A trip to wine country may seem like a dream in today's economy, but it doesn't have to be. The term "wine country" is no longer limited to Southern Europe or the California coast; it has expanded to Chicago's backyard and is still growing.
Scenic wine trails, featuring Illinois vintages, daily tastings, great bargains and many a bed and breakfast are as close as a two-hour drive from Chicago. You can also skip the drive and enjoy Illinois and all varieties of wines right here in Lincoln Square, one of the most wine-savvy neighborhoods in Chicago.
Resilient grapes, simple tastes
On the national stage, not many people, including native Illinoisans, have ever heard of an Illinois wine label, and even fewer have sought one out. And yet, Illinois is home to more than 450 vineyards and 70 wineries, more than 90 percent of which were established within the last decade.
Although grape growing is a $253 million a year industry in Illinois, its reputation has not grown as fast as the vineyards. Several factors play into Illinois' largely unknown status, but local wine experts believe it comes down to the basic fact that Illinois is a harsh growing environment for the wines people are accustom to drinking.
The extreme weather, strong winds, crop pesticides and frequent frosts in the northern and central regions of our state spell disaster for many of the world's favorite grapes, which produce wines such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfindel, said Scott Crestodina, an employee at Fine Wine Brokers wine shop in Lincoln Square and certified wine specialist.
Even Pinot Noir, a grape known as "winter-ready" for its ability to stand up to frosts, wouldn't last a single growing season in our state. "It gets too cold here for any of the grape varieties in Europe, so the grapes that do grow here are much heartier," Crestodina said.
The majority of hearty American grapes to which he refers are the product of crossing wild vines native to the United States with resilient French vines, such as Chardonnay, that can stand up to the elements.
This cross-pollination produces grapes that are less susceptible to the effects of unpredictable weather, and they create wines and flavors that are rather simple and sweet compared to European or California wines, but very unique to our state.
Illinois red wines tend to have a jammy taste, like Concord grape preserves, while the white wines are often very fruity and make nice dessert wines. That said, the taste and quality of every wine is different, drawing its flavor from the variety of grapes used, when Homegrown Grapes the grapes were picked, what kind of containers were used in the production process and its age.
Fine Wine Brokers, located at 4641 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square, only recently began selling Illinois wines, it's first bottle a 2007 Muscato wine from the August Hill Winery in Utica. The shop chose the white, sparkly wine for its refined taste and affordability ($10.95 a bottle).
"We decided to start carrying an Illinois wine when we found a really good one," said Louise Rohr, owner of the shop. "But beyond that, people were asking for it. Our customers come in and ask 'do you have anything local?' and now we can say 'yes.'"
Rohr's shop, like many Lincoln Square businesses, is embracing the philosophy that local customers should be offered both local and imported products to satisfy a very worldly, yet neighborhood-loyal customer base.
"We are in a special, educated, well-traveled pocket of the city and many people really know wine," Crestodina said. "This is not a tourist area, but a lot of our customers have actually been to the various wine countries around the world, and they expect variety in what they see on our shelves."
Crestodina said he thinks Lincoln Square is unique in that many of its residents have a more sophisticated level of wine knowledge than those in most other places in Chicago and even in Illinois. He credits this in large part to the founders of the various independent wine shops in the area, including Gary Rohr, Louise's late husband, as well as the people who run these establishments today.
"Anywhere you are, there are good wines not too far away," Crestodina said. "It's not about knowing what wine you are looking for; it is about finding a place and people who you trust to teach you and make a great recommendation. That is how you find good wines."
Your local wine resource
See what your neighborhood has to offer and discover Illinois' wine country in your own backyard.
Fine Wine Brokers
4641 N. Lincoln Ave.
Provenance Food and Wine
2312 W. Leland Ave.
In Fine Spirits Ltd.
5418 N. Clark St.
Vino di Savino
Wine tasting and event services
4630 N. Drake Ave.
Suite 1 South
Lush Wine & Spirits
2232 W. Roscoe St.
2528 N. California Ave.
Escape to Illinois Wine Country
It's not hard to find an excellent bottle at your nearest wine shop, but part of the fun of enjoying wine is appreciating how, where and why wine is produced, and the people who produce it. Chicagoans can easily achieve this level of appreciation by visiting vineyards and wineries in person on one of the many Illinois wine trails.
Snagging a bed and breakfast reservation can be tough during the late summer and early fall because it is harvest time, so try making a trip in spring or early summer. It is the perfect time of year to enjoy a road trip and a quiet, inexpensive weekend trying different wines and exploring the landscape of our state.
Check out these regional wine trail descriptions from the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, and plan your next trip.
Northern Illinois Wine Trail
With locations no more than three hours outside of Chicago, this trail offers an easy escape. Fifteen wineries stretch from Wild Blossom Meadery on the South side of Chicago to the Galena Cellars Winery in Galena. Many stops are partnered with bed and breakfasts, restaurants, breweries and tasting rooms. Visit northernillinois.com/WineTrailWineries.html
The Illinois River Wine Trail
This trail, aptly named for the river it follows, stretches southwest from Utica to six small towns dotting the Illinois River Scenic Byway. After a visit to scenic Starved Rock State Park, start your wine tour at the Illinois River Winery or August Hill Winery, both in Utica, and enjoy artisan cheeses and gourmet chocolate with your wine tastings.
Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
Nine award-winning wineries span a 25-mile trail through the beautiful Shawnee National Forest, located in the southern tip of Illinois. This is one of the most established wine-making regions in the Midwest, welcoming more than 100,000 visitors a year. For an extended getaway in the heart of Illinois Wine Country, many of the wineries offer cozy bed and breakfasts and suites.
Heartland Rivers Wine Trail
Illinois' newest wine trail connects 11 wineries throughout the southwest portion of the state. Visitors can enjoy both breathtaking vistas along the Mississippi River and friendly rural communities, all while sampling great-tasting reds and whites.
Southern Illinois Wine Trail
Six wineries located east of Interstate 57 in Saline, Pope and Johnson Counties make up this trail, which offers delicious wine, live music, restaurants and family-friendly activities, like bocce.
Wabash Valley Wine Trails
The Wabash Valley Wine Trail joins five wineries in the southeastern part of the state. Visitors to this area can enjoy the scenic Wabash River Valley with its historical sites, such as the Lincoln and George Rogers Clark Memorials.
This article was originally printed in Well magazine, the precursor to this site, in May 2009. Written and edited by the editorial staff of Well magazine and Well Community.