The story of how a handful of hobbyists turned a corner of southern Illinois into a blossoming wine country.

Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards

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Guy Renzaglia wasn’t the sort to slip into retirement and take things easy. An ebullient, energetic Italian, Renzaglia always had to be doing something — and what he liked doing most was being outside, working with his hands and growing things. He loved the raw beauty of southern Illinois, his adopted home, with its rolling terrain, verdant forests and limestone cliffs.

So, in 1981, Renzaglia and two partners — Ted Wichmann and Mark Cosgrove — bought land near the tiny town of Alto Pass, Ill., about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis, and planted 10 acres of grapes along Highway 127. The men all worked for an environmental center at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale. Renzaglia, who’d already retired from another university job in 1978, was interim director.

Their plan back then was to supply the fresh-grape market, but when the vineyard started producing in 1984, they ended up with 35 tons of grapes — much more than they could sell in the region. “There were certainly not enough jam producers in southern Illinois to buy it all,” recalls Renzaglia’s son, Paul.

The partners started trucking their fruit north, where Fred Koehler was building Lynfred Winery in the Chicago suburb of Roselle into an acclaimed regional brand. That worked for a few years until the Renzaglias (by this time, Paul had joined his father in the business) realized that they weren’t getting a huge return on their effort. “We figured we were making about six cents an hour,” Paul says.

To squeeze a bit more from the grapes, the partners decided to build their own winery. In this conservative corner of Illinois, where the most notable man-made landmark is the 111-foot illuminated cross on Bald Knob Mountain, it was a gamble. Not only did the partners have to convince Alto Pass to allow alcohol sales, but odds were that they wouldn’t recoup any of their investment and would look ridiculous in the process.

“We were scared to death,” the younger Renzaglia says. “Even I thought it was a silly venture.”

Wichmann remembers a pivotal town hall meeting for which he’d been tapped to serve as the designated speaker for the Alto Vineyards partners. During the meeting, he’d have to go toe to toe with several Baptist ministers who were opposed to the winery. He leaned on the Good Book to make Alto’s case.

“I said, ‘My understanding is that Jesus Christ’s first miracle was turning water into wine,’ ” he remembers. “And this one young minister said, ‘Yeah, but I have it on good authority that it was very low-alcohol wine,’ and everybody broke out laughing. That was, like, the turning point.”

Alto Vineyards got its license, and in 1988 the new company produced about 1,500 gallons of wine, made from a half-dozen varietals, mostly French-American hybrids such as chambourcin and vidal blanc that do well in the region. On opening day, the parking lot was packed and people lined up to buy the first bottles. The stock sold out in three days.

When Alto Vineyards opened, there were just six other wineries in all of Illinois — and no others in the state’s southern region. A year later, George Majka and Jane Payne opened Pomona Winery about 20 miles up the road. The two building contractors, looking for something different to carry them into retirement, decided to specialize in fruit wines made from regionally grown apples, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and black currants. Wichmann, who’d sold his interest in Alto, opened Owl Creek Vineyard in 1994 after leaving his university job.

The three small businesses — Alto, Pomona and Owl Creek — came together to start the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a modest but enjoyable pass where visitors to the region can knock off a few hours while soaking in the stunning scenery of the 270,000- acre Shawnee National Forest. Two more small wineries, Von Jakob Vineyard and Inheritance Valley Vineyards, would join them a few years later.

For several years, it was quaint, relaxed and intimate. And then the Munchie Man arrived.