This fall, wine country is calling — and it is only a road trip away from Chicago. Napa Valley and Sonoma County in California are typically dream destinations for wine enthusiasts at all levels, but the Midwest has its wine regions. Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio have all grown table and wine grapes for generations. Common varieties like Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Pinot Grigio, as well as French-American hybrids like Vidal, Seyval, Vignoles, and Chambourcin all thrive in the Midwest and can produce a range of sweet to dry wines. In recent years, wine production has become a sizable part of the state’s agricultural economy.
Believe it or not, the first American Viticultural Area was designated in Missouri (not California!) in June 1980. AVAs are designations to help winemakers show consumers where their wine comes from, so consumers could develop their tastes and buy wine from specific regions. Today, there are five AVAs across the Show Me State and over 130 wineries in production. The Buckeye state also has five AVAs, seven wine trails, and over 4,400 wineries that produce both grape and fruit wines.
Before Prohibition banned the production, consumption, and distribution of alcohol in 1920, Illinois was once one of the nation’s largest wine producers. Since 1997, the number of wineries has grown from 14 to over 100, including several urban wineries that can be found within the city limits.
Travelers looking for a weekend adventure that’s complete with majestic views, delicious food, and great vino, load up the car and head to one of these five Midwestern wine regions.
Shawnee Hills AVA, Southern Illinois
5-hour, 40-minute drive
Perhaps the closest wine region for Chicagoans is located in Southern Illinois, just 350 miles south of the city. The Shawnee Hills AVA, established in 2006, is home to a wine trail that consists of 11 wineries. Each winery has reservation requirements but offers flights of their signature sweet and dry wines and even some ciders. In addition to surrounding inns and cabins, there are a handful of vineyards that also have on-site suites that are perfect for small and large groups.
August AVA, Missouri
5-hour, 50-minute drive
As the first American Viticultural Area established, it’s only right that this area is the one to visit during a Missouri wine experience. Located just an hour south of St. Louis, these wineries also offer delicious seasonal and globally inspired cuisine in addition to their award-winning wines. While visitors can absolutely stay in a St. Louis hotel up the road, Augusta is known for its quaint bed and breakfasts.
Wisconsin Ledge AVA, Door County Wine Trail
3-hour, 54-minute drive
Chicagoans are probably familiar with Door County as an outdoor summer destination. But they’ve got a thriving wine scene as well. The Door County Wine Trail is within the Wisconsin Ledge region and focuses on eight wineries that are on the Lake Michigan Peninsula that make fruit wine and wine from hybrid grapes such as Marquette, Marechal Foch, and Frontenac.
Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan
5-hour, 10-minute drive
Traverse City Wine Coast is home to over 40 wineries that specialize in a range of grape varietals. Fun fact about this region: it sits at the 45th Parallel – which is the same degree of latitude that world-class wine regions like Bordeaux, France, and Piedmont, Italy reside. While a humble brag, to say the least, this placement actually can be very helpful to ripening grapes at their best in both the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula AVAs. With so many options for lodging, visitors could choose to stay in Traverse City proper or explore a winery inn on one of the peninsulas.
Ohio River Valley AVA
5-hour, 25-minute drive
As one of the most dynamic wine-making regions, Ohio has seven wine regions – with the Ohio River Valley Wine Trail being the nearest to Chicago. Producing traditional wines from grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, this region also does an excellent job making late-harvest wines that are sweeter and more succulent on the palate. To experience the entire wine trail, finding a place to stay in Cincinnati is ideal.