The owner of Vintages, 57 S. Seminary St., said the wine bar -- at the rear of the retail portion of her business -- is “a hidden gem.”

The owner of Vintages, 57 S. Seminary St., said the wine bar -- at the rear of the retail portion of her business -- is “a hidden gem.”

Julie Haugland, a former Chicagoan, started the independent business -- not affiliated with any other establishment -- in June 2006. A move by her parents to Oak Run led to her move to rural Dahinda.

“We spent the next year and a half figuring out what we were going to do for a living,” Haugland said.

She had no retail or wine experience, but 20 years working for non-profits and association management gave her event-planning experience. She also had done catering. Still, the retail wine shop/wine bar concept came somewhat out of thin air.

“We liked to go wine tasting as a hobby,” she said. “I have a 22-year-old son who said, ‘Mom, it’s just you,’ ” she said.

After eight months developing a business plan, friends offered financial backing. But, her mother, Joan Grauf, told her, “ ‘I would rather do it,’ ” and bankrolled the project. “She made this possible,” Haugland said.

Haugland expected the wine bar to take off first, keeping the business going until the retail heated up. She said it turned out just the opposite. The wine bar area is one of those discoveries people make on South Seminary Street. Five tables, an intimate atmosphere, and a wallpaper -- Italian countryside scene -- that at first glance looks like a painting, adds to the ambiance.

“People say it reminds them of an outdoor Italian cafe,” she said.

Haugland describes the business as offering all the ambiance of a winery, “without the tanks fermenting wine.”

Vintages is on the unofficial North Central Illinois Wine Trail, which includes seven other establishments from Colona to Speer, as well as Atkinson, Prophetstown, Toulon and Edwards, near Peoria.

“U.S. wine is a huge industry right now,” Haugland said.

According to an Illinois Wine 2005 study, wine and wine grapes impacted the state economy to the tune of $253 million. In 2005, 155,000 people visited an Illinois winery. There are about 70 wineries in the state.

“It’s a great possibility for tours,” Haugland said of Vintages. “The tourists just love it. My best clientele are people who come back to Galesburg to visit family and they are loyal. They come back every year.”

Business is getting better.

“Business really picked up Labor Day through Thanksgiving,” Haugland said. “Last year it was like this (making a roller coaster motion with her arm). This past June I brought out my own labels, my private labels. That really picked up business.”

People now are looking for holiday wines. Haugland said she carries spiced Christmas wines, cranberry snow wine and pumpkin wine.

She hopes to get a shipment of pumpkin wine from a winery in Barry sometime this week.

“It’s my best seller out of everything,” she said, admitting that she never expected the reaction to the unusual wine flavor.

Haugland continues to promote Illinois wines, while carrying varieties from throughout the world.

She would like to see other entrepreneurs set up shop along Main Street, continuing the Seminary Street theme. With some help with facade money from the city, she said it’s feasible. She said Vintages didn’t cost a lot of cash to start.

“I called it a shop on a shoestring for so long,” she said. “We came in and in five weeks did this and it didn’t cost that much money, just blood, sweat and tears. . . . I think there’s a future. I’m on target for my sales for what my plans were. But, I thought, wow, what would this have been capable of in a good economy?”

Contact John R. Pulliam at jpulliam@register-mail.com.