 years.
“My grandpa supported my mom in starting a winery in the ’80s in a region that didn’t support wineries,” Eric said. “And look what they made together. It’s pretty amazing.”
Today, Galena Cellars produces more than 60 varieties of wine.
“It’s absolutely insane compared to other wineries,” Eric said. “My mom created that. I’ve just gone with it.”
Eric and Britt said that, while there is a fourth generation of Lawlor-Whites, they’re too young to have a strong interest in the business. But they’re sure one or more of them will.
“It’s definitely in our blood,” Britt said.