Becky Schneider pours a taste of Golden Oak Aged Reserve in the sun-washed tasting room at Pomona Winery near Alto Pass, Illinois, and watches as Anne Pitts sips it. “I used to have a problem calling wine creamy until this one,” Becky says, grinning as a familiar look of wonder spreads across Anne’s face and adding, “I’ve never tasted anything like it. I steam a lot of veggies in it; I throw it in pasta sauces.”
Anne, who’s toured California’s Napa and Sonoma valley vineyards, slowly shakes her head. “Even after a few seconds, it’s still buttery,” she says in amazement.
Becky just smiles and continues the $3 taste tour of 10 wines at Pomona, one of 12 wineries on the hilly, wooded Shawnee Hills Wine Trail (110 miles southeast of St. Louis). She pours a sample of Orchard Harvest, which she likes to add to chicken noodle soup. The Orchard Spice is like apple pie in a glass, and it’s great in white chicken chili, she says. She also drizzles the strawberry dessert wine on fruit salads and into brownie batter.
Seth Blickhan, sales manager at nearby Alto Vineyards, shares cooking ideas during tastings, too. A Spanish-style sangria warming in a slow cooker makes a house smell like Christmas, and Alto’s dark red Norton has a mint finish that pairs beautifully with lamb chops. Cooked down, cherry wines make an amazing pork chop braising liquid, and the Chancellor spikes burgers ready for the grill.
Spend even just a little time among these family-owned wineries nestled in Shawnee National Forest, and you’ll feel a welcome tug: Do you go home with bottles of wine in tow and start cooking, or do you linger with a glass and watch the sun set over a vista stretching more than 35 miles?