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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 10:23 am

Visit central Illinois wineries for close-to-home tourism

Hill Prairie Winery

If you’re craving fun in the sun or a relaxing romantic rendezvous this summer, bypass the travel headache and head for a nearby central Illinois winery.

The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association lists five wineries within an hour of Springfield, and one more that’s just outside of Peoria. Each of these is family-owned and offers a wide variety of wines, from the driest red to the sweetest fruit wine.

Hill Prairie Winery (23753 Lounsberry Rd., Oakford) is housed in a 1911 restored barn, surrounded by native Illinois prairie grass. Guests can sample several unique wines such as Prairie Berry, a blackberry and blueberry blend, and Autumn Spice, a hearty red infused with cinnamon and cloves. The winery stages murder mystery dinner theatre on select Fridays, and performances by local bluegrass, country and acoustic rock musicians on Sundays.Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, beginning June 1. Go to www.hillprairiewinery.com for more information.

Mackinaw Valley Vineyard (south of Peoria at 33633 Illinois Route 9, Mackinaw), opened by Paul Hahn in 1997, won “Vineyard of the Year” from IGGVA in 2002. Alexander’s Conquest, a dry blend of Foch, Frontenac and Cabernet grapes, is named for Hahn’s oldest son; Eric’s Red, a slightly sweet blend of Foch and Frontenac grapes is named for Hahn’s youngest son; and Nicole’s Blush, a sweet blend of Seyval and Cayuga grapes is named for Hahn’s daughter. Saturday music nights run June through September.Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, beginning June 1. Go to www.mackinawvalleyvineyard.com for more information.

Willett’s Winery and Cellar (52 miles north of Springfield off Route 29 at 105 E. Market St., Manito) offers a quaint European setting on a small-town street dotted with woodworking, bakery, pottery and chocolate shops. Located in a rebuilt 1893 harness shop, the winery features a selection of wines including four that sold out last year: Midnight Cherry, Red Raspberry Thrill, Cranberry Frost and Vidal Blanc. Enjoy the Market Street Experience with live music in the courtyard and food from the bakery on select Friday nights. Open noon-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Go to www.willettswinery.com for more information.

Inside Willett’s Winery and Cellar

Forsee Vineyards and Winery (18165 N. Fourth Ave., Coffeen, southeast of Hillsboro), the newest member of the Heartland Rivers Wine Trail, opened its doors in early 2008. The winery features French-inspired wines, from its Traminette, a sweet white with citrus notes, to its Norton, a dry red with full cherry flavor and a spicy finish. Guests can enjoy a scenic view of rolling hills and hear live music on Saturdays and Sundays. Open noon-10 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Go to www.forseevineyards.com for more information.

Long Creek Vineyards (7185 E. Firehouse Rd., Decatur) produced four award-winning wines from its first harvest, including a gold medal for its dry red Chambourcin at the Indy International Wine Competition in 2006. A variety of northern Italian grapes, including Nebbiolo, Barbera and Sangiovese, and French varieties of Syrah and Viognier, have since been planted. The vineyard will add northern European varieties of Riesling, Gruner Vetliner and Pinot St. Laurent in the future. Open 6-8 p.m. Friday, noon-8 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, beginning June 1. Go to www.longcreekvineyards.com for more information.

Kickapoo Creek Winery (6605 N. Smith Rd., Edwards, northwest of Peoria) produces 27 varieties of wine, including a sweet red raspberry created especially for the Susan B. Komen Foundation. Its list of dessert wines features Blue Ice, with notes of honey, roses and pineapple, and Chocolate Cherry Sherry. Dry wines include Red October, an oak-aged red with a hint of berries and currants, and Golden Sun Burst, a white with spice and apricot flavors. The winery’s tasting room also serves homemade lunch six days a week. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Go to www.kickapoocreekwinery.com for more information.

Megan Pressnall, IGGVA director of external relations, says that as the local foods movement and agritourism have grown, so has the production of local wine. Only 14 wineries operated in Illinois 10 years ago — there are now more than 80 across the state.

“People are really diversifying their farms and looking to bring in different audiences,” Pressnall says. “The wineries are fulfilling the need for that local experience, the close-to-home tourism.”

Wine festivals have also increased in popularity. Pressnall says consumers enjoy the convenience of meeting and sampling products from local winemakers in one location. Likewise, community leaders appreciate the tourists and tourist dollars that flow into their towns and villages.

The Illinois River Wine Trail and the Village of Manito host the first annual Illinois River Wine, Art and Jazz Festival from 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 23 in Manito’s Memorial Park. Pressnall says it’s the summer’s biggest collective central Illinois wine festival, offering tastings and wine sales from at least 11 area wineries.

Jazz musicians will perform from 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. and local hot air balloonists will offer rides, beginning at 5 p.m., and a “night glow” at 8 p.m. Local artisans will showcase and sell their creations all day.

Tickets are $10 and include a wine glass and five tasting tickets. Additional tickets will be available for purchase.

For more information on Illinois wineries and vineyards, visit the IGGVA Web site at www.illinoiswine.org.

lush vineyards at Kickapoo Creek Winery

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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