In a quiet country setting on the northwest edge of Champaign sits Alto Vineyard, a branch of the award-winning Southern Illinois vineyard that opened locally in 2001. On Sunday afternoon, the sun shines down on the grassy field next to the empty wooden lattice structure, covered in vines and decorated with strings of clear light bulbs, attached to a covered stage area. A cobblestone path divides the wine garden in half.
Next week the structure will be filled with chairs and people as the third annual Music Among the Vines Concert Series kicks off on Saturday, May 13.
Attached to the field is a deck that will be absent of chairs on Saturday night, said owner and general manager Jim Dubnicek.
“People just demanded a place to dance,” he said.
The concerts are rain or shine, said Alto Vineyards general manager Chris Wallace, and are moved inside in the case of inclement weather.
Wallace said that between 200-500 people come to each concert.
“Our Southern Illinois site has festivals five times a year, and we wanted to do something like that,” Wallace said. It also helps the vineyard compete with the area’s abundant bar scene. Music varies from blues and jazz to Cajun and ’60s and ’70s rock.
The concerts offer free wine tasting as well. Patrons can sample three to four different wines in the main building and can buy wine by the glass from windows at the building closest to the stage.
“Everything is done outside,” Dubnicek said. The vineyard produces white, blush and red wines. The menu in the building’s window reads: “Remember: life is too short to drink cheap beer!”
But, according to Wallace, Alto Vineyard is a family atmosphere. Many concert-goers bring their children.
There are enough chairs in the wine garden to seat about 100, Dubnicek said, and chairs with umbrellas are set up on the grassy square.
The casual atmosphere is what local musician Candy Foster likes about the concerts at Alto.
“It’s something that’s different and out there,” Foster said. “You can bring your lawn chair and just hang out. It’s just a pleasant atmosphere.”
His appearance with his band, Candy Foster and Shades of Blue, drew record crowds of 500-plus to Alto Vineyards during last year’s concert season, Wallace said.
“That was pretty much my big debut there,” Foster said. This year, Shades of Blue will open the concert series on Saturday, May 13 from 7:30-10:30 p.m. Foster said that he is excited about the ensemble’s newest addition, vocalist Sandy Phillips.
Local fans have referred to Shades of Blue as “CU’s best-kept secret.” The eight-piece band is high-powered and has a lot of energy, according to Foster.
“We hit it pretty hard,” he said. “I kind of generate that kind of clap-your-hands, get-out-there-and-dance [vibe]. I interact with people as much as I can.”
Shades of Blue will also play on Sept. 9 and at Alto Vineyard’s Fall Festival on Sept. 16.
“There’s always a crowd every time Candy Foster plays,” Wallace said.
The Fall Festival runs from 4-11 p.m., with two bands playing. Alto Vineyards adds 2-3 different bands each year to the line-up to keep it fresh. One of the new bands is the classic rock band Unfinished Business, who will open the Fall Festival before Candy Foster and Shades of Blue.
At each concert, light food, like cheese and crackers, is available along with wine. Coolers are no longer allowed on site, because of problems with people smuggling in other alcohol.
The Music Among the Vines concert series runs on Saturdays from May 13 to Sept. 30, from 7:30-10:30 p.m. each night. The only exception is June 23, when former CU residents and blues musicians Keith and Kathy Harden play on Friday from 6-9 p.m. The cover charge is three dollars per person, and plenty of parking is available at the vineyard.
“I think they’ve got a great thing going,” Foster said of the concert series. “It’s great to be a part of it.”
Other performers in this summer’s lineup at the award winning vineyard include Shadows of Doubt on June 10 and July 8, Alma Afrobeat Ensemble on July 15 and Bruiser and the Virtues on July 22. Alto Vineyards is located at 4210 N. Duncan Road, Champaign. Find out more at their Web site, www.altovineyards.net.