Article By Julia M. Johnson
Ernest Hemingway once called drinking wine “one of the most civilized things in the world,” a pastime perfectly suited for sensory enjoyment and appreciation. So what could be more satisfying than treating your meeting guests to a winery retreat atop a scenic river hillside?
Grafton, Ill., just a short drive from St. Louis, is American bald eagle country, too – and that’s been the main inspiration for one of the town’s newest attractions, Aerie’s Winery and Terrace. Owned by Sandy and Jeff Lorton, the 240-acre property sits gracefully above the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, keeping watch over the meeting of the waters.
Whether they’re interested in eagle-watching or not, your guests will find themselves invigorated and ready to fly to new heights after a visit to this one-of-a-kind event destination with the matchless view. “Once your guests get here, we’ll have them entertained,” promises Sandy Lorton.
Opened in 2014, Aerie’s is the kind of rare destination that provides everything you need in one spot – event space, food, wine, lodging, even entertainment. Book a gathering for your group, and turn it easily into a getaway. Aerie’s offers a full complement of dining and wine enjoyment options, plus 54 lodging units – suites, single rooms and cabins. There are ample meeting room options in Aerie’s winery building and spacious Terrace facility. Live music is frequently on the scene – and for your guests who are feeling adventurous, there’s even a zipline course to challenge the senses. Several miles of trails are available for those in search of a little exercise.
And the Lortons and their 68-person staff are always on point, ready to provide whatever services and accommodations a meeting planner needs.
Menus at the facilities are flexible and “custom-designable,” and there are many options for wine and beer tastings. And entertainment director Stan Corliss, a noted performer himself, is ready to help with live music needs.
Room to enjoy
Jeff Lorton is in the construction business, so Aerie’s new and attractive facilities are his own personal project. The property’s largest event space is Aerie’s Terrace, a stand-alone building with nearly 5,000 square feet of indoor space and a 3,000-squarefoot deck with views of the river confluence. The high-ceilinged main room features a large drop-down screen for video presentations, and all the latest sound and video equipment. Full bar and menu services are available, or your group can bring in its own caterer. There’s a 600-square-foot catering kitchen with walk-in cooler connected to the main room, so serving is a snap.
“We often set up weddings in the main room or out on the deck; then you can use the main space for the reception as well,” Jeff Lorton says.
The Terrace also features a large coffee and gift shop where your guests can relax and visit. There’s a spacious bride’s room where wedding parties can change; it also can be used as a breakout room for meetings.
Just down the hill from the Terrace is the Aerie’s Winery building, offering similarly flexible spaces. There’s a bar for guests’ enjoyment, and meals can be served in the facility. A 1,200-square-foot patio can be enclosed, or opened to the fresh air. “We have a rental company we work with, so it’s easy to bring in screens, projectors and anything else you need,” says Jim Berger, Aerie’s new director of sales and marketing.
The zipline course is open for guests to enjoy seven days a week, year-round. “It takes about an hour and 45 minutes for groups to use the course, and the view is excellent,” Berger adds.
Wine and refinement
Aerie’s on-site sommelier, Will Craigie, is working diligently to bring additional grape-growing capabilities to the hillside site, both reds and whites. “We plan on planting an additional five acres of vineyard per year,” he says. “We have three varieties planted now – Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonel. For the future, we’re looking at sweeter varietals, possibly Villard, Traminette or Riesling.” Craigie says there are plans to welcome guests more fully into the vineyard experience with additional tours and tastings once more acreage is planted.
Whether your guests are new to wine, or aficionados themselves, they’ll enjoy meal pairings, tastings and educational presentations by Craigie and staff. There also are plans to offer private wine labels specifically designed for weddings, gifts, and event groups. There’s even a wine club that meets regularly at Aerie’s, so guests can sample unusual wines and hear about their histories.
It’s all about the view
Recently, a Chicago-area TV program traveled to Aerie’s to challenge the facility’s self-proclaimed slogan, “Best View in the Midwest.” The show’s hosts visited several other scenic Midwestern sites as well, and proclaimed Aerie’s hillside river panorama the most impressive, says Jeff Lorton.
If your group is coming in from the Missouri side, treat your guests to a little extra scenic fun with a ride on the Grafton Auto Ferry, Friday through Sunday. For just $8 per car, you can board the ferry and enjoy a smooth river crossing that puts you right at the foot of Aerie’s hill. According to Jeff Lorton, it’s the only ferry in the nation that takes you across two rivers at once (the Mississippi and Illinois). Roll off the ferry, and you’re just two minutes from the winery’s front door.
Logistics are a snap
Aerie’s features one 15-passenger and two 28-passenger shuttles, all radio-operated, so getting your guests around the area is a breeze. There are 300 parking spaces on the hillside, too.
And there’s WiFi all around, so guests always feel connected. Every audio-visual capability a group might need is on site, from video/DVD to television, screens, lighting, portable stages, podiums and more. “And if there’s a special equipment need, we can get it,” Sandy Lorton says. “We aim to accommodate.”
Jeff Lorton says he plans to add another 1,600 square feet of meeting space at the zipline course, so guests will be able to network and learn, then walk right outside and strap in for a ride.
If you’re hosting an especially large group and need extra activities, Aerie’s has reciprocal relationships with other wineries and lodging facilities in the area; they can work together to accommodate your guests. Raging Rivers Water Park is a short drive away, and so is Pere Marquette Lodge; there’s even parasailing nearby for your more adventurous meeting-goers.
Who’s coming to dinner
Aerie’s may be new on the event scene, but it’s already attracted a variety of meeting groups interested in wine, food and fun. “We’ve hosted nurses’, doctors’ and dentists’ groups; auto dealer groups; accounting firm events; and others – many from the St. Louis and Springfield, Ill., areas,” says Sandy Lorton.
The Lortons are especially interested in cultivating weekday meeting business, so they’re happy to open their doors to area companies, associations, societies, education groups and nonprofits.
Berger says the facility also enjoys hosting military and service organization groups.
The Jersey County (IL) Business Association held its annual dinner banquet at Aerie’s Terrace in March 2015, treating guests to a social hour followed by a sit-down dinner. “They have really done this facility up right,” says Mary Heitzig, the association’s CEO. “We are thrilled to have something like this in Jersey County. It’s truly beautiful. Many of our guests had never been up to Aerie’s before; this event was something totally different for us. Everyone was very pleased.”
Heitzig says she used the Aerie’s Terrace building for her 200-person event, which honored area financial institutions.The group brought in a caterer from St. Charles, and had floral centerpieces created by a local supplier. “We showed video on the large drop-down screen, used the wireless microphone system for presentations, and had the audio system for music during dinner,” Heitzig says. “Guests went out on the deck, and enjoyed the lights of the city and the beautiful breeze. It’s not far from home… and very comfortable.” MM&E
Aerie’s Winery and Grafton Zipline
600-800 Timber Ridge Drive
Grafton IL 62037
Julia M. Johnson is a contributing editor and writer from St. Louis.