GALENA – Chris Lawlor White announced her retirement in an emotional speech with an appropriate gesture.
As the only winemaker Galena Cellars had known welcomed guests to a chilly Luncheon in the Vineyard at last week’s Wine Lover’s Weekend, she raised a wine thief high above her head and passed it, baton style, to her son Eric White, who will return home to take his mom’s job after working for 10 years at California wineries.
An award-winning winemaker who has pushed the envelope of viticulture and winemaking in cold, northern climates, Chris’ voice cracked as she recalled the odyssey that started when she was a student at Fresno State. It included a pair of wineries before Galena Cellars and saw the dreams of her late parents Robert and Joyce Lawlor, who passed away last year, come true as their family business that started in Iowa with 1,000 gallons of cherry wine today has grown to a 35,000-gallons-per-year winery with more than 50 wines.
“Four decades and three years ago, my mom and dad had a dream to have a small family winery,” Chris said. “They knew nothing about the wine industry. There were no computers in 1974, so my dad wrote letters to two schools he found with wine programs. I’d just graduated with a degree in education and we wanted to start a family business.
“I was accepted to the University of California, Davis and Fresno State. But Davis was research oriented and Fresno was more hands on, so like Thelma and Louise, my mom and I drove out to Fresno. I kept the car and she flew back. Fresno told my parents they’d keep me until I knew how to make wine and then they’d send me home.”
Few grapes were grown in Illinois in 1985 when Galena Cellars was the state’s 12th bonded winery. But, as they passed through the town’s rolling hills and scenic vistas, something clicked.
“We’d travel through this quaint little town named Galena on our way to buy grapes in Port Byron,” Chris said. “We thought it would be a great place to start a winery. So we started our third family winery and invited my brother Scott Lawlor and his wife, Karan, who were in Idaho. They came, sight unseen, and thought the Midwest would be a great place to raise kids.”
While Chris said she and her brother Scott are about to “write the last chapter in their winemaking book,” her son Eric, the namesake of Galena Cellars’ Eric the Red wine, was drawn to the business because he saw the joy it provided his mother.
“Growing up, my mom never forced winemaking on me,” said Eric as he used the wine thief his mom gave him earlier in the afternoon to sample Port from the barrel to guests. “But, I saw the passion that went into it. Every day she was excited. She never wanted to leave work. As much as she said she’s retired, I think she’ll always be involved in some way. I was drawn to the passion she had and I’m excited and am proud to walk in her footsteps.”
Wine Lover’s Weekend recap
A two-year absence from the event felt like too long. As I entered Turner Hall for Friday’s Grand Tasting, Scott Lawlor stood in the doorway to welcome me. Fried Green Tomatoes owner Fred Bonnet handed my wife and I a tasting glass. Family Beer and Liquor owner and wine buyer Tim Althaus stood ready to take wine orders from guests.
Several of the wine reps remembered conversations we had in the past and our banter quickly reignited. After a long absence, it felt like catching up with a best friend or family member.
The feeling resonated further, with a familiar group of faces, from the host to the servers at Fried Green Tomatoes’ Santa Margherita Wine Dinner. Bonnet turned out a perfectly cooked New York strip steak and what could be the dessert of the year – an amazing mint chocolate cheesecake.
At Saturday’s Lunch in the Vineyard, I was sad Chris and Scott were moving on because I’ve gotten to know them well over the years and have enjoyed telling their story. Yet, I was happy the business will be in good hands with the next generation.
Perhaps that’s what is so special about Galena, when I’m there I never want to leave. To its business community you’re not a visitor, you’re family.
• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at email@example.com.