It’s harvest season in Southern Illinois for grapes, mid-August through October. Workers are already in the process of crushing and pressing freshly picked Niagara grapes, one of the first of a multitude of varieties to ripen.
Illinois might not be the first state that comes to mind when you think about fine wines, but it has a long history in grape and wine production. Before prohibition, Illinois was the fourth largest producer of grapes and supplied 25 percent of wine consumed in the U.S. After prohibition, the industry went into sharp decline in the state, but that’s all changing as Illinois gains a reputation for quality wines and as the acres of grapes and number of wineries grow.
In 1997, there were nine wineries and 34 growers in Illinois. By 2003, the state had 33 wineries and 160 growers. Today, there are more than 100 wineries in Illinois and most Illinois grapes are grown on the sloping hills of Southern Illinois.
None of that would be possible without the innovation and determination of three winemakers and grape-growers in the region. In 1995, the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail was created in 1995 by Guy Renzaglia, founder of Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass; Ted Wichmann, founder of Owl Creek Winery in Cobden; and George Majka, founder of Pomona Winery in rural Jackson County.
The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail winds its way around the bottom third of the state, with stops at a dozen of the region’s best wineries, offering a diverse selection of nationally and internationally acclaimed wines. At several of the wineries, you can now find bistro food offerings, regular live music, art exhibits and, sometimes, a murder mystery dinner theater.