SHELBYVILLE – Jill Collum did not know what to expect when she agreed to go winery-hopping in Central Illinois with her friends.
The Manteno resident has gone to wineries around the city and in Michigan, but had not heard about Central Illinois wines until she did a Google search after work brought her to the area.
But after a few glasses of wine at Shelbyville's Willow Ridge Vineyards & Winery, Collum said it was worth the trek through farmlands and rocky, two-lane roads.
"I would not have expected all this good wine, especially here in what seems to be the middle of nowhere," she said.
In an area more known for the growth of corn and soybeans, grapes and vineyards have started to dot more of the land as local winemakers see an increased appetite for the product in what has become a $692 million industry in Illinois, according to the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.
In a way, it is a return to the past, when the state was the fourth largest wine producer in the country during the turn of the 20th century. There were just over a dozen Illinois wineries in the 1980s, but now there are more than 100 in a network of eight wine trails.
There are 41 wineries across what the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association refers to as the “central” and “south central” regions of Illinois, which covers everything south of the Chicago area and north of those close to the Effingham area.
The growth in the industry has not been lost on Louie Donnel, co-owner of Shelbyville’s Willow Ridge Vineyards & Winery. That growth has gone hand-in-hand with what Donnel said has been increased business as customers look for something different than the more stereotypical drinking experience.
“I think it’s the more laid-back style that draws people to wineries,” Donnel said. “It’s definitely not your typical tavern scene.”
Since opening, Willow Ridge has gone on to win several state awards for its wine, most recently winning the governor’s cup at the 2016 Illinois State Fair with its Pink Catawba winning for best dessert wine.
When their winery was first opened in 2007, Donnel said they were about the 70th to open in the state. Since then, more than 30 new wineries have opened shop.
Among the newest wineries in the area is Pana’s Arpeggio Winery, which opened its rustic doors in 2015.
When they first opened, co-owner Mike Swiney said he and his wife, Karen, did not know exactly what sort of support they would receive from the community. Since then, the renovated barn that once belonged to Mike's grandmother has added a new outdoor patio, performance stage and an expanded outdoor area.
On top of increasing sales, Karen Swiney said they know the community can be counted on to help the family-run winery whenever asked.
"We have people come out here to help pick grapes (from the two acre vineyard)," she said. "A lot of people tell us they're happy to support us and it's really nice to be able to involve them."
One thing that is missing in Central Illinois is one of the designated wine trails that encourages customers to spend the day “wine-hopping” from place to place. Local owners say there is an interest in getting one together, as Karen Swiney said there is a certain camaraderie in the business that encourages partnerships between wineries rather than competition.
But for now, Swiney said they will continue to focus on what they can control, which is growing their business.
“We’re seeing an increased demand every year,” she said. “I think the community has shown how much they enjoy wine.”