CARLOCK — Rudi Hofmann looked over rows of grape vines as buds were starting to appear.
"We are not pruning this year because we are retiring," Hofmann explained as he fingered a vine and as the vineyard dog, Moritz, sat watching him.
"For me, it's hard. Very hard."
For Rudi and Mary Hofmann, retirement means leaving the vines you planted, the grapes you harvested, the wines you made and the tasting room where strangers turned into friends. It is bittersweet.
The Hofmanns are owners of Sunset Lake Vineyards & Winery, formerly White Oak Vineyards & Winery, northwest of Carlock. They are retiring, effective June 30, for health reasons and because they are retirement age. They are sad because, so far, they haven't found anyone willing to purchase the property and continue to operate it as a vineyard and winery.
"Our goal and greatest wish is someone buys it and continues it as a winery because we have put so much blood, sweat and tears into this," said Mary Hofmann.
"Rudi and Mary are just good people," said Art Owles, a rural Carlock neighbor. He and his wife, Carol, went to the tasting room years ago for a glass of wine, became friends with the Hofmanns and later became volunteers, helping with pruning, harvest, de-stemming and crushing grapes, bottling wine and working in the tasting room during special events.
"They truly care about the people who come to the winery," Owles said. "They want people to have a good time and they produce good wines."
"Going to Sunset Lake was the equivalent of walking into 'Cheers,'" said Owles, referencing the iconic television show about a neighborhood bar. "I don't know anyone who hasn't enjoyed coming to the winery."
"It's like a little heaven," said another rural Carlock neighbor, McLean County Board member Catherine Metsker.
"They put their heart and soul into it," Metsker said. "It's a sweet, little place."
"It's really sad," she said of the planned closing. "But I can totally understand."
Rudi Hofmann is 65. Mary, 64, whose maiden name is Mouser, grew up on her family farm north of Normal. Rudi grew up on his family's dairy farm in what was then West Germany, east of Munich, and went to work for a farm equipment manufacturer.
Mary majored in German at Illinois State University and spent a summer semester studying near Munich.
Both attended a farm equipment show in Minnesota in 1976. They met, began dating when Mary got a job in West Germany several months later, and married on Aug. 20, 1977, at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bloomington.
They settled in Steinhoering, where Rudi continued to work for the farm equipment manufacturer and Mary raised their two children and taught English. In 1986, she was hired by Delta Airlines as an assistant to a manager at the Munich airport and was transferred to the United States as an airline attendant in 1998.
The Hofmanns bought the land northwest of Carlock in 1998 and moved there the following year to be closer to Mary's family.
They were considering what to do with the land when they talked with Paul Hahn, owner of Mackinaw Valley Vineyard in rural Mackinaw, and decided to grow grapes.
"We wanted to do something we could do together," Rudi said.
They planted their first rows of grapes and established White Oak Vineyards, named for White Oak Township, in 2003. Each year, they added more varieties of grapes and Mary took courses to learn about wine-making.
"It takes three years before the plant bears fruit," Rudi said.
But the Hofmanns couldn't sell their wines because White Oak Township didn't allow retail sale of liquor. The couple and their supporters, including Metsker, gathered signatures to get a referendum on the ballot that passed in February 2008, allowing the sale of alcohol.
In 2011, the same year that Mary retired as a flight attendant, the Hofmanns opened their tasting room and decorated it like a Bavarian guest house.
"They did a lot of work and made it a beautiful destination," Metsker said.
The Hofmanns changed the name from White Oak to Sunset Lake two years ago when they were told that a winery in California had trademarked the White Oak Vineyard name a year after the Hofmanns opened their vineyard.
Over the years, pruning has happened in late winter and early spring with harvest in August. What followed was a complex wine-making process in the production facility. While some of the wines are ready for bottling and labeling the following March, others spend up to two years in barrels for aging.
As Rudi maintains the vineyard, Mary checks the wines and takes care of the paperwork.
"We make it look so easy," Mary said. "People don't realize the amount of work that goes into putting that wine in your hand.
"But no one needs to see it," she said. "We are creating an image. That image is the romance of wine."
The Hofmanns have been the only full-time workers, although others have worked part-time or volunteered from time to time. Their adult children live in South Carolina and Alaska.
"We have health issues that can't be ignored," Mary said. "And when my brother died suddenly last year, it hit really hard. You realize life is short."
"I have mixed feelings," Rudi said. "I like to be outside and working and that's what I will miss. On the other side, I'm looking forward to seeing our children and grandchildren more often and doing some traveling."
"I will miss being in the tasting room," added Mary. "We tried to create a home-like atmosphere. We let people into our lives. People came in as perfect strangers and left as friends."
While the Hofmanns hope to continue to live in their home on the farm, 15 acres are for sale, including four acres of the vineyard, the production facility, tasting room, a stocked pond and pavilion.
"People from all over the world got a glimpse of McLean County that they wouldn't have gotten otherwise," Owles said. "People are going to miss it."