Jen Hoelzle’s Grape Stories: #1

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Blue Sky Vineyard is a Tuscan-inspired retreat along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail

Blue Sky Vineyard is a Tuscan-inspired retreat along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail

The only thing better than the wines of Illinois are the people who make it.  These are people who had a dream and saw it through. They plant, pick, and pour all year round in every corner of this state.

We now have two – two! – designated American Viticultural Areas in Illinois.  This is big time.  It means winemakers can put a geographic pedigree on their labels.  Translation: Illinois grapes are good enough to brag about.

Since I’ve challenged myself to visit all 102 counties of Illinois in one year, I figure I can get to most of the 100 wineries along our seven unique wine trails.

And, all along the way, I promise to post for you the stories behind the grapes.

I’ll begin this blog series with a trip to Blue Sky Vineyard, a Tuscan-inspired retreat along the magnificent Shawnee Hills Wine Trail.

Blue Sky Vineyard (Shawnee Hills Wine Trail)

After lounging at this lovely winery with its live music and sprawling grape vines, I see why Blue Sky Vineyard bills itself as offering, “the romance of Italy in the hills of Southern Illinois.” I’m a believer.  Blue Sky brought me right back to the semester I spent in Italy, where my apartment overlooked a Tuscan vineyard.

But at Blue Sky, there was live music playing and the crowd was relaxed, but active.  Dancing and singing at times to the two country crooners based out of Tennessee (but claiming Illinois roots).

The Tuscan inspired façade of the winery

The beautiful Tuscan inspired façade of the winery

From the balcony of an overnight suite, I watched the crowd in the sprawling tasting room below and sipped an award-winning white wine that actually shocked me.  I enjoy a good white wine, but always settle on red when it comes to drinking a full glass.

Not this time.  The Vignoles is fresh and crisp with hints of grapefruit. I was in wine heaven – easy to channel from my perch high above the tasting room.  Apparently, the TODAY Show felt the same way about Blue Sky’s Vignoles, since co-hosts and legendary wine lovers, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, raved about the wine during a recent on-air taste test.

Blue Sky is known for its unique labels, including the Misterioso, a medium-bodied rose` with a drawing of a statue gracing its bottle. You can actually see the statue in the tasting room.

The grapevines at Blue Sky Vineyard

The grapevines at Blue Sky Vineyard

While it’s hard to pull yourself away from this vineyard where you could easily spend the entire afternoon – and even the whole night in one of those lovely suites – I also recommend checking out nearby Giant City State Park Lodge.  The restaurant there is renowned for its all-you-can-eat family style chicken dinner.  And it is not to be missed.

For the adventurers, check out the new entirely tree-based, eco-friendly Canopy Tour featuring eight zip lines, three aerial bridges, and a bird’s eye view of 83 acres of Shawnee National Forest.  (Just do it before you drink the wine.)


-Jen Hoelzle, Deputy Director of the Illinois Office of Tourism

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