8 North American wine regions that aren’t in Northern California
If a spirited wine tour through France and Italy isn’t looking good this summer or fall, all is not lost. You may not have to go far from home to spend some quality time with your favorite beverage, even if you don’t live in Northern California. Wine is now produced in nearly every state in America as well as in many parts of Canada, and there are quite a few ‘wine regions’ around where you can check into a bed & breakfast and then spend your days sipping favorites from one winery after another.
It’s definitely true that Northern California is the most famous and celebrated American wine region, with Napa Valley and Sonoma being the first areas that usually come to mind. Fans of statistics like to point out that California is responsible around 90% of all the wine produced in the USA, but there are plenty of good wine regions in other parts of the country, so have a look at the list below to find the one that best suits your palette as well as your budget.
1 – Texas Hill Country, Texas
That’s right, Texas. There are actually quite a few individual wine regions within the Lone Star State, but the most important and easiest to visit is this compact and colorful area of rolling hills just west of Austin and a bit north of San Antonio. The Texas wine industry actually predates the California version by about 100 years, going all the way back to around 1650. It’s still tiny by international standards, but the Texas Hill Country Wine people list 22 wineries clustered into this area, all ready to serve you and none too far from either of the large cities nearby. The chardonnay is the most popular variety, and generally considered the best, but you can also find good cabernet sauvignon as well as most of the other well-known grapes in Texas. Torre di Pietra is one of the better names in the area, and they feature live music every Saturday.
You could fly into Austin or probably save a bit flying into San Antonio, and all the wineries are easy to reach from either city, but there are also hotels, small inns, and bed & breakfasts throughout the Texas Hill Country itself, particularly in Fredricksburg.
2 – Northern Virginia
There are actually 5 distinct wine areas in Virginia, and the Northern Region is the easiest for most people to reach and also has the most wineries. Thomas Jefferson was among those who tried to grow wine here and his vines met a similarly unsuccessful fate as the ones grown as far back as 1607, making Virginia the first wine area in the New World. Things have come a long way since then, and now the state has scores of active wineries, although most of them are still smaller family operations. The Northern Region has a wine trail with easy to spot signs along the roads so visiting is made easy. Many of the wineries here are only open to the public on Fridays through Sundays, so this has become a weekend warrior wine region, with chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon being the most popular grapes. Breaux Vineyards is one of the larger and most popular wineries, and they are open daily.
The heart of the Northern Virginia wine region is only about 60 miles northwest of Washington DC, so it’s easy to reach for many and there are several large airports in the area from which to choose.
3 – Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada
About 75% of Canada’s wine comes from Ontario, and the Niagara Peninsula is by far the most active region in the province. There are over 50 active wineries in this region, and there are quite a few grape varieties present, but the region’s claim to fame are the ice wines, which are sweet dessert wines made from grapes harvested while frozen in the winter. These Canadian ice wines are considered world-class dessert wines even though they are mostly quite affordable. You can actually visit most of the wineries here all year round, and that includes the winter harvest season when many of the places also offer up lavish holiday meals as a further enticement. Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan is the oldest in the region and also among the best.
The heart of the Niagara Peninsula wine region is only about 25 miles west of Niagara Falls Airport, about 50 miles northwest of Buffalo, New York’s airport, and about 60 miles south of the huge Toronto airport, which is probably the best bet for a cheap ticket.
4 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
In spite of the Oregon wine industry being relatively young, there are quite a few distinct wine regions in the state that each specialize in something different. The good news for visitors is the largest and most important wine region is also the easiest to visit, sprawling about 100 miles south of Portland in the rolling hills on either side of the Willamette River. Pinot Noir is the most important grape, and Willamette Valley wine region is the only one outside of Burgundy in France that specializes in this fragile specimen. You’ll also find high quality relatives of the pinot noir and even some good chardonnay. Most of the wineries in this region are small operations without huge visitors centers, so it’s best to plan ahead and carefully choose your route. Domaine Drouhin is only about 30 miles south of Portland, and this respected label offers private tours and public tastings.
The Willamette Valley wine region begins just as you get south of the Portland city limits and continues for around 100 miles so it’s easy to navigate on a daytrip, but there are plenty of places to stay and eat for those who want to really do it right.
5 – Santa Ynez Valley, California
If you happened to catch the 2004 film Sideways, you’ve already got a pretty good idea what the Santa Ynez Valley wine scene is like. Only about 30 miles north of ritzy Santa Barbara, this region has long had a reputation for quality wine, and things have exploded in the past decade or two. You can visit the Sanford Winery or the Fess Parker Winery like they did in the movie, or you could take the Sideways Wine Trail Tour if you are a real fan. Chardonnay is the main grape variety grown in this cool region, but you also get really nice sauvignon blancs, as well as pinot noirs and syrahs for fans of reds. You won’t find much merlot produced here, interestingly enough. Some of the more established wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley produce world-class wines, so just because you are far from Napa Valley doesn't mean you are slumming it.
The Santa Ynez Valley isn’t far from the Santa Barbara Airport, though you might be better off flying into one of Los Angeles’ many larger airports and renting a car for the 100-mile or so drive.
6 – Columbia Valley, Washington
There are quite a few wine regions within the state of Washington, and the most prolific is the large Columbia Valley region in the center of the state. It’s on the other side of the Cascade Mountains from Seattle, and much of it only gets 6 to 8 inches of rain per year. Washington was mostly involved in riesling, chardonnay, and other “northern” white grapes, but starting in the 1990s the area began producing merlots and cabernet sauvignons that are among the best in the country. There are several small areas that make up the vast Columbia Valley wine regions so visitors are spoiled for choice, although that makes organizing a tour a bit more complicated. Columbia Crest is a large national brand with a great reputation, and Kiona Vineyards is one of the more notable smaller wineries.
The greater Columbia Valley is a large region that sits more or less in between Seattle, Spokane, and Portland, Oregon, but not terribly close to any of them. The heart of the wine country here is over 150 miles from each, so take your pick.
7 – Finger Lakes, New York
New York State has been one of the top wine-making states for many decades, and you can visit its oldest region (dating back to 1677) just about 40 miles north of New York City, or the newest region near the eastern edge of Long Island, but the biggest and best of the state’s wine areas is in the Finger Lakes region way out west. The 11 finger-shaped lakes that give this area its name also make this one of the most scenic areas in the country. Many of the 100+ wineries overlook the lakes, and there are plenty of inns and bed & breakfasts mixed in as well. The area is known for good chardonnays and rieslings, as well as the sweet late-season and ice wines that are more famously found in nearby Canada. Chateau Lafayette Reneau is one of the more acclaimed wineries in the region, and they also rent out rooms at their own romantic inn.
This is the tricky part as the Finger Lakes aren’t terribly close to any major airport. Buffalo is about 100 miles away, Niagara Falls is just a bit farther, and New York City is about 250 miles southeast.
8 – Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
In spite of being much farther north than Canada’s other important wine region in the Niagara Peninsula, the Okanagan Valley, which is about 240 miles northeast of Vancouver, has a much warmer climate, with the southern portion actually being within the country’s only real desert. The warm southern area produces some well-regarded merlots and cabernet sauvignons among other varieties, and the northern area specializes in German varieties like Siegerrebe and Sylvaner. There are nearly a hundred wineries in the Okanagan Valley, and dozens of them are open regularly for tours and tasting. The Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars is considered among the best in the region.
As mentioned, the heart of the Okanagan Valley is about 240 miles from Vancouver, but the city of Kelowna right in the wine country has an international airport of its own.