David and Gail Bradshaw, the owners of the Half Witt Winery are preparing to celebrate its two-year anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 4, and Sunday, Sept. 5, to coincide with the Witt Labor Day Homecoming Celebrations.
“Unfortunately, people haven’t had much of a chance to check us out because of the pandemic,” Gail explained. “Witt is able to hold the Labor Day Celebration this year, and we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to the community. We hope that people will stop in and see us.”
On Saturday, the Half Witt Winery will host an open house, beginning at noon, for the public to come in and check out the venue and sample the locally-made wines. The Alton area band Lady Luck will perform live from 6 to 9 p.m., on the winery’s stage. Big Jake’s BBQ will be on site serving food from 4 to 8 p.m. on Saturday.
The Half Witt Winery will open at noon on Sunday. Big Jake’s food truck will be back with their mouth watering BBQ from 3 to 6 p.m., and the Colin Helton Band will take the stage on from 3 to 6 p.m. Band members include Colin Helton (guitar and vocals), Hank Helton (guitar and vocals), Tom Myers (bass and bass guitar), “Cowboy” JR Reeves (steel guitar) and Bill Steele (drums and booking).
The Half Witt Winery is an unexpected second career for the recently retired couple.
“When we first became a couple we would venture out to wineries all over the place. We called it our Happy Hobby,” Gail said, smiling up at her husband.
The Bradshaws began playing around with creating their own wines, in the basement of their home, using a wine making kit that Mr. Bradshaw received as a Christmas gift from his son. Their first concoction was a peach wine (the Sunset) that their (adult) children and friends raved about.
“We started out with one- gallon batches so that we wouldn’t have to throw a lot out. Our friends and family all liked it and our kids would come over and take off with what we made,” Dave said with a chuckle at the reminiscence. “We began to wonder if the professionals would like it too, so we started entering it into amateur wine competitions. The first time out, we put two of our wines in and we received a gold medal and a bronze medal. They also give you a report card that gives critiques and advice on how to make the wine better. We followed that and then reentered the same two the following year and we came back with two gold medals.”
Their wines went on to win more than 30 medals in amateur wine making competitions throughout Illinois and Indiana, giving the couple the confidence to begin looking into getting a license, and eventually start building the Half Witt Winery from the ground up in late 2018. Since both of them were still working at the time, they opted to outsource the grapes and fruit juices used in their wines from select vineyards.
“In the beginning we both had full-time jobs and were working to build the winery on the weekends. We really didn’t have time to take care of a vineyard or harvest our own grapes,” said Gail. “We are both retired and working at the winery full time now, but there is always something to keep us busy.”
Dave and Gail Bradshaw make all of the wines served at Half Witt Winery. The winery opened with seven wines on their list and have gradually expanded to carry 14 locally made vintages. Dave explained that it takes about eight weeks to make a new batch of wine, from start to finish. They are in a continuous process of making and bottling wines, but make sure to take time to create new wines as well. Each summer they release a new wine to add to their growing collection. This summer’s new release was the “Watermelon,” a sweet red wine, that has proven itself to be a customer favorite.
The Half Witt Winery list currently features a Chambourcin, Leon Millot, Half Witt White, Lester’s, Half Witt Red, Half Witt Cranberry, Blackberry, Black Raz, Watermelon, Half Witt Rose, Tropical Breeze, Sunrise, Sunset and Sweet Riesling. In addition to wine, they also serve beer, water and Pepsi products.
Patrons are invited to bring in their own food, or to patronize from local businesses such as Mac’s Diner or Casey’s. The winery offers pizza and snack trays of deli meats, cheeses and crackers on Fridays and Sundays. They also partner with Witt Volunteer Fire Department at least once a month to help raise money for the fire station. The neighboring fire station sets up a food stand on their lawn and the winery promotes the meals and books live entertainment to draw crowds.
When they held their grand opening in November 2019, neither Dave nor Gail expected to be shut down by a global pandemic within a few months time. They took it in stride and found ways to bring patrons to the fledgling winery, including offering live entertainment and bringing in food trucks from throughout the region to give customers more dining options and hopefully draw traffic to the city. The Bradshaws built a stage to host live music and highlight their patio space in June 2020. Creating a comfortable ambiance is important to the couple, who want people to feel welcome and at home at the Half Witt Winery.
“People are always saying that they think the winery might be too fancy for them, but it really isn’t. We put a lot of work into making this a nice place but we are just regular people and we want the winery to be a place where everyone feels welcome. We got some push back when we put the television in, but come playoff time all the men will trail in with their wives and before long they’ll all be gathered inside with a beer yelling at the TV, while their wives are out on the patio with a bottle of wine laughing and relaxing,” said Dave.
In addition to hosting wine enthusiasts, the Half Witt offers a great venue for bridal showers and parties. They are currently waiving venue fees and just ask that guests purchase all drinks from the winery, alcoholic and nonalcoholic alike.
While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has slowed their momentum, lots of guests have discovered the Half Witt Winery through their social media presence on Facebook and YELP. They have had visitors from the Quad Cities, Springfield, Decatur, Champaign, Effingham, Carlyle, Vandalia, Breese and Greenville. They hope to continue drawing outsiders to the area, but want the Half Witt to be a favorite of locals as well.
In celebration of their two- year anniversary, all wine bottles will be ten percent off and beers will be $2 a bottle throughout the weekend. Dave recommends his personal preference, the Half Witt Red, and Gail praises the Sunset, though they both agree that all of the wines on their list are good. The couple encourages people to stop by the winery and discover their own favorite this weekend.
The Half Witt Winery is located at 240 North Hirst Street in Witt and is open from noon to 9 p.m. on Fridays, noon to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
The Bradshaws instruct customers to park on the south and north sides of the winery; they may also overflow into the Fire Department’s parking lot, in front of the shed, but are asked not to block Hirst Street or park directly in front of the firehouse in case of an emergency.