The good life along Illinois' Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
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 taste tour of 10 wines at Pomona, one of 11 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.
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?
Most people stay on the trail awhile, because these little towns-not a stoplight among them-along the 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.
For more info: Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau. (800) 248-4373; southernmostillinois.com
Start by visiting the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail website and downloading a map of the wineries (shawneewinetrail.com). A GPS will help, but the route has good signage. The area stretches about 30 miles across, but because of all of the backroads, 4 miles can take 20 minutes.
Each winery provides a list of wines, from dry to sweet. Some offer food, too. We enjoyed nibbles at Blue Sky Vineyard and Von Jakob Winery and Brewery.
A hike through Little Grand Canyon takes about two hours.
Refuel in Anna with dinner at Brick House Grill, which tops filets with thick blue-cheese gravy.
Antique furnishings and Southern hospitality await at Historic Bell Hill Bed and Breakfast in Cobden. Girlfriends and groups love the vacation rentals at Alto Wine Trail Loft. And the Davie School Inn stuns with classy decor and in-room breakfasts in a rescued Anna elementary school building.
Apple-cider doughnuts and fresh-picked Jonagolds make a great snack at Rendleman Orchards' Farm Market in Alto Pass.
A quick walk around Cedar Lake or a ride in a rented motorboat along Little Grassy Lake offers a quiet start to the day.
Towering rock formations gave Giant City State Park its name, and a 45-minute moderate hike winds through them. Stop at the visitors center in Makanda for trail maps and to catch a 20-minute film about the park's history and ecology.
A hike means you won't feel so guilty when you indulge in a flaky apple dumpling from Flamm Orchards in Cobden.
As you head home, stop at the 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro. The barbecued meats and baked beans are legendary, and the decadent banana pudding is served in a Mason jar.