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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 01:45 pm

Grape escapes

Fall is wine about Illinois time

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Believe it or not, Illinois was once a leading wine producer, supplying about a quarter of the nation’s domestic supply. Then came Prohibition, and, for obvious reasons, business dried up.

In the last 15 years, with encouragement from a state organization of grape growers and vintners, the number of Illinois wineries has increased 10-fold to more than 50, with even more expected in the next few years.

Most of the state’s vineyards and wineries are in southern Illinois, where the sandy soils and hilly terrain are conducive to viniculture, but you’ll find wineries throughout the state. Some have their own vineyards, but many buy their grapes.

In 2004 the Lounsberry family of Oakford opened the Hill Prairie Winery on the site of their fifth-generation farm, officially making it the nearest winery to Springfield. They transformed their 93-year-old barn into a wine showroom, complete with an entertainment area and a museum of Oakford-area history.

Most of the wines offered by Hill Prairie, including blended whites, blushes, and sweet reds, are made from grapes grown on the farm.

This summer the Lounsberrys began featuring live local music on Sunday afternoons, and they try to offer a murder-mystery dinner theater (with lots of good wine) about once a month. To get to Hill Prairie from Springfield, take Route 97 through Salisbury, New Salem, Petersburg, and Atterberry. The winery is on the east side of the road just before you get to Oakford. Hill Prairie is open for business 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 217-635-9900 or go to www.hillprairiewinery.com.

• The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail Festival takes place this weekend. The festival, launched in 1995 to promote some new southern-Illinois wineries, has grown into one of the most popular wine-related events in Illinois. The seven participating wineries are close enough to each other to be visited in a one-day romp, or you can take your time and opt for a wine-soaked weekend of lollygagging. The popularity of the wineries has given rise to more bed & breakfasts, shopping stops, and other attractions resulting from extra tourists in the lower reaches of Illinois.

Participating wineries are Alto Vineyards, Blue Sky Vineyards, Hedman Orchard and Vineyards, Inheritance Valley Vineyards, Owl Creek Vineyard, Pomona Winery and Von Jakob Vineyard. The festival runs noon-6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 3 and 4, but you may visit the wineries most anytime during regular business hours. Start your fun at Alto Vineyards, the oldest of the wineries, just north of Alto Pass on Highway 127. A $12 entrance fee includes a souvenir glass, wine tasting at all seven wineries, and a $5 coupon toward a bottle of wine purchased that day. For more information, call 618-893-4898, 618-893-4500, or 618-893-2623 or visit www.shawneewinetrail.com.

• Wine connoisseurs should make plans to attend the Central Illinois Wine Festival, Oct. 8 and 9 in Decatur’s Central Park. The two-day festival features displays from artists and artisans, live music, and cooking demonstrations, plus booths staffed by Illinois vintners.

For more information about the state’s wineries, visit the Illinois Grape Growers & Vintners Association Web site, www.illinoiswine.com.

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