Here’s a fact: In 2014, Chicago was named the “Top Drinking City in America” by GQ Magazine.
Certainly, one reason for this accolade is that the region produces some of the best wines in the country. This, according to Dileep Gangolli, owner of Windy City Wine and Beverage Tours and passionate winemaker who leads bubbly tours of artisanal venues in and around Chicago.
“People are surprised to learn that we have at least 24 wineries within a two-hour drive of the city,” Gangolli said. “The whole Midwest wine industry is centered on hybrid grapes that are cultivated specifically for colder climates. Perhaps our wines don’t carry the name recognition that our cousins in California have, but they are world class.”
An authority on grapes and the winemaking process, Gangolli presents commentary during five different Chicago-area wine tours that can include tasting rooms, wineries and vineyards. Whether traveling with Gangolli or trekking on their own, travel planners are pleased to realize the proximity of wine venues to Chicago.
“Groups can depart in the morning and return to their hotel by late afternoon to enjoy the outstanding theater, museums and sights the city provides,” he said. “Some of the must-see wineries are in nearby southwest Michigan, a miniature Napa Valley with rows and rows of vineyards,” he said. “It’s a lush experience and can include a visit to the Hickory Creek Winery, located in a beautiful setting and run by a lovely couple. The tasting room staff is extremely accommodating.”
Along the Illinois River is the only Illinois winery that makes sparkling wine in the traditional French method.
“Here, the Illinois Sparkling Wine Company is built inside of a mountain,” said Gangolli. “Travelers often spot 20 bald eagles during their migration.”
Although Galena Cellars winery is four hours from Chicago, it has a tasting room in nearby Geneva, a community known for its fall foliage, great restaurants and hip shopping. “Guests love this quaint community on the Fox River,” said Gangolli.
He said he visits only wineries that produce artisanal wines, meaning small venues with beverages made by hand in small batches.
“You’re going to meet the owners and get up close to the fermenting process,” he said.
He also explained that Chicago-area wineries are places where no one is intimidated.
“It’s all about having fun,” he said. “If someone is a wine snob, we put them on a bus with a one-way ticket to California.”
New to Chicago
After spending a day in wine country, return visitors will find some new Chicago sights that are exciting.
“The ice skating rink at Maggie Daley Park near Millennium Park is not just an oval,” said Gina Speckman, executive director at Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s described as an ice skating ribbon a quarter of a mile long.
“And when I have visitors in town, I don’t even care what exhibition is showing; I take them to the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, a fairly new addition to our city,” she said.
Voted the No. 1 museum in the world by TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards, the Modern Wing offers breathtaking views of Millennium Park and Lake Michigan. “I’m awed every time I visit,” Speckman said.
For those thrill-seekers who enjoy a white-knuckle experience, Speckman insisted that Tilt, the life-size glass and steel box at the John Hancock Center, is a one-of-a-kind experience.
“Dangling 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile, it slowly tilts to an angle and offers great views and some nervous giggles,” she said.