Most people stay on the trail awhile, because these little towns—not a stoplight among them—along the 17-year-old Shawnee Hills Wine Trail offer enough to fill several days. Fresh-picked apples fill baskets at Rendleman Orchards’ Farm Market, and apple dumplings tempt at Flamm Orchards. Walking trails around Cedar Lake cross creek shallows; hilly hikes through Little Grand Canyon and Giant City State Park shred stereotypes about Illinois’ landscape. Dozens of bed-and-breakfasts and cabins burrow in the hills, and the wineries reveal personalities all their own—not to mention a mix of sweet and dry varieties reflecting the region’s deepening understanding of wine making.
“The past few years, people have become much more open-minded about wine,” says Brad Genung, winemaker at Owl Creek Vineyard near Cobden. “And presentation is really important, giving folks a really good experience. It’s not like the old days, when people would come in and taste and buy a couple of cases. [So] on Saturday afternoons, we have live folk and bluegrass. That kinda makes the place a little stickier.”
Darkness falls on Rustle Hill Winery, known for its rustic pizzas, panini and lakeside amphitheater. A few dozen people sip wine and listen to Eli Tellor, a 23-year-old Anna native hoping to record his first album (Nashville’s country scene and Memphis’ blues bars lie just three hours south). He eases effortlessly from “Ring of Fire” to his own “Bye, Bye Baby” at the request of Patrick Lee Beasley, a Southern rock singer who has left the honky-tonks behind to perform here. To him, the wineries are like wine itself: They get better with age. One hundred years from now, the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail will rock with visitors, Patrick says. Jo and Rich Crackel of Mattoon, Illinois, staying nearby at the stately Historic Bell Hill Mansion, hope he’s wrong. They used to live in Napa—“before it became commercialized”—and their quest for interesting dry Cabs and Chardonnays spurred this first trip to southern Illinois. But the area’s quiet beauty and empty country roads will keep bringing them back.
Click to the next page for our three-day itinerary.