As far as wine regions across the US go, the obvious destinations—Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara—will always be desirable, but exciting things are also happening in other, more unexpected areas of the country. Take for example the wide varieties of grapes grown in Washington State, or the gorgeous wines (and views!) from New York’s Finger Lakes.
Here, we consulted wine experts on six of their favorite wine regions in the country, both familiar and emerging. Consider it a primer on American wine (or a very worthwhile summer travel guide.)
California’s Central Coast
“I’m loving what’s happening in California’s Central Coast right now,” says Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor of Wine Enthusiast. “Specifically Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz … all of these are amazing destinations for wine, food, travel, and history, and I think still slightly undiscovered from a tourist’s perspective, which means you’ll beat some of the crowds and prices you face in Napa or even Sonoma.”
The wines coming from these areas are world-class, whether you’re talking about Rhone varietals (as a single varietal or in blends), Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or experimental plantings in aromatic whites,”Kostrzewa says. “The key to the entire Central Coast region is its climactic and soil diversity and the talent and creative approaches the winemakers down are becoming known for. In addition, the scenery in the area is unforgettable … and diverse. In Paso and Santa Ynez you find the old cowboy charm and ranch vibe that speaks to the Old West; in Santa Barbara, beautiful coastline and a surf culture character, in SLO, Spanish Mission-era architecture. There’s something for everyone.”
“Santa Barbara County, California … I can’t think of another region in this country where you can drink a wine that makes you feel like you’ve traveled to Burgundy, the Rhone, Piedmont, or even the Wachau, but still brings you back to California,” adds Megan Mina, wine director at Café Altro Paradiso.
“Over the past several years, I’ve been particularly intrigued and impressed by the innovation in Santa Barbara,” Mina says. “Aside from the refined and compelling Pinots, Chards and Syrahs, there is much satisfaction do be discovered in the unexpected like Trousseau Gris, Chenin Blanc, Gamay, Cab Franc, Barbera, and beyond.”
Kostrzewa’s favorite wineries along California’s Central Coast:
- Kynsi Winery is a family run operation focused on producing distinguished wines in limited production. Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah and unique red blends are carefully sourced from highly regarded cool climate vineyards along with Pinot Noir from their Estate Stone Corral Vineyard in the Edna Valley.
- Daou Vineyards/ The Daou brothers, Georges and Daniel, specilize in top-end Cabernet.
- Brewer – Clifton/Terroir driven, award-winning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Foxen Vineyards/Fnastic Pinot Noir and Rhone blends, plus Cal-Iyalian varietals.
Bonny Doon Vineyard/Historic winery with playful approach to naming their excellent Rhone varietals and dessert wines.
“I could make a case for any of the major players [as] Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara are consistently consistent, albeit pricey,” says Jessica Norris, Director of Wine Education for Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. “The lesser known regions in Central & Southern California are staking their claim to international varietals such as Grenache, Syrah, Sangiovese and Zinfandel, furthermore gaining speed and popularity by throwing grapes into kitchen-sink style blends.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley is making great strides and gaining international marketplace & recognition. While a comprehensive tour through New York’s Finger Lakes is top of my list, I find my gut response to “Who is the Best?” is Washington State…you know, that wet, evergreen tree covered, tons-of-wide-open-space, state in the far corner of the Northwest.”
“Washington wines taste like none other,” says Norris. “One foot firmly in the ripe, fruit-driven New World camp and one foot equally planted in the earth-driven, layered depths of the Old World. Over 80 varieties grow there. Including: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Marsanne/Roussanne, Odd Portuguese grapes like Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesca. SO much grows well there.”
Norris’ favorite wineries in Washington State:
- Walla Walla valley is one of my favorite places. Gramercy Cellars, K Vintners/Charles Smith, Cayuse, Figgins, Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, and there are also a ton of new kids on the block.
- If you don’t want to head out to the actual vineyards you can stay close to Seattle and visit Chateau St.-Michelle or nearby Woodinville with tasting rooms galore (Mark Ryan, Chris Gorman, Avennia, Betz to name a few.)
Seneca Lake, Finger Lakes
“One of my favorite wine regions is Seneca Lake, located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York,” says Conor McCormack, the lead winemaker at Brooklyn Winery and their new restaurant, BKW. “The Finger Lakes were formed by glacial carving, and Seneca lake is one of the deepest lakes in the United States. From a wine perspective, this is very important, as it is the key element that allows Vinifera grapes to survive the harsh winters, acting as a warming mechanism for the grape vines that hug the nearby steep hillsides.”
“It’s a cool climate growing region that highlights bright and lively white wines, such as Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer, while showcasing leaner style reds such as Cabernet Franc and Lemberger in a beautiful light,” says McCormack. “Apart from my experience with making wine in Brooklyn with grapes from the Finger Lakes region, it is one of my go-to regions when I want to visit wineries for fun. The atmosphere is laid-back and rustic, yet elegant and beautiful.”
McCormack’s favorite wineries to visit in Seneca Lake, Finger Lakes:
- Lamoreaux Landing
- Standing Stone
- Hector Wine Company
- Hermann J Wiemer
- Anthony Road Wine Co.
- Red Tail Ridge
Willamette Valley, Oregon
“I love the wines of the Willamette Valley. Oregon is still very rural in a traditional sense – with pockets of mixed agriculture interspersed with wilderness, where cattle rub shoulders with vines and where, as Joe Pedicini from Montebruno Wine told me recently, “you can go places and still hear the wolves call at night,”‘ says Isabelle Legeron MW, Founder of RAW WINE.
“Biodiversity and wildlife are so paramount to the making of great, terroir-driven wine, that combined with the Willamette Valley’s suitability for cool climate grape growing, it’s really no wonder it churns out world-class pinot noirs,” Legeron says. “The best examples combine elegance, vibrancy and focus, and while ripe also have an old-world savory quality and freshness about them that makes them long-lived and highly, highly drinkable.”
Legeron’s favorite wineries to visit and wines to drink in Willamette valley:
- Kelley, Joe and Brianne of Brianne Day Wines are all genuinely lovely people that I met at the 2014 London edition of RAW WINE. They make tipples with chiselled tannins and a purity of fruit that is testament to Oregon’s deliciousness.
- Kelley Fox Wines, Maresh Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2013 Showcases grapes from the Maresh family farm. As Kelley says “Jim and his late wife, Loie, had the foresight to avoid vineyard monoculture”. There are hundred-year-old Royal Anne cherry and walnut trees on site and “their daughter Martha keeps homes for violet green swallows and bluebirds on the trellis posts that fly all over the place in the spring and summer”.
- Montebruno Wine, Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2013 – Showcases grapes from the largest certified Biodynamic vineyard in Oregon located in the McMinnville AVA in the foothills of Oregon’s coastal mountain range.
“I may be biased, having grown up there, but Sonoma County is one of the U.S.’s most remarkable winemaking regions, and a great place to visit,” says Tom Gore, second-generation grape farmer and founder of Tom Gore Vineyards. “As a grape farmer, I get to experience firsthand the amazing diversity that the region has to offer, warm and cold growing regions, the ability to produce an outstanding diversity of wine varietals at a great quality, redwoods and ocean, all in one region.”
Gore’s favorite wineries to visit in Sonoma County:
- On a trip to Sonoma County, I’d recommend driving around the region and getting a taste of the diversity of wineries all contained in Sonoma. Celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, Simi is a must-stop. The wine is outstanding and the winery’s history makes a tour and tasting really compelling.
- Two other great spots nearby are Clos du Bois in Geyserville, and a drive through Alexander Valley to stop by Jimtown, a great local county store perfect for lunch or to pack a picnic to enjoy in the vineyards.
- Another wonderful winery is Ravenswood, also marking a special year with their 40th anniversary. When you head to Ravenswood, a great stop is The Girl and the Fig, a fantastic rustic bistro close by the winery beloved by locals and visitors alike.
“The wines from Mendocino, California have really been tasting great to me lately. The variety of microclimates, the coastal winds, pacific fog and the ability to dry farm give the winemakers the ability to work with a variety of grapes and make wines that are naturally higher in acid and lower in alcohol, which we love,” says Justin Chearno wine consultant at The Four Horsemen.
“There is an incredible amount of organic, biodynamic and generally non-interventionist farming going that has been going on there for a while which is sort of rare in the U.S,” Chearno says. “Most winemakers in California don’t farm their own fruit and the recent interest in wines raised without pesticides and other chemicals means that these farmers are seeing more interest and more business, which also hopefully means more people will begin to convert their vineyards over to these practices as well which means better wine for everyone!”
Chearno’s favorite wineries to visit in Mendocino, California:
- From producers like Donkey & Goat (their Untended Chardonnay is from the Anderson Valley in Medocino and it’s fantastic) to the Living Wines Collective and their elegant Ama Cellars Nero d’Avola, which is an Italian grape that is very rarely grown in the US but is alive and well in Medocino.
- I also like the bordeaux-style blends from Hardesty Cellars, which are grown and made in the Mendocino area.