The Best U.S. Wine Regions to Visit this Fall
The US wine market hit a new high in 2018, with more than $70.5 billion in sales on nearly 5 billion bottles. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that, though wine itself dates back millennia, the wine industry barely existed just half a century ago. In recent years, growth has been fueled in no small part by wine tourism. We’re not talking just Napa and the Willamette Valley anymore: Wine’s produced in all fifty states these days, which means the variety of experience you can get matches the country’s own. Doesn’t hurt that vineyards are often spectacular locations in themselves; nothing goes quite so well with a glass of pinot as a postcard-worthy view. To prove the point, here are five regions, ranging from classic to upstart, worth visiting for homeland-grown wine.
Napa, Northern California
Any breakdown of American wine regions without has to begin with the grandaddy. Napa Valley stormed the international stage in 1976, when wines from California were declared superior to their French counterparts in both white and red categories—in France, by French judges, at the Paris Wine Tasting, henceforth mock-brutally known as the “Judgment of Paris.” It was nothing short of a coup. Soon enough, thirsty hordes were rolling in from San Francisco and beyond, and gold nuggets gave way to grapes in Northern Californian symbology. The region leaned in hard, building out the country’s first world-class wine trail through Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St Helena, and Calistoga along Route 29, the St. Helena Highway.
Five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants soon followed, tending to the well-heeled food-and-wine set. Places like Meadowood, Solage, and Calistoga Ranch redefined the resort game for a new era. Yountville developed a second crop in Michelin stars—and was so successful with them that the town now has more per capita than any other in North America. You’ve heard, no doubt, of Thomas Keller, who’s won more than his fair share at the legendary French Laundry and its dressed-down-but-still-delicious sister Bouchon Bistro; this year you’ll get to meet their new neighbor Perry Lang’s, a fresh take on steak from celebrated pitmaster Adam Perry Lang. “It’s positioned to be a Californian neighborhood steakhouse that is affordable and approachable to locals and visitors, alike,” the chef said on his opening this month. “I’m bringing in the best of beef to the region with my unique approach to dry aging, which mirrors the sensibilities of wine tasting.”
“The Valley” made its name with big, bold cabernet sauvignons—and you can still visit the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars whose red beat those from Bordeaux more than forty years ago. But the region’s branching out. Pinot noir and chardonnay have become more common. One of our favorite spots for the former is Calistoga’s Castello di Amorosa, where the tastings take place in—yep, you guessed it—an actual castle. Cakebread, on the other hand, is known for its whites. Meanwhile, Sterling Vineyards distinguishes itself with not only aerial tram rides to the hilltop winery, but singular syrah once you get there. And because nothing beats a classic, put Cain Vineyard on your list—not just for the spectacular views from the top of Spring Mountain, but for the equally impressive trio of Cab blends they make.
Virginia Wine Country
Winemaking in Virginia dates back to the 1600s (Jefferson was a dabbler), but it failed to take off for most of our history; as recently as 1979, the state had only six wineries. Now, just thirty years later, Virginia's home to 312. There’s scarcely a corner of the state where you can’t find something respectable, and often far better than that.
But for concentration of quality, variety, and ease of access, Central Virginia is hard to beat. Charlottesville makes a great home base; we like the Oakhurst Inn, near UVA and, more important, within an afternoon’s drive of at least half a dozen star producers. Start by heading south through horse country along the James Monroe Parkway, where your designated driver can pull over for tastings at Jefferson Vineyards, Gabriele Rausse Winery, and Blenheim—each spectacular in its own right. Then venture north along (the other) highway 29 to visit Early Mountain Vineyards, where winemaker Ben Jordan is crafting an award-winning version of cabernet franc, one of the varietals the state’s become known for. The other, of course, is viognier: fruity, crisp, and vibrant, a white that can handle the heartier proteins favored locally. Get to know it through the outstanding 2016 Wild Boar Cellars from Stone Tower Winery in Leesburg—a little out of your way, but worth the detour. Just make sure to time your return so as to catch the tasting menu at Fleurie, where you‘ll get a thoughtful French spin on Virginia’s abundant local ingredients, which are every bit as impressive as the wines.
Walla Walla, Washington
Hidden in the rural southeastern corner of Washington state—a good five hours from the better-known Oregon wine country—Walla Walla has slowly transformed from a farm town into a genuine wine destination, with more than 40 tasting rooms to service the 30,000 locals and their rapidly multiplying visitors. And there’ll be many more to come, if last month’s Wine Enthusiast nomination for “Wine Region of the Year” has the expected effect.
Once upon a time, this was just a weekend getaway for clever Seattleites. Now it’s the heart of a blossoming Washington wine country, luring visitors from around the world. You’ve probably (and rightly) heard of the local merlot. But the secret weapon around here is syrah. Case in point: SJR Vineyard, in the Rocks District—family-owned and -operated, famous throughout the wine world for smoky, pepper-laced syrah-viognier blends under the Delmas label. (Tours are by appointment only, so be sure to call ahead.) For a more formal tasting in a far more modern setting, try the reds at Amavi Cellars. All bottles feature grapes grown exclusively and 100% sustainably on the estate.
Food-wise, don’t let the rustic surroundings fool you: Walla Walla’s got game. Brasserie Four does elegant French as well as any spot in big-town Seattle, and on the playful, eclectic side, places like Whitehouse-Crawford showcase locally farmed produce in a wide range of seasonally updated dishes (think Japanese fried chicken with creamy tofu sauce and summer squash pancakes).
Texas Hill Country
Everyone from The New York Times to Wine Spectator has recently proclaimed this rocky stretch of south-central Texas the next great wine region to watch—and it’s about time. As locals will tell you, the region’s been making damn good wine for quite a while now, but too few of us have noticed. Jordan Mackay, former Texas Monthly reporter and James Beard Award-winning author of Secrets of the Sommeliers and The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, sums up the happy paradox:
The Texas Hill Country wine trail is the Lone Star state’s Napa Valley but with central Texas’ friendliness, quirkiness, and down home charm. The only caveat is that Texas is one of the most difficult and unforgiving places to make quality wine in America. That said, some really great Texas wine exists, the kind of juice that will shock you and make you exclaim, ‘Did this really come from Texas?!’ It just comes from a handful of talented and deeply committed vintners.
Mackay’s prescription? Meet commitment with commitment. “Don’t stop at every tasting room,” he says, “but make appointments to visit the cutting edge of Texas wine: Lewis Wines, William Chris, and Southold Farm + Cellar.”
Texas is famously vast. Ironically, its wine country isn’t. In fact it’s a relatively concentrated zone in and around Austin, which, luckily, is as good a place as any in America for an autumn hang. For digs, we like the Kimpton Van Zandt and the W on the north side of the river, or, on the south side—for easier in-and-out access when you’re exploring—the South Congress and the fabulously remade Austin Motel. Earn your evening with a walk on the river’s bank to South Lamar and House Wine, once an old ranch home, now a trend-making wine bar with more than 100 by-the-glass selections—perfect for samplers. Winebelly, farther south, pairs a smaller but delightfully eclectic selection with pan-European tapas; while CRU, across the river, drops Napa vibes in the heart of Texas, and not only in the wine selection.
Michigan Wine Country
When it comes to fine wine, as with so many other things, don’t sleep on the midwest. Specifically, the Wolverine State, where football’s still king, but those tailgating coolers are no longer necessarily filled with beer. To demonstrate, the state recently launched its Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, which runs north along the water from the Indiana border to the charming town of Saugatuck. Along the way, stop at Dablon for the award-winning merlots and petit verdots, or at Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant to pair lunch with an albarino or gewurtzraminer.
Mandatory detour: follow I-94 inland (east) to the small village of Paw Paw, where you’ll find St. Julian, one of the region’s most acclaimed producers. “I’ll never forget how surprised I was by the wines at St. Julian,” says Dan Dunn, who toured wineries across the country to research his critically-acclaimed book American Wino. “A place called Paw Paw doesn’t exactly scream, ‘pinkies out.’ But that’s just it: when you drop the pretense, you often set yourself up to be impressed.” Which is exactly what judges at 2018’s San Francisco International Wine Competition were last November, when they awarded St. Julian a total of 23 medals across categories—including double-golds for the Mountain Road Estate Reserve Riesling and Braganini Reserve Grüner Veltliner. Bonus fact: VP Nancie Oxley became Michigan's first female head winemaker when she took the position in 2010.
When you’re done exploring the 10,000 acres of grapes that cover this region, you’re going to need a rest. Go beachside, naturally—we like the Lake Shore Resort, with its private waterfront, wide boardwalk, and clean midcentury take on beachy. Or the old-school, low-frills luxury of the Hotel Saugatuck, on a curve of Kalamazoo Lake—get a cottage and park yourself on its bygone-era porch to watch the sun go down over the water.