JOB: Stephen Menke came to the UI last September from a job in the wine industry in Arizona. He and his wife, Sandra, live in Champaign.
What does your job entail?
I do 50 percent outreach work and 50 percent research. The outreach portion involves quality control for the wine-grape industry and helps people set up new wineries. That includes everything from helping them understand government regulations, dealing with health departments, and how to buy equipment and set it up. I take care of any problems people are having with wine during its manufacture. I have a lab set up here for quality control testing. For the research component, I look at the composition of Illinois grape varieties.
I also do a limited amount of teaching here. I'm helping teach a seminar course in food and wine pairing [for the hospitality management students]. And maybe I'll develop two or three courses that will be added on to the food science program as specialty courses.
How did you get into this?
What's your background? My Ph.D. is in biochemistry from the University of Wyoming. I was actually looking at programs of genetic expression in fruit flies and I went to Arizona to do a postdoc, and I switched to a postdoc dealing with a particular disease ravaging grapes down there. I'd always been interested in grapes and wine making and to me this was a chance to get outside. I had discovered I was not happy being in a lab all the time. I grew up on a farm and spent most of my life working at least partially outside.
So I did research for a couple years and worked with the Arizona Wine Council as an extension research representative. I then made wine and ran a winery and vineyard in Arizona's wine country. When this job came open I thought it was particularly interesting because it's a new industry.
The industry's going from being a small, almost negligible industry to a point now where it's starting to boom. Overall, it's a very satisfying job for me and I get to set my own agenda. I'm the first one in the job. It's a new job here and in the state.
How many wineries are there in Illinois?
Right now 18 are operating. And probably six are going to come online within the next 12 months.
Do you make your own wine in your garage or basement?
Not this year. I don't have the house right now. I'll be doing some test batches of wine here. We're setting up a pilot winery in the Agriculture Engineering Sciences Building.
What kinds of wines do you have stored at home right now?
I have problems storing any. In this job, everybody expects me to bring wine to every function, so my personal cellar suffers pretty badly. But I tend to like dry reds, the Chambourcinerson, the Chancellors, some of the Chambourcinerson-Norton blends. I very much like the Illinois Chardonelanelle, the Delaware -- these are whites.
And one of the big things I've been trying to save and also use on a regular basis are some of the fruit wines made in Illinois. There have been some excellent fruit wines made here from blackberries, blueberries. I had a very nice peach and a lovely apricot the other day, and there are strawberry and apple wines. We have one winemaker in Illinois who makes nothing but fruit wines.
I'm trying to keep pretty much Illinois wines in my cellar.
So you do have a wine cellar?
It's actually a rack in my basement. We're renting a house right now.
But you plan on having your own wine cellar some day?
Oh sure, I'd love to. One of the nice aspects of wine is that it's a shared enterprise. It's really nice to have wine with food with other people. And because you want to use it, it's not easy to collect.