By Charlyn Fargo
Looking for a weekend getaway? Just past Marion sits a rolling landscape that rivals Wisconsin for its hills, sunshine, wildlife and meandering roads that wind through the impressive Shawnee National Forest. It’s home to the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, the state’s most established wine region, made up of 12 wineries, cozy bed and breakfasts, and artisan shops.
“All the other wine trails in the state are modeled after the huge success of the Shawnee Hills,” says Megan Pressnall of the Illinois Grape Growers & Vintners Association.
Wine trails, where vineyards connect with other wineries along a specified route, have become as popular as summer festivals. There currently are more than 70 wineries throughout Illinois and five total wine trails, including the Shawnee Hills. (Related article: Wine tasting tips)
“I think visitors are looking for more information to link and make a weekend excursion,” Pressnall says. “The wine trails do that with a regional focus. My husband and I did the Shawnee Trail recently. It’s marked so well with signage, and all the wineries are close.”
While the winding roads may link wineries together, their individual strengths set them apart. “Wineries reflect the personalities of the owners and towns nearby,” Pressnall says. “For example, Pheasant Hollow has more fruit wines. They get a lot of hunters, so they play that up.”
Eric Pool of Claremont started Berryville Vineyards as an alternative to growing corn. “We had these old hills that wouldn’t grow corn or soybeans,” Pool says. “When I graduated from the University of Illinois, corn was $1.80 a bushel. You couldn’t make money at that, so I looked for an alternative. We are the same latitude as the famous wine regions of France, so I looked into growing grapes.” And the experiment has turned into a successful business for him.
“The No. 1 thing grapes like is well-drained soil,” Pool says. “We have that on these Southern Illinois hills. They also like sunshine. My whole concept is to keep my grapes in the sun.” Pool says he does that through pruning four to five times a season.
“In Illinois, we grow French-hybrid grapes,” Pool says. “Coming up with a new wine variety is like playing the lottery – you’re always looking for the one that will be a hit.” He prefers drier wine varieties, such as the Vignoles, a type of grape. For years, wines have been commonly named after the grape that is crushed to create the variety.
However, Pool has had more success lately naming his wines after events. His current best seller is the Earthquake, named after a recent Southern Illinois event. “No wine is made closer to the epicenter,” Pool boasts.
“I only use what I grow myself. I’m a farmer. Making wine is a way to preserve what I grow.” And it’s beneficial to the consumer as well. “There’s a whole movement to buy local, serve fresh,” Pressnall adds. “I think that includes Illinois wines as well. It doesn’t make sense to buy everything at a local farmers’ market and then serve a wine from across the world.”