Drinking wine has skyrocketed in popularity over the last two decades in the US (you can thank the millennials), and what was once thought of as the ooo-la-la Frenchman's beverage of choice is now pretty much as common at parties as domestic beer and flat Diet Coke. Yeah, wine is big. As is, not surprisingly, wine tourism.
And while you may very well be thinking about doing some wine tasting on your next vacation, you might not know where to go to get the most wine for your time. Other than, say, wherever they shot that movie Sideways. So to help you out, we asked a panel of seven esteemed wine experts and sommeliers to give us their picks for the best wine regions in the United States to visit. And then we ranked the top 11 based on the number of times they were nominated/how highly they were touted.
But first, our panel:
Heath Porter, owner/operator of Uvaggio, one of Miami’s best wine bars
David Boyle, head sommelier at Chandlers Steakhouse (the best steakhouse in Idaho!)
Wes Narron, chief wine ambassador of City Wine Tours in Boston and New York City
Brian Grandison, head sommelier at Hakkasan at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach
Ryan Robinson, sommelier at Ruth's Chris Steak House
Patrick Olds, sommelier at the Four Seasons St. Louis
Daniel Toral, wine director at 50 Eggs, Inc. restaurant group
11. Augusta, MO
Must-hit winery: Chandler Hill Vineyards
You're probably thinking, "Wine? In Missouri? Did these sommeliers get their certifications at FasTrain?" But did you know Augusta was the first AVA (American Viticultural Area or appellation of origin) on record? Or that it was where vintners got phylloxera-immune rootstock from in the late 19th and early 20th century, essentially saving the world from a massive wine shortage? Yeah, it's a region of historical significance, to say the least. "Missouri gets a bad rap," says Olds. "Try the Norton grape in many of the wineries, and you'll come away thinking that it could be mistaken for high-end California wine."
10. Snake River Valley, ID
Must-hit wineries: Bitner, HAT Ranch, Ste. Chapelle
"The Snake River Valley is young and exciting," says Boyle, "and the unique combination of long, warm, sunny days and cool nights produces balanced and food-friendly wines that are starting to make a name for themselves." Of Idaho's three AVAs, this one is the oldest and many of its wineries boast panoramic views of the Snake River and the nearby Owyhee Mountains. Plus, the region is also one of America's best for outdoorsy travelers, so your non-tasting time can be spent hiking, whitewater rafting, or mountain biking.
9. Paso Robles, CA
Must-hit winery: JUSTIN Vineyards
This area on the Central Coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco is quickly becoming a highly touted wine destination thanks to it being only a "three-hour drive" from either city. "It's wonderful because you can take the Pacific Coast Highway from either LA or SF to get there, and you pass through either San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara," says Narron. But the big draw here isn't just the beauty of the Santa Lucia foothills; the wines hold their own against some of the big boys, and at much cheaper prices. According to Olds, "You are more likely to get a great $20 bottle of Paso Robles cabernet than a great $20 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet."
8. Texas Hill Country
Must-hit winery: Becker. It's been served in the White House to multiple presidents and at James Beard dinners.
We apologize to America for giving Texas yet another reason to brag, but our panel says the Lone Star State produces some of the country's most surprisingly great wine. And it's also a nice region to visit: there are 46 wineries between Austin and New Braunfels and the warm-dry weather makes taking a self-guided wine tour possible year-round. Sure, the restaurants aren't yet up to their California counterparts, but hey, this is Texas -- it's only a matter of time.
7. Walla Walla, WA
Must-hit winery: Sleight of Hand
Once best known for its prison, this city is now popular as the home of the country's best Bordeaux varietals. And some pretty spectacular scenery. "People don't understand that on the east side of the Cascade mountains (where a large majority of the grapes are planted) is a different Washington," says Porter. "The west side and Seattle is all coffee and rain, but the east side is all beauty and dry." And that's key. In between sampling the wine, hop a two-wheeler and cycle through the valley. Just be sure to keep your eyes peeled for bird migrations -- Walla Walla's a BIG birding destination. Boyle also recommends checking out the glass house at Cadaretta, with 360-degree views of the valley from its hilltop estate.
6. Santa Barbara County, CA
Must-hit wineries: Melville and Jim Clendenen's Au Bon Climat in Santa Rita Hills
"The first thing you notice about Santa Barbara, other than the wines and beautiful scenery, is that the temperature is always perfect," says Porter. But there's more to Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, Santa Maria, and Santa Rita Hills than amazing weather, including stunning Mediterranean architecture and plenty of passionate vintners. Despite the large number of visitors who pass through annually, "it doesn't feel like a tourist destination," says Olds, also noting that the region "produces strong examples of pinot noir and chardonnay."
5. Charlottesville/Central Virginia
Must-hit wineries: Veritas, Barboursville
This historic town's allure extends beyond having one of America's most beautiful college campuses. While Thomas Jefferson once owned the land where UVA now sits, it's his other former properties that make this such an enticing wine region. Jefferson planted the first grapes during his presidency, at the same time he was purchasing a ridiculous amount of French wine, Porter told us. Tiny and midsize wineries continue to open up in the area (growing grapes like viognier, cabfFranc, and petit verdot), and the state now boasts over 300 wineries. It's an affordable wine vacation for folks in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
4. Napa Valley, CA
Must-hit wineries: Honig Winery, Opus One
"Napa is like the Vegas of wine," says Grandison. "Everyone knows about it, you'll drop a ton of cash, you'll have to deal with the crowds, but you also fly home thinking to yourself: 'Yeah, that was a great time.'" The big names in American wine are all in Napa -- Joseph Phelps, Duckhorn, Mondavi, Opus One -- and that’s probably why it produces about 4% of all the juice nationwide. But the big names in food are here too -- from the French Laundry to La Toque -- and if you're willing to spend the cash, it's tough to beat. Plus, it's home to the limousine wine tour, so you'll be sharing your tasting room with at minimum two bachelorette parties!
3. Sonoma County, CA
Must-hit wineries: Wind Gap, Red Car Wine Co., Martinelli
Though some world-renowned experts in weekend fun named Santa Rosa -- the county seat of Sonoma County -- the 17th-best US city to spend the weekend, it's also a top-tier wine-tasting destination. "The quality level of the wines coming out of the western part (of Sonoma) is really, really high right now," says Toral. "And there are great restaurants in Healdsburg, which itself is strikingly beautiful." Cycling through the valley has been a Bay Area weekend escape for decades, but the breweries, antique shops, and historic buildings make for a complete visit.
2. Willamette Valley, OR
Must-hit wineries: Soter Vineyards & Argyle Winery, St. Innocent in Eola-Amity
This part of Western Oregon sits on about the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France and has become synonymous with great pinot noirs. But of all the regions on this list, it's also the closest to a major city, Portland. So the vineyards are an easy day-trip if you're staying in town. "Take the scenic route," says Robinson, of the drive from Portland. "The rolling hills, grass fields, and hazelnut trees are a nice appetizer to the refined elegance of pinot noir." But Grandison also issues a warning for all who visit: "Willamette Valley has that laid-back feel and overly genuinely passionate people... but make sure to reconfirm your [vineyard] appointments the day before, as there is definitely a certain ‘Willamette time’ thing going on."
1. Finger Lakes, NY
Must-hit wineries: Get a history lesson at Dr. Frank's before hitting Ravines or Hermann J. Wiemer
Perhaps we spoke too soon when we named the Finger Lakes the most underrated place in New York. This southern region of the Empire State is an like an SEC football team to sommeliers (that is, a powerhouse), except it actually deserves to be in everyone's top five. "There are a lot of up-and-coming wineries there," says Toral, "and better restaurants keep opening, as well." In fact, since the region started blowing up a few years ago, there are now over 100 wineries in the area. And the best part? It hasn't been overtaken by tourists and developers yet -- so there won't be horrendous crowds to fight when you visit the famous gorges at Watkins Glen State Park in the morning, and then head to the venerable birthplace of East Coast winemaking -- Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars -- later in the day.
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