Vineyard, winery possible in the South Side

By Brianna Wellen

In a vacant lot on the South Side, a French-style chateau known as the Raber House is crumbling. The building, located at 5760 S. Lafayette Ave., is one of the few remaining in the city that predates the Chicago Fire and the city has owned it for the past 30 years. In 1996, the Raber House was granted landmark status. Despite the city’s best efforts, the building remains untouched by renovators, boarded up among acres of empty lots located in the struggling Washington Park neighborhood.

But now, the building has caught the eye of William Lavicka, owner of Historic Boulevard Services. A self-proclaimed “urban pioneer,” Lavicka has spearheaded renovation projects for historic buildings all around Chicago for more than 30 years through the Historic Boulevard Services, most recently the Gut Heil Haus, 2431 W. Roosevelt Road, an old church being transformed into a home. Combining his personal experience from growing grapevines in his yard and his professional rehabilitation work, Lavicka hopes to transform the Raber House and surrounding acres into an urban vineyard and winery.

Gaining support from Alderman Willie Cochran (20th Ward) and neighborhood residents, Lavicka said he hopes the winery will set the stage for the first steps to revitalizing the area.

“[The Raber House] is lying fallow, so to speak [and] the neighborhood’s lying fallow,” Lavicka said. “It needs to spring a new life. This is a kick I think the neighborhood could use.”

Lavicka plans to grow 5,000 vines producing fruit wines on the land to start, which, according to him, won’t be enough for a commercial crop in which he can predictably produce a certain amount of wine each season. Starting off small, he hopes to attract locals and suburbanites to the land as a showcase vineyard to gain support. In the years to come, he’ll expand to a full commercial operation.

“It is something that residents of the 20th Ward and Washington Park have indicated they wanted to see take place,” Cochran said.

This is the right time for a local winery because of the present desire to support local agriculture, according to Christina Anderson-Heller, assistant to the president of Lynfred Winery in Roselle, Ill.

When she started at the winery 11 years ago, she would wait until someone told her he or she liked the wine before telling them it was from Illinois. In wine cultures’ past, it was more desirable to taste the best grapes from California, Oregon or Washington. But now, with a focus on eating locally, the natural transition is to drink locally, she said. Her hope is that more wineries like Lavicka’s pop up locally to create an Illinois equivalent of Napa Valley.

“Let’s say you put 20 coffee shops in a row, it’s not really going to work,” Anderson-Heller said. “ But the more wineries you have in an area, you now become a tourism area. Really what you’re doing is creating more interest. The idea that a new winery is popping up in Chicagoland is fantastic because we all tend to talk about each other.”

Tourism is a huge draw for the project, according to Cochran, who, along with the winery, is working to create a park and urban farm in the area. His hope is to diversify the attractions to bring in families and young people who can invigorate the neighborhood.

According to Lavicka, working through the laws and regulations covering growing vines in an urban environment has slowed the process, mainly because there aren’t many in place. Urban agriculture is still a fairly new idea, and there’s been resistance in City Hall to put set ordinances in place, he said. He is working closely with Cochran to send an ordinance through the City Council to set a precedent for urban agriculture.

“We’re doing so much in terms of revising the code to adapt to the green initiative that we have, it can become complicated,” Cochran said. “As we are developing this ordinance, we are developing it with the other parts of the city in mind. That’s one of the reasons it’s been kind of difficult.”

According to Gretchen Neuman, a member of the Illinois Wine Consumers Coalition who formerly worked for the city’s Department of Environment, one of the largest concerns in urban agriculture is considering what was previously on the land. The industrial makeup of Chicago buildings can leave soil unsuitable and unsafe for growing, but she thinks if Lavicka takes the right steps to ensure the safety of the soil, the city will ultimately be supportive of the winery.

“Chicago has always been a place where things like this can happen,” Neuman said. “We’ve always had mayors that considered something unusual as really possible and not necessarily something to be put off. A vineyard is going to stand out. It becomes a curiosity. Once [Lavicka] gets through all the red tape, he’ll find that the interest in the wine will be considerably raised.”

Along with working on a new ordinance to support urban agriculture, Lavicka has sent the soil to be tested for lead with the hopes of getting through the red tape as quickly as possible. But he still sees the process taking longer than he would like.

“It’s a little ways down the tracks,” Lavicka said. “So hopefully we can, in the next weeks or months, get beyond the discussion stage and get to the renovation plans for building, the acquisition of the building, the acquisition of the land. I’m getting a little antsy myself.”

Once the winery opens, Lavicka will face the challenge of maintaining the attention of Chicagoans, according to Anderson-Heller. She said they are serious wine drinkers who tend to have drier palates and may shy away from the fruit wines Lavicka’s vineyard intends to grow.

For Lavicka, the project is less about catering to that crowd and more about bringing attention to a struggling neighborhood. His goal is to lend his passions to the improvement and growth of Washington Park through his vineyard and winery, and whatever outside results come from the wine community will be a pleasant surprise.

“Willie Cochran wants to see things happen to the betterment of this neighborhood, and we’re happily working together to bring this to fruition,” Lavicka said. “The neighborhood needs to grow and bloom and blossom and [the winery] is one venue.”