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Thursday, June 3, 2004 11:44 pm

Grape expectations

Owl Creek Vineyard

So many, Illinois is to wine what Nevada is to tuna -- the connection doesn't seem natural. But as Illinois farmers, especially families who can't compete with corporate-owned agribusiness, seek alternative land use options, grape and wine production grows more popular by the year. Road warriors in search of a great two-day getaway will discover adventure and good taste a-plenty by visiting Illinois wineries.

Illinois today boasts more than 40 wineries from Galena in the northwest to Jonesboro in the south. Most welcome visitors.

The best concentration is located in southern Illinois. Many, but not all, are part of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, on either side of Route 127, south of Murphysboro and Carbondale. Guy Renzaglia, a retired SIU professor, considered the hilly territory near the Carbondale campus similar to his native Italy and in 1984, he established Alto Vineyards. It became the first of several new wineries that led to the formal establishment of the wine trail.

We recommend a route that begins in the southeast corner of this concentrated area of wineries, and wends, in the main, north by northwest working ever closer to Route 127 (which you will have probably taken south from just east of Litchfield).

The first destination is Monte Alegre Vineyard, just east of Carbondale on 473 Ponce Trail. Owners David and Beth Ponce are known for their whites and reds and their unique Monte Alegre Sangria. They supply wine to area restaurants and other wineries, and offer tours -- by appointment -- of their wine production and wine sales establishment. For more information, call 618-549-3952 or e-mail mavine@neondsl.com.

Your next stop, Owl Creek Vineyard, is a straight shot south on Highway 51 then east on Water Valley Road, east of Cobden. Owl Creek's wine-tasting room and small gift shop are open noon to 5 p.m., Wed.-Sun. The winery's annual Grape Stomp takes place in June. Other activities include Octoberfest, during the second week of October. All grapes used in their wines are grown in southern Illinois. The winery offers picnic tables on site for visitors who want to bring food. Wine can be sampled on the shop's back deck. Wine is sold by the bottle or glass. For more information, call 618-893-2557 or go to shawneewinetrail.com/owlcreek.htm.

Winghill Vineyard and Winery is located a few minutes south of Owl Creek Vineyard (go south on Bethel Church Road and east on Wing Hill Road). All wines offered are made from grapes grown in Winghill's 6.25-acre vineyard. The tasting room, which includes an art gallery and gift shop, is open noon to 5 p.m. Fri.-Sun. During July, "Picnic in the Vineyard" evenings offer live entertainment (bring your own picnic food and lawn blanket), combined with an annual sale of in-stock wines to make room for the new harvest. For more information, call 618-893-9463 or go to winghillwinery.com.

(South of Cobden, there are a couple of wineries that might be worth a side trip. Limestone Creek Winery, on Route 146 in Jonesboro, is a smaller enterprise that offers better-quality unfiltered red, white, and blush table wines from Illinois-grown grapes. This winery is open for tours and retail sales on Fridays and Saturdays by appointment only. For more information, call 618-534-9049 or e-mail adillard@midwest.net. A longer drive southeast will take you to the Cache River Basin Vineyard and Winery in Belknap, population 133. The establishment is less than a mile from the largest remaining tupelo-cypress swamp in Illinois. Winery hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thu.-Sat. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sun. Though 14 varieties of French-hybrid grapes are grown there, the most popular seller is the Cache River Swamp Water, a white blend, they say. The gift shop includes local crafts, and monthly events are scheduled. For more information or to arrange tours, call 618-659-2274. )

West of Cobden, your tour takes you to Inheritance Valley Vineyards at 5490 Route 127 North. There, Tim and Kendall Waller produce seven varieties of wine grapes, three seedless table grapes, and many varieties of fruits and berries. Hours are noon-5 Wed.-Sun. For more information, call 618-893-6141 or go to shawneewinetrail.com/inheritance.htm.

Two miles north of Inheritance on Route 127 is the winery that started all the hoopla. Alto Vineyards, located in Alto Pass, grows French-hybrid and American grapes and produces a great variety of reds, whites, roses and even a fortified port (a rarity among southern Illinois vintners). The winery produces about 25,000 gallons a year. Premium wines and ports are aged in oak barrels up to 18 months prior to bottling. Alto's wines have won more than 375 medals in various competitions and are sold throughout southern and central Illinois. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and noon-5 p.m. Sun. For information and to arrange a tour, call 618-893-4898, or go to shawneewinetrail.com/alto.htm

Von Jakob Vineyard requires a departure from 127 north -- just follow the Wine Trail signs. Paul and Rhoda Jacobs have built the new winery around their own Tudor-style home. They produce a variety of white, blush, red, and ports, including the first white port bottled in Illinois. Von Jakob also offers unique fruit and mead wines, including its Estate Bottled Jonathan Apple wine, Estate Bottled Honey Peach and Honey Raspberry, a honey mead with raspberries. Von Jakob welcomes picnickers. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and noon-5 p.m. Sun. For more information, call 618-893-4500 or go to shawneewinetrail.com/vonjakob.htm

Last, but not least, at the northwest gate to the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail is Pomona Winery, 2865 Hickory Ridge Rd. in Pomona. Located in the heart of apple country, its Orchard Spice wine received the 2002 and 2003 Governor's Cup for Best Fruit Wine Made with Illinois Fruit. The winery is a short hop from the Little Grand Canyon, the river to river trail, and Pomona Natural Bridge. Their nine premium wines include a semi-dry Jonathan Oak-Aged Reserve and three fruity strawberry, peach and blueberry dessert wines. Their wine tasting room is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and noon-5 p.m. Sun. For more information, call 618-893-2623 or go to shawneewinetrail.com/pomona.htm

From Pomona, it's a short jog back to Route 127, the road that leads back to Litchfield and Interstate 55.

A tour of southern Illinois wine country should fit the bill for summer cruisers with grape expectations and a thirst for terrific scenery.

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