We've found tasting rooms in barns, restaurants and roadside stops built specifically for that purpose. But we'd never seen a winery in a real-life, old-fashioned, little white church before arriving at South River Vineyard.
From the outside, its towering steeple and stained glass windows fit the holy profile. Inside, we find an illogical scene: a bachelorette party filling up two traditional church pews, swigging wines with names like Exodus, Karma and Temptation and filling the once-hallowed space with echoes of squeals and girl talk.
The church remains in its former state; the biggest change is the bar tucked into one corner of the main room. But the pews, hardwood floors and airy surroundings — clear up to a soaring ceiling — remain. Owners Gene and Heather Sigel moved the building piece by piece to a Geneva hilltop in 2000.
"Any time you grow grapes, site selection is so critical," Gene explains. The former economist was working in the area as a winery manager when he decided to try farming his own grapes. "When you drive through the Grand River Valley growing region, you see vineyards everywhere, and they all look identical — but some of the vineyards are in lower-lying elevations, and they suffer from constant frost problems."
South River is perched on a hill, and the vantage doesn't just help the grapes. The view from the backyard patio overlooks row after row of grape trellises and offers a sweeping panorama of the rolling hills and thickets of trees.
Charmed as we are by the large patio with its Roman columns, wrought-iron chairs and small cafe tables, as well as the nearby open-air pavilion with its stone fireplace, we opt to pull up a pew and taste the winery's signature vinos indoors. Two Jesus bobbleheads perched behind the bar watch as we chose our wines, and a photo of a nun carries the caption, "You will go to Hell for stealing your wine glass."
The winery allows sampling before selecting a glass and sells flights of four 1-ounce pours for $5. Gene recommends his merlot and syrah — he's the only one in the area planting them. "The red grapes are what we're known for," he explains. "They're very sensitive to our cold winter; they only do well on the best sites."
We love the creamy semillon, made from the heavier white grape with low acidity that only he grows locally.
The Sigels aren't stopping at unusual grapes, either. They received state and federal licensing this year to open a bourbon distillery on-site. By the end of 2012, visitors will be able to taste South River bourbon made from locally grown grains ground at Fowler's Mill. Bourbon might make an unlikely pairing with wine, but if South River has taught us anything at all, it's that unusual pairings — like opening a winery in a church — can produce unexpectedly delightful results.