Travel Writing

Land of Drinkin’

published in the Chicago Sun-Times

You have two more reasons to drive and drink (note the order!) this summer.

Two new wine trails have taken root in Illinois, offering a frugal and fruitful alternative to pricier getaways. Hit the highway and head south, and you can make a weekend of sampling from a cluster of these finer wineries, with scenic stops helpfully noted along the way. It’s a Napa-like experience on a Two-Buck Chuck budget.

The Southern Illinois Wine Trail and the Wabash Valley Wine Trail navigated the long and winding road to official nonprofit status recently, putting themselves on the map this year. They join the Heartland Rivers Wine Trail, the Illinois River Wine Trail, the Northern Illinois Wine Trail and the Shawnee Wine Trail, each offering a different taste of Illinois wine country.

Wine trails are an organic thing, founded and organized by winery owners, a notoriously individualistic bunch. It’s a challenge to gain consensus from a busy group of entrepreneurs who intentionally seek their own style and who work in fields more often than offices. “You’re dealing with different winemakers who want to do things their own way,” says Brett Robling, the owner and winemaker at Lasata Wines who has led the launch of the Wabash Valley Wine Trail.

At the same time, each recognizes the value in collaborating. “We realize that our area is such a remote one,” Robling says of his woodland winery in the far southeast part of the state. Few would travel such a distance just to visit one winery. But when you can make a two- or three-day stay of it, sampling different expressions of Illinois soil and exploring unique sights, sounds and food along the way, suddenly a remote area becomes a getaway destination.

There’s no central wine trail support group to bottle the experience. The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association offers links to information about each of the six wine trails, but organizing and promoting is the work of winery owners. Making a brochure and building a website fall to people like Steve Hogg, owner and winemaker at Hogg Hollow Winery and a carpenter by trade. He’s been learning a new trade in leading the new Southern Illinois Wine Trail.

But he’s as enthusiastic and as knowledgeable as any marketing or tourism expert. Hogg mentions boating at the Golconda Marina, a cruise on the Shawnee Queen River Taxi, the War Bluff Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Garden of the Gods, Gambit Golf Course, Cave-In Rock State Park, horseback riding…“all those things people go to Colorado and do that they don’t realize they can do right here,” Hogg says.

In fact, his winery and others on the Southern Illinois Wine Trail are spread in and around the Shawnee National Forest. Outdoor enthusiasts can pair their wine with all kinds of strenuous ways to burn it off. The Grand Rose Hotel in Elizabeth and the San Damiano Retreat Center and Shrine offer unique ways to sleep off both drinks and hikes.

Of course, there’s plenty to do and see at each winery. Bella Terra’s grounds include a bocce ball court and an outdoor patio where guests can try dry and sweet wines from locally grown grapes with pizza, cheese, even ice cream. Cache River Basin hosts a full-service restaurant, Wineaux’s, and plans a bed and breakfast. Windy Hill is adding a pavilion for outdoor entertainment. Shawnee Winery suggests enjoying a glass on their porch.

History buffs will find much to toast on the new Wabash Valley Wine Trail. The Abraham Lincoln Heritage Trail State Monument is nearby. Robling describes the town of Palestine—the oldest village in the state—and its historic Main Street as a “look into the past.” He also cites the George Rogers Clark Memorial and the Harrison Mansion. Vincennes, just over the border on the Indiana side and home to Windy Knoll Winery, was the home of midcentury comedian Red Skelton.

The aptly-named Pioneer Winery can be found on Palestine’s quaint Main Street; its tasting room is built within a turn-of-the-century bank building. Pioneer’s specialty is a sweet wine made from the traditionally Midwestern Concord grape.

Over in the town of Birds, the also aptly-named White Owl Winery lays claim to the world’s only Persimmon Sherry, its Persimmon Solera. White Owl also bottles Paw Paw for its Vin de PaPa.

The Wabash Valley Wine Trail is hosting progressive dinners among its five wineries this year (all are within 30 miles of each other), and Lasata is hosting a Welcome to Summer festival June 27.

Tasting the fruits of summers past is an ideal way to welcome this summer. And Illinois’ six wine trails make it easier to string together an experience for travelers who like their vino with linen tablecloths, leather saddles or anything in between. You can take the road less traveled—they’ve even provided the map.

© Julianne Will 2016