In the summer of 1995, the owners of the first three wineries in Southern Illinois – Alto Vineyards, Pomona Winery and Owl Creek Vineyard – recognized that their estates had untapped tourism potential.
With that in mind, they worked with Debbie Moore, Executive Director of the Carbondale Convention & Tourism Bureau, and Cindy Benefield of the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau… and the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail was born.
Modern winemaking in the area started in 1984, when Guy Renzaglia established Alto Vineyards by planting five acres of then-unheard-of grape varieties: Chancellor, Chambourcin, Vidal and Villard Blanc. Gradually, word got out, curiosity grew, and by the time the winery was built and the first wine was released in 1987, people were standing in line waiting to buy this new Illinois wine as fast as the crew could label it.
Renzaglia’s success was noted by a pair of would-be winery owners, George Majka and Jane Payne, who had been making wines from apples and other local fruits for more than a decade. In 1989, they broke ground for the Pomona Winery at a location as far away from people as you can get and still be in the state of Illinois. It became a licensed winery in 1991, and released its first two apple wines in 1993.
Another piece fell into place in 1994 when Ted Wichmann built Owl Creek Vineyard and released his first wine the following year. Wichmann had established his vineyard in 1980 and had worked as Alto Vineyards’ first winemaker. Now owned and operated by the Genung family, Owl Creek produces dry wines, lighter sweet wines and delicious dessert wines.
In 1997, Dr. Paul, a local optometrist, and Rhoda Jacobs opened Von Jakob Vineyards and became the Wine Trail’s fourth member. The Jacobs’ original location in Pomona is surrounded by vineyards and offers a warm, cozy atmosphere. Their second site in Alto Pass provides breathtaking views of their orchard.
In 2003, Inheritance Valley Vineyards, owned and operated by Tim and Kendall Waller, joined the Wine Trail, upping the number of wineries to five. The Wallers believe that by keeping things as simple as possible, they are best able to produce quality grapes and wines to be enjoyed by a diverse group of wine drinkers.
Hedman Vineyards opened as the sixth winery on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail in June of 2005. Originally from Sweden, Gerd and Anders Hedman took over a peach orchard in Alto Pass, planted a vineyard, and began selling their peaches and grapes to local wineries.
Now producing and selling their own European-styled wines, they also own and operate the Peach Barn CafÃ©, specializing in Swedish cuisine. In addition, Hedman Vineyards has a Scandinavian gift shop and a Bed & Breakfast, both located in their historic three-story peach barn.
After having been a dream for years, Blue Sky Vineyard opened its doors on the 4th of July in 2005. Barrett Rochman and Jim Ewers brought a taste of Tuscany to the eastern end of the Wine Trail with their winery, a Tuscan-style villa surrounded by 12 acres of grapevines, nestled in the rolling hills of the Shawnee National Forest. Blue Sky Vineyard also has two suites available for rent year-round.
Also joining in 2005, StarView Vineyards became the eighth member of the Wine Trail when Scott Sensmeier brought his wife and two small children back to his hometown of Cobden. The Sensmeiers purchased a mature vineyard and their first harvest yielded six award-winning wines, medaling in national and international competitions. The family has since expanded the vineyard and hosts many events throughout the year.
A more recent addition to the Wine Trail is Kite Hill Vineyards. In 2006, Jim and Barbara Bush purchased this little bit of heaven off Highway 127, which includes a boutique winery and Bed & Breakfast. Kite Hill offers guests who stay at their B&B a three-course breakfast, wine tastings, and a relaxing stay after a full day of Southern Illinois touring.
In 2008, Orlandini Vineyard became the 10th winery to join the Trail. Gary and Noella Orlandini planted their vineyard 10 years earlier on one of Southern Illinois’ highest ridge tops, deep in the heart of the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area. Orlandini began releasing wines to the public in 2001, and a tasting room was opened in 2008.
Hickory Ridge Vineyard & Winery, owned and operated by Ron and Slyvia Presswood, and Rustle Hill Winery, owned by John Patrick and Debbie Russell, round out the list of Trail members.
As the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail continues to expand, it has become virtually impossible – not to mention unsafe – to travel the whole Trail in one day. The good news is that several B&Bs have opened near the wineries, enabling visitors to extend their stays in comfort.
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Winery addresses and phone numbers, as well as links to the websites of area B&Bs, are available at: www.shawneewinetrail.com