Connecticut Beer Trail holds second official “Bikes and Beers” tour in Granby July 31st

connecticut beerFar be it from the People to not abide by the Constitution. On July 31st, Granby is holding its second “Bikes & Beers” tour along the Connecticut Beer Trail (it’s the Constitution State, FYI. Yeah, I didn’t know, either).

Connecticut seems obsessed with food and drink-themed pathways: there’s the new Hot Dog Trail, the Ice cream and Sundae Drive (cute), and the Wine Trail. Why the fixation? Who cares? It’s a cool idea, especially when partnered with pedaling.

Bikes & Beers is a collaboration with Connecticut’s Pedal Power bike shops. Riders will get to enjoy beautiful views along the 17.2-mile loop, as well as some cold ones at the Cambridge House Brew Pub, an award-winning producer of craft beer. It’s just one of 10 craft breweries featured on the Beer Trail, a social media organization dedicated to promoting local breweries, the craft beer community, and related tourism (how cool is that?) statewide.

Better look out, West Coast and Colorado–Connecticut’s craft brewers are gaining on you.

The Connecticut Beer Trail and Pedal Power are planning future rides; click here or go to Pedal Power’s site for updates.

[Photo credit: Flickr user roboppy]

The Right Way to Pour and Taste a Beer

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.

Related:
* The 25 greatest cities in the world for drinking wine
* The 24 greatest cities in the world for drinking beer
* The 20 greatest cities in the world for foodies

Following the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail

Around an hour’s drive from Chicago (close to four hours from Detroit), the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail is located at the southwest border of Michigan, near the resort towns of New Buffalo, St. Joseph, and Saugatuk. The countryside in the area contains over 10,000 acres of grapes and twelve wineries. It’s easy to plan a weekend getaway (or even a day-trip from Chicago) to this beautiful wine region near the Lake.

Where to Drink
With a dozen wineries to chose from, it can hard to narrow down your choices. But you’ll need to limit yourself to four or five per day (those little tastes do add up!). Warner Vineyards, St. Julian, and Contessa Wine Cellars all offer free tastings. Free Run Cellars and the Round Barn Winery are owned by the same family. Buy a $5 souvenir wine glass at one, and it will cover your tasting fees at the other as well. At Round Barn, you can taste five wines, one dessert wine, and one of their made-onsite vodkas. There is also a beer-tasting room where you can sample some of the beers they brew. Tours of the wine cellar, cave, brewery and distillery are available for groups of 20 people at $10 each, and you can enjoy lunch at the picnic facilities that overlook the vineyards.

Where to Stay
You’ll find some hotel chains in the area, but for a little more character, check out the Oliver Inn Bed and Breakfast, a restored Victorian inn where rooms start at $100 per night. The Marina Grand in New Buffalo is a little swankier. Rooms run $140 to $200 per night, but feature luxury bedding, marina views, and the hotel has a fitness center and indoor and outdoor pools.

Where to Eat
New Buffalo and St. Joseph have the most options for dining. Here you’ll find everything from casual pub food at the Stray Dog Bar and Grill to fine dining at The Dining Room at Clearbrook. For a special occasion, try Tabor Hill, which serves meals made from local ingredients in a romantic setting. If you didn’t buy enough wine on your tasting tour, New Buffalo’s Vino 100 wine shop is the perfect place to stop. They have over 100 bottles that cost under $10.

What to Do
Other than staining your lips purple at the area’s wineries, you can take advantage of the Trail’s lakeside location with swimming, sailing, or relaxing on the beach near Saugatuk. You’ll also find several u-pick fruit farms, a cider mill, and your standard assortment of resort town stores – candy shops, ice cream parlors, and “resort wear” boutiques.

If you don’t have a designated driver and wish to have more than a few samples, there are several companies that offer transportation along the route. Fruitful Vine charges $50 per hour for transportation in a Suburban (which seats five) or offers four-hour hop-on bus tours for $39 per person in summer.

Think local for a low-cost wine-tasting trip

When most people think of going on a wine-tasting trip, their thoughts tend to head west – to California, Washington, and Oregon. It’s not surprising. From Napa Valley in California to Walla Walla in Washington, these states are some of the biggest producers of wine in the US. But if you don’t live in one of these states, there’s no need to venture far from home for a weekend of swirling and sipping. In fact, almost every state in the US has at least one winery, so you can enjoy a low-cost wine tasting vacation in a long weekend. Check out these wine-tasting regions in every corner of the country.

Midwest
The Midwest states have traditionally been agriculture centers. Now many farms are trading potatoes and corn for grapes, and opening their doors to tourists. Illinois is home to around 80 wineries located on six wine trails within a few hours of Chicago. Most of Michigan’s 50 or so wineries are located in the west and southwest, near Traverse City or along the coast of Lake Michigan. Even Missouri has five wine trails scattered around the state.

Northeast
New York’s Finger Lakes area is the jewel of the northeast wine region. Nearly 100 wineries are spread along three main wine trails, which surround four beautiful lakes. Not to be outdone, Maryland has almost 30 wineries open for tastings, and even tiny Rhode Island has five.

Southeast
Kentucky is now making a name for itself in the wine world, with over 30 wineries clustered in the north central area of the state. Florida is home to over 15 scattered wineries and Virginia, the largest producer in the region, has nearly 150 wineries on several easy to follow trails.

West/Southwest
Grapes in Arizona? Yep, there are over 20 wineries in the state, most just south of Tuscon. New Mexico has almost 40, most of which are clustered around Albuquerque and Taos, and Texas is home to over 80 wineries, predominantly in Hill Country, south of Austin. Colorado, which has over 60 wineries, boasts the highest grape-growing elevation in the country, and even Nebraska has more than 30 wine producers operating in the state.

Auckland’s Waiheke Island: wine paradise

New Zealand in recent decades has established itself among the world’s wine hot spots, boasting increasingly famous wine-growing regions like Marlborough and Hawkes Bay. But New Zealand visitors thirsty for great wine need not leave greater Auckland to enjoy some of this beautiful country’s best vintages. Instead, just a short ferry ride from downtown is Waiheke Island, home base for the Mudbrick Vineyard a laid-back winery with killer food and wine and some of greater Auckland’s most astounding views.

Getting to Mudbrick from Auckland is a snap, but it feels worlds away from the city’s fast pace. Start by boarding a ferry for the 30 minute ride from downtown, during which you’ll be treated to panoramic views of Auckland’s scenic harbor and skyline, dotted by the plenty of sailboats. Soon you’ll arrive at Waiheke Island, a land mass formed by a long-extinct volcano. After a quick taxi ride from the ferry station, you’ll arrive at Mudbrick.

Situated at one of the island’s highest points, the vistas from Mudbrick alone make it worth the trip. As you enter the property, the vineyard’s vast fields of grapes slope down toward Auckland harbor below in near picture-postcard beauty. Tiny luminous insects dance over the vines in the shining sun and the faint silhouette of Auckland’s skyscrapers is visible in the distance. Once you’re done with the view, make sure to enjoy a wine tasting or a top-notch lunch at the complex’s al fresco patio. As you look out over the rows of grapes from your table, green leaves rustling gently in the salty breeze, a plate of fresh swordfish and glass of Sauvignon Blanc in front of you, you’ll understand why you made the trip. It’s this combination of unspoiled beauty, amazing views and top-notch wine that make Mudbrick Vineyard truly worth the visit.