Shawnee Hills Wine Trail: Wineries amid the National Forest

By Klingsick, Norma | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

Shawnee Hills Wine Trail: Wineries amid the National Forest


Klingsick, Norma, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The wine industry has exploded in Illinois in the last 20 to 30 years, and nowhere is it more evident than on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail.

Within a few hours' drive from St. Louis, the trail winds through 40 miles of peaceful rolling hills in Southern Illinois and boasts 11 wineries. From the Scandinavian dcor and authentic Swedish cuisine at Hedman Vineyards to the breathtaking Tuscan-inspired Blue Sky Vineyards, you will feel like you're a world away.

"One of the things that makes the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail so unique is the Shawnee Hills itself," said Betty Williams, event coordinator at Alto Vineyards. "We get a lot of hikers and campers in here, people who come to visit our area. They visit Giant City. They hike in the Shawnee National Forest. And then they stop in here and have a glass of wine or buy a bottle afterward. The beautiful setting is really one of the best parts about being here."

It will take more than one trip to visit all the wineries, but the gorgeous scenery will make you want to return again and again. Here are the four we visited on our trip.

ALTO VINEYARDS

As the first winery in Southern Illinois and only the sixth in the state, Alto Vineyards was a pioneer in the industry. The vision for the winery began when Guy Renzaglia decided he wanted to grow grapes. Renzaglia had just retired after 25 years at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where he was known as a champion for the disabled and founder of the Rehabilitation Institute of SIUC.

"He wanted to grow grapes, and everyone told him 'You can't grow grapes in Southern Illinois.' So he decided to go ahead and do that," said Williams. "Well then they said, 'You can't make wine out of those grapes.' He decided to go ahead and do that. And then they told him, 'You can't start a winery in Southern Illinois.' Thirty years later, here we are."

Alto Vineyards bottled its first 1,500 gallons of Illinois wine in December 1988 and sold out in three days. Renzaglia, who died in 2010 at age 92, helped form the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which became the first wine trail in Illinois in 1995. Alto Vineyards, Owl Creek and Pomona Winery were the three original members.

Now in the summer, the well-marked trail attracts people from as far away as Italy. Alto Vineyards, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, expanded in 2013 opening a 5,000-square-foot tasting room and event center. Tastings are $5 for six tastings, and you keep the glass. Its rooftop deck and back patio offer beautiful views of the rolling landscape of Alto Pass.

Alto Vineyards * 8515 Highway 127, Alto Pass, Ill.; 618-893-4898; altovineyards.net

HEDMAN VINEYARDS

Just down the road in Alto Pass, it's all things Swedish at Hedman Vineyards. Anders and Gerd Hedman moved to Southern Illinois from Stockholm, Sweden, more than 20 years ago for what was supposed to be a one-year "international experience." Gerd came to Carbondale to work in physical therapy. A few years later, her husband bought a peach farm.

"We thought, 'Well let's have a little fun and grow some peaches.' Exotic fruit," Gerd said laughing. "In Sweden, we import them from Spain and such. When we had our first peach here, that was the sun riped and you picked it from the tree, it was not the same fruit that you buy in the stores. ... It was nice."

In the beginning, it was a peach farm. Then Anders planted grapes. He always wanted to be able to grow his own grapes, Gerd said. At first they sold the grapes to local wineries, but now they make their own estate wine with the peaches and the grapes. The peach wine is a big seller.

Their restaurant, the Peach Barn Caf, also draws people to the winery. The tasting room and the restaurant are located in the original barn on the property, which was built in the 1940s. The barn, which was in disrepair when the Hedmans bought the property, has been beautifully restored and is decorated with Scandinavian posters and artwork. …

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