Exploring the Illinois wine trail

When people think about American wine, the region that comes to mind is the West Coast. And that makes sense – the majority of wine production in the United States does take place in California, Oregon and Washington. What many people don’t realize is that America is the fourth-largest wine producing country in the world, right behind the major heavyweights of France, Spain and Italy.

American wine is far more than just the West Coast. With a wide range of climates and soils, from arid to wet, rocky hills and grasslands, U.S. wineries produce a vast variety of wines from our more than one million planted acres and over three thousand commercial wineries. Napa Valley is peerless, but chances are, no matter what region of the country you’re in, there’s a wine trail or vineyard not far from you just waiting to be explored.

Illinois wine is just such an example. With a climate hospitable to wine production – some of the southern regions closely match certain climates found in Spain and Italy – there are over eighty different wineries operating in this state alone. That’s no reason to feel overwhelmed, though. This short guide will point you in the direction of a few of the ‘must-see’ wineries in Illinois. Keep reading below to see where…

Chicago and Region
Most of the Illinois’ grapes are grown downstate, but with so much of the population crowded into Chicago, there’s a huge market for wine, and a conscientious thirst for local product.

  • Glunz Family Winery and Cellars – Glunz is the main supplier of the seasonal, cold-weather wine Glogg. Most everywhere one goes in the city, if the restaurant is serving Glogg, it’s most likely from Glunz. The owner, Joe Glunz Jr., is very actively involved and has a love for Port. He’s most proud of his 1992 vintage, and he’ll happily put it up against it’s Portuguese counterparts.
  • Wild Blossom Meadery and Winery – On the far south side of the city, Wild Blossom works to produce one of the oldest beverages in the world. Mead, a specialty wine made from honey, is crafted here using the output from local beehives. Billing itself as one of the world’s most sustainable winemakers, this wine shows up on the shelves of organic retailers like Whole Foods. Wild Blossom’s “Meadery” also offers winemaking classes, supplies and tastings.
  • Vintner’s Cellar – A new trend in wine, Vintner’s Cellar is a franchise that allows the customer to craft their own personalized vintage. Using flavoring agents that simulate the aging process, customers can create as few as 24 bottles of custom wines however they like. An employee tells us that engaged couples like to create their own wines for their weddings. Locations usually have tastings as well.

Galena, Illinois
Galena is a picturesque town to the west along the Mississippi river, popular as an overnight destination for city-weary Chicagoans. Very different from the flat lands of northeastern Illinois, the Galena’s rolling hills work in the winemaker’s favor.

  • Galena Cellars Winery and Vineyard – Galena Cellars rules this region, with several locations in the area. Wine tastings at their Galena shops are common, and vineyard tours are available not far from town. Want to stumble instead of drive home? Stay in a cabin or room at the vineyard. Galena Cellars shines when it comes to sweet dessert wines, and their Choclat du Vin took home a gold medal from the Illinois State Fair.
  • Famous Fossil – In operation for only about six years now, Famous Fossil is heady when it comes to wine. Prizing what’s been termed their wine’s “somewhereness,” the husband and wife team crafting wine here want you to taste the land itself in each barrel they make. As the weather warms up, their chilled Fossil Rock White, with it’s blend of four different regional grapes, should be a perfect complement to the summer heat.

Utica, Illinois
Utica is a small town just at the edge of one of Illinois’ most beautiful state parks, Starved Rock. The former factory town would be nearly overshadowed by the husk of the industrial mill here, if not for the variety of sweet shops, antique malls, hotels and wineries catering to those visiting Starved Rock.

  • August Hill – A bit of big-city sophistication on this rustic small town’s quaint main street, August Hill’s wine shop and tasting room would look just as at home in downtown Chicago’s Gold Coast. The vintners grow their grapes on land that’s been in the family for generations, and have a passion for supporting both local artists and theater troupes as far flung as Chicago and St. Louis. Much of the art for each label is family-produced.
  • Illinois River Winery – The employees at the Illinois River Winery are so friendly they don’t seem to want to let you go. Whereas other wineries can sometimes rush, or make you feel like the tasting is all business, Bob, the tasting room manager, invites you to pull up a stool and taste as much as you like, for as long you like. For free, even. The Oktoberfest wine here is a major standout, and they have trouble keeping cases in stock, especially as autumn nears.

Shawnee Hills
Shawnee Hills is home to over a dozen Southern Illinois wineries, all within about twenty miles of one another. About fifteen minutes or so south of Carbondale, IL and the resplendent Giant City State Park, this area sees tour groups shuttling along the windy, hilly roads, especially in the summer.

  • Owl Creek Vineyard – The story behind Owl Creek is one that everyone who loves wine and wineries dreams about: a young couple, successful but unfulfilled, throw off the trappings of the corporate world and risk it all to become vintners. The owners will take the time to talk to you all about it for hours on a rainy afternoon, and, in at least one case, are happy to sacrifice one of their own towels in the event that one of your party fell into a creek while hiking in the nearby state park. The 2007 Zengeist, a crisp white, is worth owning several bottles and alone justifies every risk the couple took.
  • Starview Vineyards – In what seems to be a sprawling, white one-story cabin up against a small man made pond, Starview holds tastings, serves light cafe fare, and throws the occasional incredible party. With long rows of tables inside and a giant patio overlooking the pond outdoors, Starview likes to invite musical guests to entertain the crowds, whether it’s outdoor-heating-lamp weather or actual, natural shine. All of this is explained by the affable owner as his daughters shyly hide behind his legs. The Conchord here tastes like jam that was freshly made earlier in the day, and it may well have been. White wines are the true stars here, and they may have the best Traminette on the trail.

Grafton, Illinois
This small town is at the very edge of southwestern Illinois, where the Illinois and the Mississippi Rivers converge. Once home to a strong Native American presence, the town is now a getaway for St. Louis residents just across the river to the south. The land between the rivers to the immediate west is home to low, rolling hills filled with vineyards and fruit orchards, and is most easily accessible by ferry.

  • Piasa Winery – Piasa’s stone cottage sits at the confluence of the Grafton’s two rivers, flanked by a sunny outdoor patio and musician’s stage. Named for the mythical creature of Native American legend, Piasa has its own traditions of award-winning wines. The counter staff remembers you, even if it’s been months between visits, and keeps fans up-to-date via a Facebook page. The Piasa Blush, when cold, is incomparable as a summer wine.
  • Grafton Winery & Brewhaus – A bit further up the hill is the Grafton Winery. A full-service establishment, serving beers, food and wine, this winery boasts a view of the two rivers at sunset that’s unique to the entire Midwest. This venue doesn’t have the folksy charm that Piasa does, but it’s a well-polished operation, with the ability to cater to large parties and provide tours of the wine making facilities. In particular here, the 2003 Cabarnet Sauvignon is worth noting for it’s blend of Missouri and California grapes, and notes of cocoa, tobacco and cherry.

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Hidden midwestern gem – Galena, Illinois

Galena Illinois is one of those real undiscovered and hidden gems. Nestled in the north west corner of the state, it is right across the Mississippi river from Iowa. The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Galena to its 2004 list of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

The village is conveniently located “in the middle of nowhere” – about 20 miles from Dubuque, IA and 80 miles from Rockford, IL. Getting to Galena from the Chicagoland area takes you through some of the most scenic winding roads in Illinois, and folks from Chicago will probably be amazed to see that their state really does have some hills.
Things to do in Galena

Downtown Galena has a perfect balance between old charm and modern updates. You still get that old main street feeling, without feeling like things haven’t been updated in decades. Everything is well preserved. The main street stores offer something for everyone – from old fashioned candy stores to a fantastic variety of eateries and coffee shops.

Staying in Galena

Staying in Galena is the best way to enjoy the area past “daytrip”. In fact, given the 3 hour drive from Chicago, staying overnight may be the only way to really enjoy the scenery. Thankfully, Galena is home to some of the best places in the state to spend the night.

Galena has over 100 B&B’s, several chain hotels and 2 large resort hotels, including the award winning Eagle Ridge resort, with a 63 hole golf course, spa and 4 different restaurants.

During the winter months, the Chestnut Mountain resort is where you’ll find 19 different ski trails in a hotel overlooking the Upper Mississippi River. Its rooms are fairly basic, but the location can’t be beat.

Budget Summer vacation from Chicago: Rockford

Rockford may not be the first destination you think of when you start planning a (short) Summer vacation from Chicago. However, since Rockford is just 60 miles away, and fairly easy to reach, it may be the perfect destination for a 2 or 3 night getaway.

Getting to the Rockford area is simple – leave Chicago and head up I-90 for about 60 miles. On the way to Rockford, you’ll pass Schaumburg (great if you want to stop at Woodfield mall or the Legoland Discovery Center) and the Elgin area (great if you want to stop and gamble).
If you are traveling with kids, you can plan stops at the Illinois Railway museum in Union, Illinois and Donley’s Wild West Town, at the same highway exit as the Railway Museum. Unless you leave early in the morning, you’ll really only have time for one of those attractions, as they are quite time consuming.

The Railway Museum is the largest in the country, and features several miles of fully operational track, and a large assortment of working restored trains. Trains leave the museum for a 45 minute round trip on a regular basis, and these trips are included in the admission to the museum. Fans of Thomas and Friends will be happy to hear that the museum plans to run the “real” Thomas on 5 dates in August, just be sure to order tickets before they sell out. Thomas Tickets are $18 each.

Illinois Railway Museum, 7000 Olson Road, Union, Illinois, 60180. Admission is $12 for adults and $8 for kids (during the Summer months).

Donley’s Wild West Town features everything you’d expect from an authentic cowboy town – gold panning, pony rides, archery and much more.

Admission to the village is a fairly steep $15 per person, but since this should be a day-filling attraction, it pays to take advantage of everything that is included with admission. Donley’s Wild West Town is located at Route 20 & South Union Road, Union, Illinois 60180

Where to stay in Rockford

After a day of fun on the train or the wild west town, you’ll want to make your way towards Rockford. Finding somewhere to stay is going to be quite simple – most chain hotels in the area are all located around the State Street exit off the highway.

In this cluster, you’ll find a Radisson, Hilton Garden Inn, Red Roof Inn and a brand new Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites. Expect to pay around $100 in the high season for a decent room.

If you are looking for more than just a hotel with a small pool, check out the Rockford Coco Key resort and water park.

Where to eat in Rockford

Rockford is not home to much in the way of authentic cuisine, but the area around the hotel cluster on State Street does offer at least one of every chain restaurant in the country. One local highlight worth visiting is Beefaroo – with 9 stores in the area. If you are not from the area, you should also check out one of the many Culvers stores in Rockford for some great custard or a butterburger.

Things to do in Rockford

Once you are settled into your hotel, it is time to check out the various attractions in the Rockford area. If you want to start in the outdoors with some peace and tranquility, check out Rock Cut state park. Admission to the state park is free, and during the summer months, you can visit until 10pm.

Families with kids will enjoy the Rockford Discovery Center museum. This downtown area kids museum offers 2 floors of hands on exhibits, and a massive outdoor play area. Admission to the museum is just $6 for adults and $5 for children. Members of other children’s museums throughout the country may be eligible for free admission if your membership offers reciprocal admissions through the ACM.

If the weather is in your favor, you can then spend a day relaxing at the Magic Waters water park. Their admission chart is rather complicated, so check out the rates for yourself, and pick the rate that applies to your family.

If you have some extra time, and want to visit the more peaceful side of Illinois, consider making the beautiful 70 mile drive to Galena. The downtown area of Galena is quite simply stunning, and even if you don’t find anything interesting in the village, the drive alone is worth the trip.