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Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, the ‘face of tourism in southern Illinois’

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Daily Egyptian file photo

Daily Egyptian file photo

Daily Egyptian file photo

By Kitt Fresa

With more than a dozen vineyards within 15 miles of Carbondale, the area has made a name as a destination spot for many wine-lovers in the state.

The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which includes 11 wineries, is designed to allow an estimated 100,000 visitors a year to visit most of them in one pass.

“I call it ‘beyond an old hippie’s wildest dream,’” says George Majka, one of the trail’s founding members. “We’ve produced an industry really. I think we’ve changed the face of tourism in southern Illinois.”

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In 1995, the owners of Alto Vineyards, Pomona Winery and Owl Creek Vineyard got together to discuss how southern Illinois could attract more tourists. Together with the help of Debbie Moore, executive director of the Carbondale Convention & Tourism Bureau, and Cindy Benefield, of the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau, the state’s first wine trail was created.

Majka, who is one of the owners of Pomona Winery on the trail, said the owners of all the vineyards have remarkable cooperation with one another.

“I’ve heard from anyone I’ve ever talked with … that this is one of the most functional organizations that they’ve ever encountered,” Majka said.

Brad Genung, president of the Wine Trail Association, said the trail has put the region on the map.

“The two key things that bring tourists here are the forest and the wine trail,” Genung said. “We all kick in resources, personnel, money, knowledge — it’s one of those things where it raises all boats.”

Genung said the wine trail has been invaluable for the local economy.

“It’s all these small local businesses,” he said. “This is local capital, local talent … and lot of the dollars that are generated from these businesses stay in the region. So there’s that steady rhythm and there’s a very nice consistent growth that keeps on happening.”

Majka said since the trail was established, over 100 bed and breakfasts have also popped up in the region to accommodate visitors.

“All of that was absolutely non-existent when we started,” Majka said. “The wine trail is definitely responsible for all of those micro-hospitality businesses.”

Vineyards thrive in southern Illinois because it is an American Viticultural Area, which means it is an ideal wine grape-growing region. This designation is determined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Gerd Hedman, the owner of Hedman Vineyards on the trail, said the classification is rare.

“Its very hard to get and Shawnee Hills Wine Trail has that,” Hedman said. “We have AVA and we’re very proud of that.”

The trail includes Alto Vineyards, StarView Vineyards, Pomona Winery, Hedman Vineyard, Hickory Ridge Vineyard, Blue Sky Vineyard, Von Jakob Vineyard, Owl Creek Vineyard, Orlandini Vineyard and Honker Hill Winery.

Each one has a wide variety of in-house wine, from the boldest, oakiest chardonnay to the sweetest dessert wines. Specialty wines can also be found in abundance, such as Hedman Vineyards’ famous peach wine made from their own peach orchard.

Non-wine lovers can enjoy the trail too by sampling the other beverage options offered by each establishment, like Owl Creek’s house hard cider.

Some wineries, like Pomona, have their fruit trucked in from local growers, while some like Hedman’s make wine from their own grapes.

Although states like California are perhaps more well-known for their wineries, Majka said Illinois can hold its own with the best of them.

“There are winemakers all over the state that I have a great deal of respect for,” Majka said. “But no one has a concentration of excellent, truly devoted winemakers like we have here in southern Illinois.”

Staff writer Kitt Fresa can be reached at [email protected]

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