TV show appearance spotlights Blue Sky Winery, Shawnee Wine Trail

By Gus Bode

Cristina Hernandez, left, a senior from Chicago studying art education, and Katy Burns, right, a senior from Evanston studying painting and art history, sample wine Monday at Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda. Blue Sky’s Vignoles, a semi-dry, semi-sweet white wine from 2010, was chosen as a favorite on the Kathie Lee and Hoda segment on the Aug. 30 episode of the “Today Show.” Barrett Rochman started building Blue Sky Vineyard in 2003 after planting French hybrid vines on the property in 2000. Brooke Grace | Daily Egyptian

Blue Sky Vineyards was recently featured on the “Today Show,” which Jim Ewers hopes boosts the profile of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail.

“It’s great for Blue Sky personally. It’s also, I think, very good for Illinois wine in general,” said Ewers, general manager of Blue Sky Vineyards.


Blue Sky was one of several vineyards across the country featured on the Aug. 30 episode of NBC-TV’s “Today Show.” Sommelier Alpana Singh showcased wines from less well-known wine regions such as Illinois and Virginia. Hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford chose Blue Sky’s vignoles as their favorite white wine in the lineup.

Ewers said the show was the first national exposure Blue Sky has gotten, and it led to a flurry of e-mails and buzz on the winery’s Facebook page.

Bradley Beam, enologist with the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, said he proposed the segment to the “Today Show”. He said his idea was focused more on education about the wine industry, but he’s still happy to get the exposure.

He said while southern Illinois wine may not be as famous as Napa’s or Oregon’s, it has already established itself and is still improving.

“It’s there. It’s already arrived,” he said.

Ewers said southern Illinois wine started in the ‘80s and crested around 2005, when Blue Sky opened its doors. He said the area’s wineries came together under the umbrella of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail to coordinate and create a collective identity. He said the 13 wineries on the trail have sacrificed some of their individuality to create something they can share.

“It’s been around long enough that people see the positive aspects of it, and they’re willing to work together,” he said.


Beam said southern Illinois is set apart from other wine-growing areas in the state by its hot climate and long growing season.

He said competition with the more famous Napa Valley is a moot point, as the two regions grow different varietals.

Karen Hand, Blue Sky’s winemaker, said smaller wine-growing regions are becoming better-known, but it’s a slow process. She said no one knew about the Napa Valley in the ‘60s and hopes southern Illinois can make a similar transition to renown but on its own terms.

“We’re not trying to be like the Napa Valley,” she said. “We’re trying to make a unique product for the Shawnee Hills.”

Chris Hodges, of Anna, said he thinks the Shawnee Wine Trail is awesome and likes the wide variety of wines.

“Each winery has its own kind of niche,” he said.

Lloyd Burtch, of Carbondale, said he and his wife frequently go to wineries along the trail, including Blue Sky. He said he makes wine himself and enjoys talking with the winemakers at each winery.

“It’s an example of local art,” he said.

George Majka, owner of Pomona Winery, said he’s happy for Blue Sky’s appearance on “Today Show.”

“Any exposure is good exposure, and that will definitely get people’s attention,” he said.

Majka said he frequently sees people from outside southern Illinois, especially St. Louis and Chicago, at his winery, and every year has seen more customers than the previous. He said he’s never spent a cent on advertising, and business has not been affected by the recession.

He said wine trails have fueled the tourism business in southern Illinois and given rise to bed and breakfasts, cabins and restaurants.

“I think the wine trail has changed the face of tourism in southern Illinois,” Majka said. “We’re becoming known as a wine region, and it really adds a wonderful cache to come to southern Illinois, and it changes the feel of southern Illinois to something special.”

 Eli Mileur can be reached by [email protected] 

or 536-3311 ext. 259.