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Thursday, March 16, 2017 12:04 am

Land of Lincoln wineries

Visitors find a warm welcome and wide selection at local wineries

A winery dog rests in the sun on the welcoming front porch at Danenberger Family Vineyards.


Danenberger Family Vineyards, located in rural New Berlin, harvested and crushed 32 tons of grapes last fall, their biggest year yet. When founder Susan Danenberger began making wine, it may have seemed unlikely that central Illinois would be the home of a winery that would draw guests from around the country. Now established as an award-winning winery with a comfortable tasting space and a great view of the heartland, visitors say they feel at home drinking wine at Danenberger Family Vineyards.

Energy and passion for Illinois wine

While Illinois isn’t particularly known as a wine region, people here do know a thing or two about growing crops. For University of California Davis-educated Susan Danenberger, the heritage of Midwestern cultivation blends with her vision of growing grapes. “I really feel that our vineyard draws energy and passion from the five generations of stewardship that my family has given to our centennial farm land.” This enthusiasm results in a wine country experience for Springfield-area residents. Danenberger also offers high-end wine-pairing dinners – the next one is March 24 – prepared by two house chefs. “It is all about the experience and how the wine and food complement each other. Guests can watch the chefs as they are preparing and plating the food. It’s gastronomy theater!”

Signs of growth signal an interest in local wine experiences. According to the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, the state welcomes half a million wine-related visitors each year. On my recent visit to Danenberger Family Vineyards, three friends from St. Louis had traveled to Springfield to start their weekend with a tasting. Outdoor seating, a selection of wine styles, festivals and events all draw visitors to local wineries each weekend.

Land of Lincoln wineries
Danenberger isn’t the only winery in the area to attract guests. Hill Prairie Winery in Oakford is known for their popular festivals and picturesque grounds that show off the natural prairie beauty of central Illinois, including an historic barn and windmill. The Lounsberry family produces all of their wine onsite, which is primarily made from estate-grown or locally grown grapes. Live music is offered each Sunday and beer and soft drinks are also available for purchase.

West of Wise Winery opened in 2015 in Petersburg, a town well accustomed to welcoming visitors from nearby Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site and Lake Petersburg recreational area. Inspired by other Midwestern wine regions, Darrell and Tina Simmermaker planted grapes in 2006. In 2015, they completed construction on their winery and tasting room facility. West of Wise offers small-batch, estate-grown wines as well as craft beer from Rolling Meadows Brewery and Timotheus Brothers Brewery and cheese from Ludwig Farms – all central Illinois products.

Arpeggio Winery is housed in a restored century-old barn in rural Pana on Swiney family farmland. The winery started with an unused pasture, which the family planted with wine grapes. Inspired by the new crop, Karen Swiney went back to school to learn winemaking, which eventually prompted the family to restore the barn into the tasting room that it is today. In 2013 cattle used the barn; now it is a stunning space to relax and enjoy Illinois wine.

In Rochester, Walnut Street Winery makes its wines from globally sourced grapes and juice. Founder Loren Shanle began making wine in his basement before establishing the winery, which now produces and bottles 20 wines. Visitors are welcome to enjoy a glass of wine, view the tank room, watch live music or compete with friends on their bocce court. Walnut Street Winery is an intimate and welcoming spot to taste wines made locally.

The proceeds from each bottle of Danenberger Stilettos in the Vineyard rosé are donated to local breast cancer organizations.
Make sure to visit these local wineries

Arpeggio Winery
778 Highway 51

Danenberger Family Vineyards
12341 Irish Road
New Berlin

Hill Prairie Winery
23753 Lounsberry Road

West of Wise Winery
14096 State Highway 97

Walnut Street Winery
309 S. Walnut Street

The four-season outdoor tasting area at Danenberger features a brick pizza oven.


If you go
These area wineries are all locally owned and in many cases, visitors may meet the founder or winemaker during a tasting. Expect a warm welcome with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating (weather permitting). Check winery websites for hours, event and music schedules and wine lists. Tasting fees are reasonable, most under $10/person. Always designate a driver.

For winery listings, maps, events and news, visit the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association at www.illinoiswines.com.

Jill Barth’s blog, L’occasion, was awarded the Best Wine Blog and Best Writing on Wine Blog. She writes about wine (travel and food too) and her work has appeared in Forbes, USA TODAY, Vivino, Palate Press, Luxe Provence, Courrier International, American Winery Guide, Provence WineZine, California Winery Advisor and more.

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