Published: Sept/Oct 2003

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Uncork  a great getaway
Explore Shawnee Hills Wine Trail

Pomona Winery (below) and its owner, George Majka (above).
Story and photos
by Sylvia Forbes

For a flavorful adventure, plan a tour on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail in southern Illinois this fall and combine beautiful scenery with some tasty sipping.

The trail, which cuts through the heart of the Shawnee National Forest, stops at five small but distinctively individual award-winning wineries.

Start by heading south on state Route 127 from Murphysboro. Watch for the blue and white signs guiding travelers to the wineries.

The first turn is onto Orchard Hills Road, a beautiful shady byway with arching trees and peaceful rural scenery. Pomona Winery (2865 Hickory Ridge Road) is the first stop on the trail.

Pomona Winery

George Majka and Jane Payne started Pomona winery in 1991 on their 125-acre hideaway.

“We specialize in peace and quiet,” says George. "We’re about as far away from a city as you can get."

Deep in the Shawnee National Forest, the winery is only a short distance from the River-to-River hiking and biking trail across Illinois.

George, an expert carpenter, built the two-story winery to blend with the natural setting. Visitors can sip wine from the open-air upper story, a great spot for viewing birds in the trees just a few feet away.

Orchard Spice is the runaway favorite of the nine wines they offer, winning the 2002 Illinois Governor’s Cup for best fruit wine. Based on an apple pie recipe, it is made of apples with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. A new blackberry wine will be released this fall, as well as a new Kir, a French type of drink, which is a blend of black currant liqueur and dry white wine. George’s favorite is the Jonathan Oak Aged Reserve, a semi-dry apple wine aged on French white oak.

Pomona’s unusual niche in the wine industry is that no grapes are used in their wines–all are made of locally grown fruits.

Continue south on the trail to Von Jakob Vineyards (1309 Sadler Road), started in 1996 by optometrist Dr. Paul Jacobs and his wife, Rhoda.

Von Jakob Vineyards, Ltd.

A 2,000-square-foot wooden deck overlooks the six-acre hillside vineyard at Von Jakob Vineyards. The vineyard’s Sunday brunches, murder mystery dinners and live musical bands are especially popular.

An indoor atrium holds more than 100 people and gets reserved frequently for birthday parties and weddings.

Von Jakob makes more than a dozen wines. A specialty is their Honey Blush wine, a blend of honey with Concord wine. Von Jakob also produced the first White Port in the state. Both have won numerous medals.

Turn back onto Route 127 and head south to Alto Vineyards.

Alto Vineyards

Alto Vineyards, located on Route 127, was established in 1981 by Guy Renzaglia and was one of the early vineyards established in Illinois. Over the years, Guy experimented with a variety of grapes and learned what grows well in the soils and climate of this area. Many of the wineries in the area credit Guy with helping them get started.

Alto is the third largest winery in the state, producing more than 20,000 gallons per year. Today son Paul runs the operation, though Guy, at 85, still spends time in the vineyard.

While Paul makes 16 different wines, he is proudest of his Chambourcins and Vignoles.

“I put my soul into them,” he explains. He has gained a reputation for growing some of the best Chambourcins in the state.

Other popular Alto wines include their Heartland Blush, with a sweet, fruity flavor, and Shawnee Gold, a German-style wine. Alto’s wines have won hundreds of medals, both nationally and internationally. A new wine offered this fall is Traminnette, made from French-American hybrid grapes. Alto’s wines have won hundreds of medals, both nationally and internationally.

Popular festivals at the winery include their Crab and Barbecue Festival, this year Sept. 20, from 3–7p.m., with Creole-style food and live music, and their Fall Color Festival, Oct. 11–12, 12–6 p.m., with blues music and seafood.

While in the area, visit Bald Knob Cross, a 111-foot tall cross that was built as a symbol of faith and peace in 1963 on the highest elevation in the area. After Alto Pass, the road curves eastward. Watch for the wine trail signs leading to Owl Creek.

Owl Creek Vineyard

Ted Wichmann established Owl Creek Vineyard (2655 Water Valley Road) in 1980. Wichmann planted a few rows for his personal winemaking experiments. Since then, the vineyard has grown to approximately four acres and the winery opened in 1995.

Known for producing quality wines, more than three-fourths of Owl Creek’s wines have won medals, an impressive accomplishment. Their 2002 Framboise, a dessert wine made from raspberries, received a Best of Class award, while their Domaine des Sages, a dry white wine made from Seyval and Chardonel, consistently wins medals every year. Only grapes from Southern Illinois are used in making their wines.

One wine, ZenGeist, a sweet, dessert-style wine with honey and pear flavors, was named for two barn owls, Zen and Geist, injured when shot by hunters. A portion of the proceeds from each bottle sold is sent to the Raptor Center in Illinois, a rehabilitation facility for injured and orphaned animals.

A tasting room located on the second floor includes indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the vineyard.

One of Owl Creek's most popular events is the June Grape Stomp, where people stomp grapes in barrels. Another fun festival is their annual Octoberfest, Oct. 11–12, with food and live music.

Just a few minutes from Owl Creek Vineyard is the Giant City State Park, containing massive rock formations, as well as horse and hiking trails.

From Owl Creek, head south on Bethel Church Road to Winghill Vineyard.

Winghill Vineyard

Winghill (5100 Wing Hill Road), which opened in 2000, is the newest winery to be added to the wine trail. When visiting, watch for the white and India blue peacocks roaming the grounds. Birds became the theme for the winery when Richard Parks gave his wife, Judith, a peacock for a Christmas present one year.

A few of the most popular wines are Whip-poor-will White, a fruity, semi-sweet white wine made from grapes grown in their vineyard, and Hallsberry Blue, a semi-dry wine made from locally grown blueberries. Their Catawba is made from catawba grapes grown in southern Illinois.

Winghill often holds small special events at the winery, such as gallery openings, dance instruction, string quartets, and summer picnics in the vineyards that feature live music.

Drive safely

All the wineries promote safe driving while on the wine trail. Designated drivers get buttons to wear, qualifying them for free soft drinks at the wineries.

A fun stop for non-drinkers (and everyone) is the Northwest Passage and Root Beer Saloon in downtown Alto Pass. Several brands of root beer are on tap.

Natural beauty and fine wines make this scenic drive along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail a classic fall getaway.

Sylvia Forbes is a new contributor from Fayette, Mo.

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