Each day, as the sun rises over the Illinois River Valley, light spills across Kickapoo Creek Winery's 14 acres of vineyards. Dr. David Conner originally began planting these vines in 2001. Now joined by his son, Rory, Dr. Connor creates rich, fruit-forward wines using locally sourced grapes in addition to the family's own grape harvests. Each wine brings its own melange of flavors and aromas, whether it's the tropical and citrus notes of the vignoles-seyval blanc blend or the norton's subtle spice and hints of ripe plum. The Connor family also makes wines infused with the luscious fruit flavors of everything from cranberries to peaches; and the selection of dessert wines includes bottles infused with chocolate.
Although the tasting room's samples lure many visitors, Kickapoo Creek Winery also provides guests with opportunities to explore its picturesque grounds. Walking trails can guide visitors past rows of trellised grapevines, a bubbling fountain, and even a bridge overlooking Lake Elizabeth. The grounds also include a handful of places for guests to stop and rest for a spell, such as the partially shaded Ruby Glow Garden with its miniature waterfall of grape juice.
Only after studying wine literature, discussing options with distributors, and attending tastings do Frank and Abby Bowman decide which reds and whites will join their already massive stock of approximately 200 wine varietals. Their temperature-controlled wine cellar stores nearly 1,500 bottles, which the Bowmans—Linn Street Cafe's owners since 1996—uncork at daily meals, wine tastings, and multi-course wine-pairing dinners. Along with wine pours, their 70-seat restaurant houses contemporary American dishes crafted from sustainable seafood, local farmers' produce, and meats hand-plucked from Iowan gardens. The elegant meals continue to win raves from critics and outlets such as CityVoter, which awarded Linn Street Cafe a finalist position in its 2011 Best Romantic Restaurant competition.
The family-owned-and-operated Fireside Winery has tilled and harvested the rolling hills of Iowa to produce award-winning wines. Growing a variety of diverse grapes contributes to the complex flavors and blends found in each Fireside wine bottle. The CoCo Cabernet Sauvignon tickles taste receptors with deep black fruit notes and notions of green pepper ($15), while the Storyteller uses exotic fruits, mineral aromas, the secret of Alex Trebek's methodical success, and crisp acidity to create a well-balanced blend ($14). For the sweet-toothed sipper, the Night Cap is Fireside's first dessert wine, offering spicy notes that dance in the moonlight with plum and dark cherry ($18).
The quaint lavender home in rural Shueyville is hard to miss. When Lauren Cannon bought the place in 2004, her friends encouraged her to open a hardware or grocery store, but, according to Examiner.com, her passion for wine flowered into The Secret Cellar instead. The Cellar—a homespun boutique specializing in high-end wines—extends its stock of craft libations to handpicked beers, liquors, and artisanal cheeses.
As patrons peruse, fragrant tendrils of smoke ascend from Iowa–made soy candles, undulating across the store's stained-glass sign and idyllic outdoor wine garden. Lauren leans on her olfactory expertise to lend helpful recommendations and, as an instructor during classes, pair sips of classic varietals with activities such as dancing, painting, and reverse-engineering wine into grapes.
It's more likely that Illinois River Winery founder and winemaker Gregg Kane is out in the field or tinkering in the wine lab than in the chair behind his desk. Thanks to his hard work, the winery's tasting room offers a selection of more than 30 varietals daily, from crisp, dry wines with vibrant acidity to wet wines known for their unique ability to quickly soak into a shirt. During warmer months, grab a glass and head out to the patio, where live music sweetly serenades sippers every Saturday and Sunday afternoon.