Many vineyards on the Shawnee Hills wine trail are working this summer to improve their vineyards in order to set themselves apart from the competition.
Von Jakobs in Pomona is adding a secondary ballroom to their location in the fall so they can host additional weddings in their already busy schedule. Blue Sky Vineyards in Makanda will add another room as well which will act as a place for weddings and musical events. Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass is adding a new 5000-square-foot tasting room in order to increase business.
There are 12 wineries on the trail and 32 in southern Illinois. Julie Harvey, marketing director of Alto Vineyards, said the wine trail has consistently grown since its arrival in 1995, directly affecting the tourism in the industry. From only five wineries in 1988 to more than 100 in 2012, the Illinois wine industry creates a direct economic impact of more than $253 million annually, according to the Illinois State Fair website.
Alto Vineyards, the longest running winery in the area that has been open for more than 25 years has used vinifera grapes, a grape grown in Europe, southwest Asia and southern Germany, but originally thought unable to be successfully grown in Illinois, in the past few months in order to set themselves apart from the others.
The tasting room will also be built to accommodate a rising number of customers and a need for an area where customers can relax indoors.
The facility is anticipated to be complete by October.
Harvey said Alto Vineyards is also in the middle of a transitional period because Union county is adjusting their license so they will be allowed to sell six forms of alcohol and other ales at Alto Vineyards.
Marty McMorrow, former mayor of Alto Pass and current president of the Alto Pass business association, said when he was mayor, there was an effort to allow more types of alcohol to be sold in the community, but it was not passed because of the conservative nature of the town.
Marty said now the community is more inclined to allow the sale of different forms of alcohol because the residents of Alto Pass can see how the winery has brought in more tourism and created tax revenues for the community.
“I mean, a small town like Alto Pass has a hard time just keeping their head above water in this day and age … so (the new license) is a pretty big deal,” McMorrow said.
Alto Pass is not the only vineyard trying to bring fresh ideas to the table.
Von Jakob winery is looking into the possibility of a lookout tower and cabins for the future on top of the additional ballroom they are building.
Nick Bruner, general manager for Von Jakob, said the business moved to a new location in 2005 where they began to offer a wedding venue.
He said this summer the winery is practically booked solid with the amount of wedding requests it has gotten.
The vineyard also hosts many bands and is the only winery to have an in house brewery.
Another big name in the southern Illinois wine industry is Blue Sky Vineyards.
Jim Ewers, president of Shawnee Hills and co-owner of Blue Sky, said with so many other wineries in the area hosting weddings and more popping up every day, it puts pressure on them to compete with all of the other businesses out there.
“We were growing exponentially at first, I mean we were growing way faster than we ever anticipated, but with the opening of other wineries and when the economy turned south, sales start to flatten out, but we’re still very much holding our own,” Ewers said.
Although competition can be tough between wineries, there are still smaller vineyards that have made a name for themselves.
Hogg Hollow winery is an example of a small, family owned operation.
While Hogg Hollow doesn’t host live music they have hosted weddings on the vineyard, which is run year round right off of their farm since 2005.
Steve Hogg, owner of Hogg Hollow vineyards in Golconda, said he does most of the work on the farm, from growing the grapes all the way up to bottling the finished product.
He believes Hogg Hollow offers a more family friendly atmosphere customers won’t get from just any winery.
“We have a lot of people who come from Chicago, St. Louis and Paducah that just want to enjoy the Shawnee forest a little bit and take part in horseback riding and boating,” Hogg said.
Similarly, Hickory Ridge winery in Pomona prides itself on being fun for the whole family.
“I have no problem with other people doing wedding and rock n’ roll and Elvis contests and all that kind of stuff but it’s just not for me. This place is just about the wine and the scenery,” said Ron Presswood, owner of Hickory Ridge vineyards.
Despite the lack of activities, Presswood said Hickory Ridge has seen a 15 percent increase in business each year since the business opened in 2007, without the help of any advertising.
While wineries are still a fairly young business in Illinois, they show some promise to bring in revenues to their towns, promote tourism and add extra flavor to the southern Illinois area.
Walker’s Bluff winery in Carterville will host Sheryl Crow as a musical guest Friday while Von Jakob will host the Roxie Randall band Saturday.