Northern Illinois Wine Trail

The wineries in northern Illinois vary as greatly as a light sparkling rose to a bold, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Some are small and rural, others have multiple locations, still others have specialty wines like apple or blackberry wine,” said Bonnie Heinbach, executive director of Chicago and Beyond, a regional arm of the Illinois Office of Tourism.

The Northern Illinois Wine Trail, which snakes through several regions including Lake, DuPage and Kane counties and includes 15 different winemakers, began four years ago as the brainchild of Chicago and Beyond and the wineries Prairie State Winery and Galena Cellars as a way of cross-promoting individual wineries — none of which had the power to do large-scale advertising on their own, Heinbach said. (Photos: Northern Illinois Wine Trail)

But while each brings something a little different to the table, all the wineries on the trail all do have one thing in common. Every one makes their own wine, at least a portion of which are from grapes grown in Illinois.

According to Illinois Grape Growers and Vitners Association, Illinois is consistently among the top 12 wine-producing states. This statistic could be credited to different institutes that employ researchers like Bill Shoemaker, senior research specialist with the University of Illinois, who works closely with IGGVA to develop and improve hybrid grape varietals in the Midwest.

University of Illinois wine-grape researcher Bill Shoemaker works in the greenhouse at St. Charles Horticultural Center. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“The classic grapes of Europe like Chardonnay will not survive here,” Shoemaker said. “When we get winters with 10 degrees below Fahrenheit, (the plants) die. We encourage people to grow hybrid grapes.”

Shoemaker, who conducts much of his research in a St. Charles-based lab, said the hybrid grapes are a cross between two different species — native grapes from the Midwest and European grapes. He said many researchers work on classic breeding techniques to come up with heartier grapes.

To educate the public on the wine industry in Illinois, Shoemaker and the IGGVA offer educational programs. Shoemaker said the wine industry in the Midwest has expanded significantly.

“It’s an enormous amount of growth in the last two decades,” Shoemaker said. “We’ve gone from very little wine production to about five million gallons in the Midwest annually. It’s exciting to be a part of an emerging industry like this.”

Shoemaker credits winemakers’ discovery of the availability of hybrid grapes to the industry’s surge in this part of the country.

“By the end of the ’80s, every state in the Midwest was beginning to recognize that it could be done and experimental vineyards could be planted,” he said.

Megan Pressnall, director of external communications for the IGGVA, said the association’s involvement in local festivals is also helping spread awareness of Illinois wineries.

This summer, it will partner with local organizations to host Ottawa 2 Rivers Wine Fest, Uncork Illinois in downtown Oak Park, Oswego Wine & Food Festival and Vintage Illinois in Starved Rock.

IGGVA is made up of more than 100 wineries and 450 vineyards across the state. Pressnall said the association provides support to the Northern Illinois Wine Trail through its marketing efforts and by offering resources to the wineries that are part of the trail.

Here we take a journey to several of the wineries throughout the area.