Pack a lunch before heading to Southern Illinois wine country for a pleasurable day or weekend. Approximately a dozen wineries, each one unique, are tucked into a 20-mile radius of rolling hills and curving roads. We opted to go for a weekend just as the leaves were starting to change into vibrant hues…a week later and the scenery would have been a work of art. Wine tasting is free throughout the week at most of the wineries, but several had minimal charges on Saturdays and Sundays. What follows is a quick commentary of the wineries we visited.
Hands down, this was our favorite winery! We were greeted on the porch by a friendly, tail-wagging dog. Mom and I agreed that the vine-covered porch overlooking acres of vineyards was a highlight here! However, we had to enter the building for the wine tasting and that, too, was pleasant.
Once inside the door, we met a second well-behaved pooch. Mom fell in love with the owners’ dogs; no surprise there. This small and cozy establishment reflected the owners past. Former teachers in both Peru and Austria, the wine bar was hand-carved in Peru. The atmosphere and limited seating was intimate and comfy, making it a great place to sit and relax. Plus, it didn’t hurt that by the end of our trip, I decided my favorite wine from our 2-day excursion was from Hickory Ridge Vineyard!
Beer sampling at a winery? This unusual pairing was because Kristofer’s also has a microbrewery. There were two bars here, each serving its featured alcoholic specialty. Mom’s not a beer drinker, so that didn’t interest her and I only sampled a mead-like beer recommended by the staff (it was ok – nothing I would probably ever buy though). The wines, however, were very tasty. Once again, though, I didn’t care for those made with mead. This vineyard had a large banquet hall with doors leading out to a spectacular view. Our Friday night visit was also a dress rehearsal for an out-door wedding the following day.
The showstopper, by far, was the restaurant! The atmosphere rocked! No two tables were identical and there was more-than-ample space between them. Tables, seating groups of two through eight, were elegantly set with distinctive centerpieces on each. Every entrée was served in four courses: soup, salad, main dish and dessert. And the best part? Prices began at only $14. Mom ordered weinerschnitzel and I had lamb; all of the food was extremely good. Dinner reservations are recommended.
I won’t be going back here again, but not because of the wine! The owner was there in her pajamas at 10 a.m. to scold an employee for calling 911 the night before when a diabetic customer apparently got into trouble with his sugar levels. She was worried that the vineyard would be “stuck” with the ambulance bill if the customer did not have health insurance. (Isn’t that one of the reasons why all businesses should be insured?) I don’t care how good their wine is…if employees are indirectly told to let me die rather than call an ambulance for me, it’s not a place I’d care to frequent. It should be noted that cell phone signals here were poor to non-existent so friends of the sick individual could not complete a 911 call themselves; it had to be done on a land-line. After hearing this, we quickly finished our sangrias and left.
Whoo doesn’t love owls? The owl décor everywhere was a hoot! The upper level of this two-story winery seemed to cater to a younger clientele (several bachelorette parties were upstairs and the crowd was boisterous and lively; the area was party-like). Although there were younger people downstairs too, the lower level customers seemed more interested in conversations with their groups than in partying.
Our arrival time was perfect! In one corner of the room was a large xylophone-like instrument and bongo drums. We later learned the instrument was a marumba and within two minutes of being seated, a musician began a very up-beat concert. We ordered a cheese and vegetable plate with our wine and enjoyed the music for a little over an hour.
They win the award for the best food of the trip! The chef/owner is from Sweden and makes a mean Swedish meatball dinner. It looked so good, I started eating before I took a picture (maybe I’ve been in the U.S. too long; after nine years in Japan, where food photos are a must, I can’t believe I dug into the meal before the photo-op!).
I thought Hedman’s featured its food as much as the wine. There were several tables for eating, but I didn’t see sitting areas for wine tasting. In fact, the bar area was minimal.
This vineyard was the one most often recommended. Everyone from the hotel staff, to friends, to Mom’s former students said we had to be sure and go here. I think Blue Sky gets all the hype because of its size and décor. The place is massive with abundant seating indoors and out. We spent a few hours drinking sangria and enjoying the blue sky while listening to a band play on the outdoor stage. It was enjoyable, but it just wasn’t my style; I liked the smaller wineries much better.
Live and Learn
Be prepared: Pack picnic food! On Saturday, we didn’t get to eat lunch untio 3:00 because all the wineries we stopped at didn’t serve food…not even cheese and crackers. No food and wine doesn’t make the best combo. Even most of the wineries that served food still allowed picnic lunches. Next time we will be better prepared.