When you think of wine country, you probably don’t picture Illinois. But while the Land of Lincoln may not be California, the state’s unique viticulture is worth exploring — especially the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area, near the southern border. Featuring 20 wineries and 55 vineyards, it has a unique terroir (a combination of climate, topography, and soil) that allows for easy drainage, which helps to produce grapes that fully ripen to reach a more concentrated flavor.

The 40-mile Shawnee Hills Wine Trail includes 11 of those wineries. A six-hour drive from Chicago, it’s a good excuse for a weekend getaway in the fall, when the harvest takes place, allowing you to see winemakers pressing grapes and preparing wine for aging.

How best to spend an autumn afternoon sipping downstate? These three favorite spots are all within a half hour’s drive of each other.


8515 Highway 127, Alto Pass

With more than nine acres, southern Illinois’s oldest winery is your first stop. Here you can try award-winning vino in a cozy tasting room or take sips outside among the vines. On selected weekend days, you can also enjoy live music from local artists.

Try 2020 Cabernet Franc ($31.99). While this grape variety is known for its French roots, this expression of it — with dark cherry, blackberry, and cocoa powder flavors — is relatively young, so grab a few bottles to mature on your wine rack. 


1600 Cobden School Rd., Cobden

From wine to cider and sangria, Owl Creek has something that will satiate any palate. Ted Wichmann, who helped establish the Shawnee Hills AVA, owns this winery and cidery. And while you’re here, be sure to sample Bad Apple, Owl Creek’s signature tart cider.

Try 2021 Seyval Blanc ($19). With its lemon, pear, and peach notes, this semidry white makes the perfect complement to Thai or Mexican food. 

Blue Sky Vineyard Photograph: Blue Sky Vineyard


3150 S. Rocky Comfort Rd., Makanda

A taste of Tuscany in the heart of southern Illinois? Sì, grazie! The tasting room, inside a winery that looks straight out of Italy, offers sweeping views of 13 acres of vineyards, along with the on-premise bed-and-breakfast. Blue Sky also makes its own gourmet olive oil.

Try 2019 Chambourcin ($21). This juicy berry-forward red, named best in show at the 2022 Illinois Wine Competition, is ideal for when the air gets cooler as leaves begin to fall.