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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Welcome to Illinois Wine Country

Between Highways 127 and 57 is a gravel road looping by one-bedroom, red-roofed cabins next to a large lake. The road ends at an impressive building, complete with a wraparound patio, peaked ceiling, brick bar, stained glass windows, and a loft with cathedral-esque chandeliers. Inside, John Patrick Russell is all smiles, and why shouldn’t he be? It’s a Thursday afternoon in June, and patrons casually are drinking inside his winery in Southern Illinois. It’s busy, and the weekend has yet to begin. Russell opened Rustle Hill Winery (a play on his last name) in 2008, and today, a group of retired businessmen already are several beers deep inside while local college students sip wine on the patio. The tiny stage across from the bar is empty for now, but Russell promises five concerts happen every weekend.

That was his original idea: to create a music venue in the middle of Southern Illinois wine country two hours west of Evansville. “We’ll do Woodstock,” he jokes of his vision now. The reality of Rustle Hills is bigger than that. Russell sells an experience: live music at an outdoor amphitheater, locally produced wine, breathtaking views, and cozy, lakeside accommodations.

He’s the latest to discover the power of wine to attract tourists to Southern Illinois. Alto Vineyards was the first to open in the region in 1984. What followed were 11 more entrepreneurs capitalizing on the ideal landscape and climate for grape growing — rolling hills, a regular breeze, and soil with limestone bedrock. Every winery feels familiar in the sense that wine is produced at each location, but each winery has a unique character stemming from the owner. StarView Vineyards comes from co-owner Scott Sensmeier, a Cobden, Ill., native who worked for several years in Atlanta’s upscale neighborhood Buckhead, and the interior design reflects this sensibility. Anders Hedman, though, is from Sweden, and if his thick accent isn’t enough to tip you off, his business, Hedman Vineyards, also has a restaurant with a Scandinavian-influenced menu: featuring Swedish meatballs and wiener schnitzel.

Sensmeier and Hedman join 10 other wineries to form the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a collaborative effort to attract tourists to Southern Illinois. While wine is the key product, Shawnee Hills offers picturesque scenery filled with sandstone canyons and forests deep and dense running from the highways.

Wineries

Alto Vineyards

You’re drinking: The owners describe Heartland Blush as “reminiscent of grandma’s grape jelly.”

Two decades is a long time to perfect winemaking, and experience is one reason Alto Vineyards is the largest producer on the trail (around 34,000 gallons a year). After releasing its first wine in 1987, founders Guy Renzaglia and Ted Wichmann sold 2,000 bottles. Today, Alto Vineyards sells around 10,000 bottles a year of the most popular sweet red wine, Heartland Blush.[pagebreak]

Inheritance Valley

You’re drinking: The Cobden Cream, a rich, flavorful Spanish sherry, is blended for five years before bottling.

Owners Tim and Kendall Waller have a small winery — that’s by design. The focus is on “personal attention,” Tim says, and with a facility that seats 12, an intimate atmosphere is possible. The Wallers have an understated wit, apparent in their wine list: Big Diesel Whine; Oh My, Cherry Pie; and Blackberry Boogie. So popular are the latter two, the Wallers were sold out by June. The Big Diesel Whine is a sweet red with a name inspired by RognboB, two local musicians who play parody songs such as “I Want to Be a Walmart Greeter.” (Bonus: RognboB albums are available for purchase at Inheritance Valley.)

Hedman Vineyards

You’re drinking: The chambourcin, a dry red aged in an American oak barrel with cherry and berry flavors, is the highest seller.

Outside this winery, baby barn swallows relax in a nest, and hummingbirds flutter near the gazebo. The décor inside this winery and restaurant is a reflection of owner Anders Hedman’s home country. Atop the checkered tablecloths are laminated placemats depicting Swedish landscapes: Swedes in boats overgrown with vegetation, Swedes in cottages overgrown with vegetation, and Swedes in tree houses, you guessed it, overgrown with vegetation. One menu highlight: The Swedish meatballs come drizzled in a sweet berry sauce.

Pomona Winery

You’re drinking: The award-winning, semi-dry Jonathan, made from Jonathan apples, is crisp and tart and pairs well with light cheeses.

Owners George Majka and Jane Payne bought land in Southern Illinois almost four decades ago. They built a temporary house and lived without utilities for years. Their claim to fame: None of their wines are made from grapes. They use only blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and apples.

StarView Vineyards

You’re drinking: The semi-dry red, Red Giant, an award winner, has a raspberry and licorice taste.

When brainstorming for winery names with his wife Kate Sensmeier, Scott admits they weren’t very creative: Far from big city lights, the land offered a great view of the stars. The young couple has been much more creative with their products. Known for giving drinkers a simultaneous buzz and brain freeze, their wine slushies — made with Venus, Concord, or SilverStar wines — are just plain fun.

Orlandini Vineyard

You’re drinking: The signature wine is the Saluki Red, named for the mascot of nearby Southern Illinois University. Produced from chambourcin grapes, the wine is sophisticated and sweet.

On more than four acres of grape farm is a tiny peach-colored building with a patio overlooking a pond. Inside, owner Gary Orlandini plays classical music softly. His great-grandfather and grandfather used to make wine in their basements. Orlandini helped and learned, “It’s hard work pulling feet out of grapes.” He no longer smashes grapes with his feet to make wine, but his wine menu still is worth a look.[pagebreak]

Blue Sky Vineyard

You’re drinking: The medium-bodied white wine, Chardonnay Silver, boasts soft floral aromas.

The prominent building at Blue Sky Vineyard has an Italian renaissance vibe. The ceiling stretches (blue) sky high, leaving enough room for a Nebraskan windmill to act as the ceiling fan. Below, local artists painted the tables where patrons sit and enjoy a large wine selection. As impressive as the facilities look, Karen Hand, Blue Sky’s winemaker, believes, “We’re only as successful as our neighbors,” she says. “We’re in this together.” That’s why she heads the Shawnee Hills Wine-Grape Association, a collaborative effort to set wine quality standards in Southern Illinois.

Dining, Attractions, and Lodging

The Palace Pizzeria

From Pabst Blue Ribbon to Blue Moon, a wide-ranging amount of beers is on tap. Pictures of local youth soccer championship teams haphazardly hang on the walls next to photos of jazz and blues musicians who play at the Palace Pizzeria. “Can you tell the owner likes Beale Street?” a patron asks while I stare too long at the photos. The ambiance of this restaurant feels like Dave’s Sports Den in Evansville.

The pizza, however, is uniquely brilliant. The Grecian delight, for example, offers no sauce but comes topped with feta cheese, tomatoes, black olives, broccoli, and onions all tossed in a fine house dressing. The gyro meat tastes like a Greek prepared it, and spinach leaves decorate the top of the pie with a perfectly blistered crust.

Giant City State Park

The tall sandstone bluffs earned the 4,000-acre Giant City State Park its name because the paths between the bluffs look like giants could use them as streets. The park’s lodge restaurant serves family-style meals, much like the Log Inn in nearby Haubstadt, Ind., with a menu of golden brown fried chicken, mashed potatoes, country milk gravy, scratch dumplings, green beans, buttered corn, creamy coleslaw, and biscuits. I feel stuffed just writing about the meal, but my most memorable attraction at the restaurant was the Fat Man’s Squeeze, a dessert named after one of the park’s rock formations. The post-dinner option came with three scoops of vanilla ice cream atop chunks of moist brownies, covered in hot chocolate syrup, and a mountain of whipped cream completes the dish. After eating, my waistline was gigantic. And I’m ready for more.

Davie School Inn

In 2002, Gary and Andrea Dahmer transformed eight classrooms into spacious hotel rooms loaded with character to create the Davie School Inn in Anna, Ill. Elements of the 1910 schoolhouse still are present such as old desks lining the stairwell and blackboards in the rooms, but modern amenities (microwave, mini-fridge, satellite TV, air-conditioning) make the stay comfortable. So successful was the renovation that owners developed three new rooms, and plans have begun on turning the basement into a “man cave.”[pagebreak]

If You Go:

Alto Vineyards – Alto Pass, Ill. – www.altovineyards.net – (618) 893-4898

Blue Sky Vineyard – Makanda, Ill. – www.blueskyvineyard.com – (618) 995-9463

Davie School Inn – Anna, Ill. – www.davieschoolinn.com – (618) 833-2377

Giant City State Park – Makanda, Ill. – www.giantcitylodge.com – (618) 457-4836

Hedman Vineyards – Alto Pass, Ill. – www.peachbarn.com – (618) 893-4923

Inheritance Valley Vineyards – Cobden, Ill. – www.inheritancevalley.com – (618) 893-6141

Orlandini Vineyard – Makanda, Ill. – www.orlandinivineyard.com – (618) 995-2307

Palace Pizzeria – Cobden, Ill. – (618) 893- 4415

Pomona Winery – Pomona, Ill. – www.pomonawinery.com – (618) 893-2623

Rustle Hill Winery – Cobden, Ill. – www.rustlehillwinery.com – (618) 893-2700

StarView Vineyards – Cobden, Ill. – www.starviewvineyards.com – (618) 893-9463

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