Deep at the tip of southern Illinois, more than 400 miles south of Chicago, is a wonderful rural area I like to call home. Or at least where I grew up.
Back when I lived here in the river bottoms, the only reason most people found to visit the area was for duck and goose hunting along the Mississippi River Flyway. Or maybe Sunday lunch at Ma Hale’s in Grand Tower.
Ma Hale’s is gone, but there’s still good hunting in these parts. However, now the region is better known for the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a selection of 11 wineries in Illinois’ only recognized viticultural area.
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Winery Tours in Southern Illinois
Cobden Illinois, population 1100, is the heart of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and the Shawnee Hills viticultural region. This was the state’s first designated viticultural region.
Fruit has long been a part of the southern Illinois economy. There was a time rhubarb was a huge crop here, but apples and peaches have always been big business. The Cobden High School mascot is the Apple Knocker.
The AVA is at about 700 feet above sea level and follows the pattern of the Mark Twain National Forest through the Illinois Ozarks. Each of the 11 wineries offers a unique experience, beautiful views and a warm, inviting location. Here are a few thoughts:
- Alto Vineyards, located in Alto Pass on Highway 127, has won numerous gold medals for its chambourcin, but the Heartland Blush is this winery’s best seller.
- Blue Sky is part art gallery, part bed and breakfast inn, and a beautiful location for weddings and special events.
- Hedman Vineyards is as popular for its Peach Barn Cafe and the authentic Swedish cuisine as it is for good wines.
- Pomona Winery is a non-grape winery, so named for Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees.
- Von Jakob – pronounced “Yah-cob” – has a fabulous gift shop and is known for stretching the envelop with comedy shows and dinner theatres.
- Owl Creek, one of the founding members of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, is known for its dessert wines and lighter, sweeter wines.
Where to Stay on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
There are a number of bed and breakfast inns along the Shawnee Hills wine trail, including at some of the wineries. But because I like repurposed old things, and I’ve known this building all of my life, this is where I would stay — The Davie School Inn in Anna, Illinois. As the name suggests, it’s an old school building, built in 1910, whose classrooms have been converted to colorful and comfortable guest rooms.
The original wood floors remain throughout. Some fixtures that are 100 years old now. The stairways and hallways are so big and wide you’re tempted to run and scream like a third grader. I was lucky enough to stay in the Gold Suite, a room as big as the upper level of my home. Seriously, an entire family could relax here.
Just a bit of history: the school gets its name from Winstead Davie, one of the original founders of this little town. Winstead Davie’s wife’s name was Anna.
What to do in Southern Illinois
Other than the wineries, I would recommend you take a drive up to Bald Knob Cross, a 600-foot tall cross on the tallest point in southern Illinois. My grandfather helped build it.
Then stop in for a fabulous fried chicken dinner at Giant City State Park Lodge. Part of the movie “Gone Girl” was shot in this park.
When you’re in this area, you’ll traveling on the northern route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. A few historic markers tell story. Stop and read them to remind yourself of this tragic part of American history.
Finally, stop by the Jonesboro City Park to learn about the southernmost of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
And drive safely while you’re there. I grew up with the county sheriff.