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.
When you think of Illinois, you might not think of a vineyard capable of yielding award-winning wine, but that’s exactly what you get with the Faltz Family Vineyard, which supplies Fox Valley Winery. The vineyard produces the grapes for wines that have won various awards in national and international competitions.
The vineyard, located about 20 miles away in Sheridan, supplies grapes through its more than 25 acres of vines draped across the rock-ribbed ledges of the Fox River Valley. This is where the Faltz family, their friends, and their employees spend many days coaxing the crop through the long growing season, checking for proper chemistry, and harvesting the grapes before they turn into talking raisins.
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.
The Winery at Shale Lake sprawls over 212 acres of verdant terrain, with a 10-acre vineyard producing a menu of eight original wines for enjoyment in an array of charming settings. Spin around the 24-acre lake during a 30-minute bike ride aboard any of the Surrey cycles available for rent, or hike the scenic trail to slowly experience nature and the soothing melodies of Bigfoot quartets. Sip on up to five complimentary varieties of wine in the tasting room, built into the barn for a fine equine view through the picture window, and chow on gastronome goodies, including baked brie with raspberry sauce ($6), or white garlic and sausage pizza ($9). Kick back in the winter loft during colder months, playing pool and swirling sippers such as the Fifth Dimension, a sweet red foch wine, and the Beginners Luck, a semisweet chambourcin (all $4.50 by the glass). Live performers burst into song roughly twice a month, so thirst quenchers can enjoy sweet sounds while tickling their taste buds and their friends' bellies on Saturday evenings.
Crown Ridge Tiger Sanctuary, a USDA–approved big-cat rescue facility, plays motherly host to a roaring family composed of five tigers and a lone lioness with a sultry swagger. Adopting philanthropists can align with their striped or unstriped spirit animal, choosing from noble felines such as the elder Mohan—a white male tiger with blue eyes, a pink nose, and a natural screen presence—or Raja—the relentlessly caring mother of sisters Gracie and Thor.
WineStyles’ inspiration for its wine-tasting parties began, of all places, at a backyard barbecue. Some friends at the barbecue found themselves with too many bottles of wine. As an experiment, they decided to taste the wines blindly, so as not to be influenced by price or packaging. This impromptu tasting became the template for WineStyles, a boutique designed to help you choose a wine simply by taste. That is, wines here aren’t categorized by varietal or region, but instead by one of eight taste profiles: crisp, silky, rich, and bubbly for whites; fruity, mellow, bold, and nectar for reds. However, patrons interested in knowing more about their selected bottle can still do so—each bottle comes with a description of its characteristics and suggested food pairings.
Those looking to learn even more about wines can attend one of WineStyles’ weekly tastings or discovery classes. During these events, certified specialists explore everything from the history of different varietals to current trends in wine drinking, such as which wine goes best with texting. Different levels of wine-club membership give participants two to three bottles a month (each selected by a Masters Wine Panel, invitations to private tastings, and discounts toward additional purchases.