California may be the flagship of wine tasting in the US. but there are other regions just as ripe for the sipping. Award-winning wines are being produced in many other states and frequently sell out to wine clubs, locals, and tourist markets before they can be exported to the wider US market. Thanks to these smaller producers, the country is dotted with wineries where one can experience wine tastings on par with California’s big guns.
Here are nine of the best places to go wine tasting in the US that aren’t in California.
1. Walla Walla, Washington.
Washington state is the second-largest wine producer in the US and Walla Walla is the industry’s heart. Known for its historic Main Street, friendly locals, farm-to-table restaurants, and photogenic fields of wheat, this small town is also home to more than 100 wineries.
Located in sunny Eastern Washington, just miles from the Oregon border, this area is famous for its diurnal flux (hot days, cold nights) and access to the cobbled terroir of the Rocks District, the country’s newest — and most unique — AVA (American Viticultural Area). It’s easy to spend a few days here, sipping renown Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay in between rounds of golf walks around scenic Bennington Lake and touring the city’s impressive sculpture collection (courtesy of the Walla Walla Foundry). For those flying out, Alaska Airlines allows each passenger to check one case of wine for free.
Where to eat: Brasserie Four, Bacon & Eggs, Colville Street Patisserie
Where to drink: Rotie Cellars, Sleight of Hand Cellars, Tranche Cellars
Where to stay: The Inn at Abeja, Bryant Barn, Boyer House
2. Willamette Valley, Oregon
Oregon’s Willamette Valley encompasses seven AVAs, more than 300 wineries, and is the third-largest wine grape producer in the US. In true “Portlandia” style, more than half of these are classified dog-friendly, 19 biodynamic, and 13 organic. A short drive from Portland, the area is respected for its award-winning Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Riesling.
Most wineries dotting the valley are family-owned, with small production, so it is likely visitors will get to spend some time rubbing elbows with the actual winemaker before packing out some highly-prized bottles. This personal touch extends outside the tasting room with some wineries offering vineyard tours and others with marked hikes for those who enjoy the outdoors. There is a lot of ground to cover in the Willamette Valley and the Oregon Wine Touring Guide will help visitors make the most of their tasting time.
Where to eat: Thistle, Sada sushi and izakaya, The Painted Lady
Where to drink: Ponzi Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin, Antica Terra
Where to stay: McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon, The Vintages, Stoller Family Estate Guesthouses
3. Boise, Idaho
Though many of its grapes are imported from neighboring Washington State, Idaho is poised to make its mark on the American wine world. There are three reasons for this: volcanoes, weather, and female entrepreneurs. The scrubby volcanic soil provides excellent drainage for vinifera, especially cool climate whites such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, and hardier reds including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Weatherwise, Idaho’s semi-arid climate and four distinct seasons provide prime growing conditions. Add to the mix a group of curious, experienced female winemakers garnering big scores and you have the wine world talking.
Almost half of the state’s fifty wineries are clustered near the tree-lined streets of Boise, the third largest city in the Pacific Northwest. This thriving state capital sits at the foot of the Boise Mountains and is a lively place to visit thanks to the University of Idaho and nearby skiing, hiking, camping and river rafting opportunities.
4. Santa Fe, New Mexico
Best-known for hatch chile, adorable adobes, and O’Keeffe-worthy sunsets, New Mexico can also be considered the birthplace of American viticulture. Spanish missionaries planted wine grapes on the banks of the Rio Grande near Albuquerque in 1629, a full 140 years before California put down roots. A series of disastrous floods in the 1940’s decimated the industry but thanks to the investment and vision of a select few, including European winemakers looking for new opportunity, wine is again on the table.
This unique history, geology, and geography combine to produce a stunning array of respected varietals ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Pinot Noir to Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Gewurztraminer. America’s sparkling wine sweetheart, Gruet, which earned the #43 spot on Wine Spectator’s 2011 “Top 100 Wines of the World” list, has tasting rooms in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe while smaller “mom and pop” producers dot the route from Albuquerque north to Dixon, a worthy road trip. Santa Fe, with its award-winning restaurant scene, outdoor recreation, cultural attractions, and historic downtown plaza, is an ideal home base to explore from.
5. Fredericksburg, Texas
When it comes to wine, the old saying “everything’s bigger in Texas” is especially apt: at over nine million acres, the Texas Hill Country AVA is the largest state-specific AVA in the US.
Stretching from north of San Antonio to west of Austin, the hot, dry climate is ideal for Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and even Portuguese favorite, Touriga Nacional. The small town of Fredericksburg anchors the central Texas wine scene and is notable for its big personality, Germanic roots, and historic downtown. The surrounding hill country is a popular destination for hikers, wildflower enthusiasts, and antique hunters. More than 50 wineries call Texas Hill Country home so to make the most of a visit, many resources exist for trip planning including the Texas Hill Country “Wine Trail” and Wine Road 290.
Where to eat: Cabernet Grill, August E’s, Hondo’s on Main
Where to drink: Pedernales Cellars, Hye Meadow Winery, Messina Hof Winery
Where to stay: Camp Lucy Cottages, Hill Country Casitas, Cotton Gin Village
6. Kansas City, Missouri
Missouri has one of the most interesting wine scenes in the US. Still a young industry, winemakers here are not afraid to experiment. Some of the most thought-provoking wines come from heritage grapes like Catawba and Norton as well as new hybrids including Seyval Blanc, Traminette, and Vignoles. More than 125 wineries can be found tucked among the state’s verdant hills with a concentration of 50 near Kansas City. With more boulevards than any other city except Paris, Kansas City is commonly called “Paris of the Plains.” After a long day of wine tasting, visitors have many options for entertainment in this diverse city: sample some famous Kansas City BBQ, float the Missouri River, tour the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Community Christian Church, or take in some Old School jazz.
Where to eat: Cafe Europa, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, The Corner Restaurant
Where to drink: Riverwood Winery, Jowler Creek Winery, Arcadian Moon Winery
Where to stay: Jefferson House Bed & Breakfast, Southmoreland on the Plaza, Inn on Crescent Lake
7. Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City sits at the foot of the Leelanau Peninsula, jutting 30 miles into the azure waters of Lake Michigan, and is home to 24 wineries taking advantage of the area’s unique microclimates.
Among the acclaimed varietals are Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. Vinifera thrive here due to the unique “lake effect” that keeps vines cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Leelanau is also one of the few wine regions to produce ice wine — a growing pleasure among many wine enthusiasts.
Among winery owners in this area, you’ll find TV stars, sports celebrities, and highly-pedigreed wine experts. Fall harvest is a perfect time to visit and enjoy the colorful foliage or take part in the annual “Harvest Stompede,” a foot race through the vineyards followed by special wine and food pairings at 22 of the area’s wineries.
Where to eat: The Bluebird, 9 Bean Rows, La Becasse
Where to drink: Bonobo Winery, 45 North Vineyard & Winery, Peninsula Cellars
Where to stay: Whaleback Inn, Inn at Black Star Farms, Falling Waters Lodge
8. Finger Lakes, New York
The green forests and babbling brooks of upstate New York are a far cry from the city to the east that shares its name. Slivers of glacial lakes abound and in one area form “fingers” the Finger Lakes region is named for.
Thanks to the chilly climate, the 140 wineries in this area are famed for producing high-quality sparkling wines, Riesling, Pinot Noir and ice wine. It was here in the 1960s that Dr. Konstantin Frank launched the “Vinifera Revolution” when he discovered European varietals, with the proper rootstock, could be grown in cold weather. His winery, Vinifera Wine Cellars, is still in operation producing popular sparkling wines.
The region also attracts many with its outdoor opportunities: waterfall hunting in one of the many state parks, hiking trails, fishing, and boating. If the outdoors isn’t your thing, there are other deserving options including the I.M. Pei-designed Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, the Corning Museum of Glass, and the George Eastman International Museum of Photography.
9. Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
Virginia is for lovers of wine. Thomas Jefferson was one such lover, planting wine grapes here in 1771. He didn’t have much success, thanks to a variety of issues including Virginia’s tendency toward hot, humid weather. This hasn’t changed, which makes growing grapes here more challenging than in drier climates: growers must remain vigilant about pests and fungus such as powdery mildew.
Nevertheless, those who succeed are attracting attention for their Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Viognier. Over 30 wineries dot the flanks of the Shenandoah Mountains, attracting flocks of tourists from Washington D.C. Many also choose to include a visit to Shenandoah National Park or even “go deep” experiencing the curious caverns and rock formations that lie beneath the landscape.
Where to eat: Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen, The Inn at Little Washington, Woodstock Brewhouse/1752 Barbeque
Where to drink: Glen Manor Vineyards, Early Mountain Vineyards, Glass House Winery
Where to stay: By the Side of the Road Inn & Cottages, River Bluff Farm Bed & Breakfast, Piney Hill Bed & Breakfast & Cottages