From the start, there was nothing traditional about Fred Koehler's business plan.
As everyone in the country was relishing French wines in 1970s, Koehler decided it would be a good idea to open a winery in the suburbs that featured locally made spirits.
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And he would start his new business not as a young man, but as a man in his early 50s who already had a career managing such establishments as the Elmhurst and Itasca country clubs.
"He was really a visionary," said Christina Anderson-Heller, spokeswoman for Lynfred Winery in Roselle, which Koehler founded with his late wife, Lynn.
"He was doing an urban winery before urban wineries were even cool" she said. "His idea was he would drink a wine and, if he liked it, he found out where those grapes came from and make an awesome wine out of it."
Koehler, 83, died Saturday from cancer, leaving behind a business that today attracts 110,000 wine lovers per year. Plans for a memorial service are pending and will be announced on the winery's website, www.lynfredwinery.com.
The self-taught winemaker learned his passion for the craft from his grandfather, who made wine for the family and local politicians in the 1920s. Fifty years later, Fred and Lynn Koehler made their first wine batch in their basement.
Calling it a "hobby that grew out of hand," Koehler and his wife decided in 1979 to open the first winery in Illinois with seven varieties and 5,000 gallons of wine.
The couple faced several challenges, Anderson-Heller said, including converting a residence into a commercial business, convincing California vineyards to ship grapes 2,000 miles to Illinois, and fighting to change state laws to allow more freedom in producing varieties in larger quantities.
But by 1985, Lynfred had enough muscle to compete against prestigious California wineries at a judging in Reno, Nev. Its 1983 chardonnay was named "Best of Class and Best of Show" against the West Coast producers, giving Lynfred national recognition. One month later, the same wine was named "Double Gold" at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago.
As Lynfred's name started popping up in magazines, including Wine Spectator, and local TV stations took notice, business grew, Anderson-Heller said. By 1990, Lynfred expanded to its current site at Roselle and Irving Park roads. This allowed Koehler's wine production to increase to almost 100,000 gallons a year and more than 80 varietals.
Roselle Village President Gayle Smolinski said Lynfred's success helped put Roselle on the map.
"Fred just created a wonderful, unique destination-oriented business that made Roselle popular," Smolinski said. "Not only did it bring us notoriety, but it's a wonderful thing and we're very proud to have this beautiful winery in our village."
Koehler soon hired Chilean winemaker Andres Basso, which allowed Koehler more time to shepherd expansions like the 1999 opening of the satellite store, Tasting Devine in Wheaton, and a luxury bed and breakfast at the Roselle location in 2002.
Basso has acted as Lynfred's general manager for the past several years.
In 2004, Lynfred opened Tasting Devine Cellars in Naperville and, in 2008, a tasting room in Wheeling. Both have been operated by Koehler's current wife, Valerie, since their inception.
With the hands of trusted family and employees like Basso already involved at Lynfred, Anderson-Heller said business will not only continue as usual but will expand.
"Fred always knew the time would come when he could not be here and he was able to get a plan in place," she said. "Fred's daughter and son (Diane Koehler and Fred Jr.) are also still here, and I think the legacy of the winery will continue to grow."
Lynfred does not reveal its financial figures, but the business does produce about 28,000 cases of wine per year. Since Lynfred's days as Illinois' first winery, the state's wine business has grown to a $283 million-a-year industry, Anderson-Heller said.
She added that Lynfred has plans to open another satellite site, but declined to reveal the location. Lynfred has also created a board of directors to "help the winery grow in the tradition of what Fred wanted to see," said Anderson-Heller.
As the Roselle company prepares to move forward, the staff, patrons and family will say goodbye to Koehler at 7 p.m. Friday with a "worldwide toast" to Lynfred's founder. The winery will officially host the toast during an event at Goebbert's Pumpkin Farm in Barrington, but invites patrons around the world to join in. They can also leave messages on Twitter at #ToastToFred.