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Rocky Waters Vineyard (Northern Illinois Wine Trail)

Rocky Waters Vineyard and its lodge-like tasting room seem to blend right in with the natural landscape of the northwest Illinois hills.  Owners Jared & Phyllis Spahn even built the tasting room deck around a tree – leaving the large trunk just as they found it rather than it cut it down.

Rocky Waters Vineyard focuses on a natural approach to winemaking

Rocky Waters Vineyard focuses on a natural approach to winemaking

Located on 112 acres of land in Hanover (just outside of Galena), this is an ideal place to slide up to bar with its wooded tabletop still featuring the rings of the trees that made it.  Say hi to Cocoa and Razzy, the dogs that roam the tasting room and try to win a spot on the couch before they curl up on the deep cushions in front of the large fireplace.

Owners Jared and Phyllis Spahn named the winery Rocky Waters after challenging their grandchildren to a contest.  One grandson won after describing the rocky bottoms of the streams on their extensive land.

The vineyard is located just outside of quaint Galena in Hanover (Photo: Galena/Jo Daviess County CVB)

The vineyard is located just outside of quaint Galena in Hanover (Photo: Galena/Jo Daviess County CVB)

My favorite wine here also reflects the respect that the Spahn’s show to the land that makes their grapes.

The Pear Tree Blush contains no pears, but tastes strongly of the fruit because the vines were planted around a pear tree (rather than tear the tree down).  Now the fruit sweetens the soil and therefore sweetens the wine from its grapes.

Cheers to another great day along the Northern Illinois Wine Trail!

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

Prairie State Farm owners Maria and Rick grow their own grapes near Genoa, Illinois

Prairie State Farm owners Maria and Rick grow their own grapes near Genoa, Illinois

Prairie State Winery, Genoa, IL (Northern Illinois Wine Trail)

When I strolled into the Prairie State Winery on Main Street in Genoa – just about an hour northwest of Chicago – I was very surprised to find metal pails, filled with beach toys, alongside brightly colored streamers that weaved between bottles of wine and cans of preserves and pickled cauliflower.

“We’re planning a beach party to welcome the spring,” explained owner Maria Mamoser from behind the counter as she poured wines made almost entirely from Illinois grapes.

Maria and Rick Mamoser were once schoolteachers who traded in their long commutes to open a country store and winery.  Because they believe in “thinking globally and drinking locally,” they “import” many of their grapes from Illinois locations with a milder climate – places like Benton, Pittsfield and Lawrenceville.

They grow their own cold-hardy grapes in a vineyard near Genoa and the combination of these different Illinois grapes make for many award-winning wines at Prairie State.  In fact, Rick was recently named the 2013 Illinois Wine Maker of the Year by the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.

My two favorites were the Chambourcin Reserve for its smoothness and the Cabernet Franc for its bold kick.  Both award winning reds.  The latter even won “Best Wine in Illinois” two years in a row!

Maria and Rick also sell a variety of products made in Illinois, like jalepeno raspberry preserves and corn salsa made at Kathy’s Kitchen, a canning business based in a small town just west of Springfield called Virginia.

Prairie State Winery won “Best Wine in Illinois” two years in a row from the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association

Prairie State Winery won “Best Wine in Illinois” two years in a row from the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association

The embrace of small-town living is felt throughout the cozy tasting room, where neighbors relax at tables built from barrels and listen to live music at the popular “Friday Night Wine Down.”

The production room here even uses Illinois wind.  It’s powered from a single wind turbine that Maria and Rick built in their ongoing effort to make their winery as sustainable as possible.

Check out the wind turbine in the back and don’t miss a chance to see one of the new Lincoln Highway murals just out front.

Thanks for the grape story, Maria and Rick!

Cheers!

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

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.)

Cheers!

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

Illinois Office of Tourism Deputy Director, Jen Hoelzle, helps celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week by sharing her thoughts and reflections on the importance of travel.

Do you remember a family vacation from your childhood that stands out in your mind as extra special?

I bet you can vividly recall every detail of that trip, right down to the gigantic banana split your parents let you order all by yourself – because you were on vacation. Maybe it was your first time on an airplane. Maybe you remember playing road trip games in the car with your siblings to pass the time, like counting how many different state license plates you could spot.

Special vacation treats create memories that last a lifetime (Photo credit: Mark Segal)

Special vacation treats create memories that last a lifetime (Photo credit: Mark Segal)

Family vacations are an important part of keeping family members connected to each other, and memories created during those special family moments can often last a lifetime. In fact, according to the U.S. Travel Association, three quarters of vacationers older than 55 say they still have vivid memories of childhood vacations, more vivid than memories of school events or even birthdays. Even birthdays? Yes, that’s right. The things we do during vacations form the most lasting memories.

Not only does travel keep family members connected, but it also helps to strengthen romantic relationships. A survey by the U.S. Travel Association revealed that couples who travel together have better relationships – and better sex – than those who stay home. Of the 1,100 U.S. adults surveyed, 77% of those who travel as a couple say that have a good sex life, compared with 63% of couples who don’t travel together.

Public beaches in Chicago offer an urban family playground complete with sand, water and sun! (Photo credit: Mark Segal)

Public beaches in Chicago offer a convenient family playground complete with sand, water and sun! (Photo credit: Mark Segal)

The personal benefits of travel, including relationship building, happiness and engagement, make up the “Travel Effect” – this year’s theme for the U.S. Travel Association’s annual National Travel and Tourism Week. 2013 marks the 29th anniversary of National Travel and Tourism Week, and we are excited to be celebrating once again in Illinois this year. Traditionally, the industry commemorates the week with rallies, special events and by encouraging legislatures to help make strides and improvements that will benefit travelers in their local and state communities.

This year, Illinois is showcasing how travel makes our lives better. To help celebrate the Travel Effect theme, we are encouraging people to share their greatest travel moments in Illinois with us, through the Magnificent Stuff campaign. Starting on May 6, participants can submit their favorite photos and videos to us via the Enjoy Illinois Facebook Page, our YouTube channel or a special website, for a chance to have their “stuff” featured in an Illinois advertisement later this summer.

As we celebrate National Travel and Tourism Week and the “Travel Effect” here in Illinois, I urge you to take a step back from your busy schedule and the stressors of everyday life. Sit down with your family and carve out time to getaway on that family vacation you’ve been talking about for years.

Maybe it is discovering stunning wonders in Chicago, like world-renowned museums, magnificent skyscrapers and acclaimed restaurants. Or, it’s stepping back through time during a stroll down Galena’s historic and picturesque Main Street. Maybe it is zipping through the trees of the breathtaking Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, or walking in the footsteps of one our nation’s greatest Presidents in the Land of Lincoln. Whatever it is, take the time to escape and spend quality time with your family.

Take your family to new heights in the beautiful Shawnee National Forest

Take your family to new heights in the beautiful Shawnee National Forest

I welcome you and your family to Illinois and hope your trip is filled with lots of laughs, fun and most importantly, great memories.

Happy travels!

 

–Jen Hoelzle, Deputy Director

Illinois Office of Tourism

The 2013 Illinois Travel Guide featuring Firefly Grill

Meet Kristie and Niall Campbell.  They are the flair and the creative genius behind the Firefly Grill in Effingham.  They are also the cover stars of the 2013 Illinois Travel Guide.

We are so proud to feature Kristie and Niall on our cover.  For me, this picture of the Campbell couple opening the door to their restaurant – welcoming us inside – represents exactly what I have experienced in my travels throughout the state.  This picture shows what Illinois has to offer.  And that is our people.  Our hospitality.  And our charm.

The guide reads more like a magazine this year and features many of the stars of Illinois tourism.  From top chefs to top gift shops, we show you the best of every corner of the Land of Lincoln.

And I can speak with some experience on the best of the Firefly in Effingham.  I was lucky enough to dine with Kristie recently, while Niall turned out dish after dish of moan-worthy deliciousness from the kitchen.

The butternut -squash ravioli with scallops tasted all that much better because the ingredients at Firefly are the definition of local.  Whether from the gardens on Firefly’s own three-acre plot of land, or from local farms, fishermen and foragers, 13 farms within a 60-mile radius of the restaurant, nearly everything on a Firefly plate is from this state.

The inviting Firefly Grill atmosphere

Over a chai-infused apple martini with fresh apples from Shelbyville, Kristie explained that she and Niall never expected to find themselves back in her hometown of Effingham, but now they can’t imagine leaving.

She told of her years “slinging stocks” on a Boston trading floor, enjoying the big city life until the events of 9/11 changed everything.  She lost friends.  She knew there was more to life.

So off she went to Vieques, a small island of Puerto Rico.  She knew of a bartender there who she had crossed paths with many years before.

“I truly believe in love at first sight,” Kristie said with a smile and a nod toward the kitchen door where Niall worked on a unique spin on a traditional grilled (munster!) cheese and tomato soup.  “Before I thought it was my career.  But it is my marriage that really defines me.”

A beautiful and equally delicious Firefly Grill masterpiece

A beautiful and equally delicious Firefly Grill masterpiece

Those who visit Niall and Kristie can see this in the pictures that line the Firefly walls of the family the couple is building and of their wedding day.  Walking into the restaurant is like walking into their home.  The place itself is named after Kristie’s childhood memories of chasing fireflies in Effingham with her grandmother.

And when the lobster sweet-corn stew with fresh biscuit arrived…well, I started believing in love at first sight, too.

— Jen Hoelzle

Deputy Director

Illinois Office of Tourism