America's Secret Wine Country

Courtesy of our very own Circus Boy

Here I was…..a beautiful, breezy, sunday afternoon; sitting in the
crisp spring air, my eyes rolling along the contours of pristine
vineyards down to the idyllic pond below where ducks were, well, being
ducks. And then, the sound of porcelain settling on my picnic table
brings me back to the present….my food and wine has arrived…it’s
Swedish meatballs, the renowned specialty at this distinctly Swedish

Sound like a little-explored nook of Europe? Or maybe even a swanky
valley estate in Sonoma? No, it’s sourthern Illinois….no really, it

Being in the circus, I travel around the US of A, A LOT. And as any
roaming foodie would do, I seek out gastronomic adventures and
indigenous specialties in each part of the country we visit. So, when
it comes to wine I thought I had the US scene figured out. There’s
Sonoma, which is the poster child for the American wine industry and
then there’s the Washington State wines which are quickly becoming
dinner table staples. And of course it then trickles down from
there…..the finger lakes district in central New York State, etc.
So, when I found out there were not only wineries, but a wine “trail”
in Illinois, I was taken aback. Usually one associates southern
Iliinois with….well, farms, tractors, the Mississippi river, and
maybe the University of Southern Illinois Salukis (yeah, I didn’t know
what a Saluki was either, it’s a dog that looks like a cross between a
Greyhound and an Afghan). Nonetheless, there exists the Shawnee Hills
Wine Trail ( which weaves through the
green-carpeted hills of southern Illinois and consists of 10 totally
different wineries, some dating all the way back to the late 80’s. On
a tip from a local barista, my mission was Hedman Vinyards. I can’t
really say what I was expecting, but as I rode up on the motorcycle I
had a good vibe about the place. Basically, it’s big, time-worn barn
turned winery/cafe/bed and breakfast. I walked through the door to
find a small gift shop of Scandinavian specialties and a few cafe
tables each holding a fresh bunch a wildflowers, beyond which was the
wine tasting counter. I told them I was hungry, and they gestured
inside or out….of course it was out, I’m a sucker for al fresco.
So, I picked what would be a nice picnic table with a view and began
perusing the menu. Being that it’s a Swedish winery, it wasn’t hard
to settle on the Swedish meatballs. The waifish waitress said fine
choice and returned with some water and their homemade rolls. Ahhhh,
the rolls; they were fresh (you can always taste when bread is fresh)
and had anise seed in the dough. It was a nice twist that was perfect
with the fresh butter. After studying the local flora and the
resident hummingbirds’ interest in it, my food arrived. There were no
fanfares, but it was pretty enough for a picture (so I took one!) and
tasted even better. The green beans were fresh, cooked but still
crisp and bright green (a sign that they had been put in iced water to
stop the cooking and preserve color). The beans shared the plate with
some wedged herb-roasted potatoes, lingon berries, and the star of the
meal, Swedish meatballs with gravy…….this was the epitome of
Swedish comfort food and with a glass of wine from the vies before my
eyes, it was just that; comforting, rustic, delicious, and
unforgettable. I could go into the textures, nuances, and influences
of the food, but all that I’m going to say is……you must taste this
for yourself!

So, make a lazy weekend out of this little-known gem of an American
wine trail and make sure you visit Hedman Vinyards and order the
meatballs and don’t forget the dessert!