A little more than an hour’s drive east of San Francisco, Napa Valley is California’s most prestigious wine region. Stretching 30 miles north from the city of Napa to the small town of Calistoga, the valley is home to nearly 300 wineries and California’s most sought-after wines. While it is renowned for its rich, complex, long-lived cabernet sauvignons, which flourish in the warmer northern reaches of the valley, the cooler microclimates of the southern valley, especially the often fog-shrouded Carneros region, produce fine chardonnays and pinot noirs. Napa is home to many world-class restaurants and lodgings, as well as numerous tasting rooms along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, that cater to both day-trippers from San Francisco and vacationers from throughout the United States and the world. www.napavalley.com
Due west of Napa, Sonoma County is a large, high-quality winegrowing region that supports a diverse array of grape varieties. It has very cool regions (Carneros in the south and the Russian River Valley in the west) that produce excellent chardonnays and pinot noirs, as well as warmer microclimates (Alexander Valley and the Dry Creek Valley in the northern part of the county) where hearty red varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel and petite sirah flourish. Like Napa, Sonoma offers a wide range of wine tasting rooms, fine dining, and quality accommodations for the wine country traveler, and its friendly small towns – Sonoma, Healdsburg, Sebastopol, and Guerneville – boast a wealth of interesting shops. www.sonoma.com
California’s northernmost wine growing region (about a 2.5 hour drive from San Francisco), Mendocino encompasses both cool coastal districts (Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge) and warmer inland areas (the Ukiah and Redwood valleys). With over 15,000 vineyard acres and nearly 40 wineries, it supports a wide range of grape types, from cool-climate varieties like chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and gewürztraminer to warm-region stalwarts such as zinfandel, petite sirah, and cabernet sauvignon. Mendocino’s rugged natural beauty, small, quaint towns, and myriad ocean and river-related recreational activities (whale watching, beachcombing, kayaking, hiking, biking, camping, bird-watching, and horseback riding) make it a perfect vacation and weekend getaway destination. www.mendocino.winecountry.com
Sierra Foothill Gold Country
Winemaking came to the Sierra Foothills in Central California with the Gold Rush, as the miners, predominantly European, planted grapevines upon their arrival. Once the gold began to dwindle, many turned to grape-growing. A far more prominent wine region than Napa and Sonoma at the time, the Sierra Foothills, by the 1870s, boasted over 100 wineries. Regrettably, Prohibition extinguished this frontier wine community, which did not revive until the 1970s, when a new generation of vintners flocked to the foothills.
The heart of the Gold Country region is comprised, from north to south, of Nevada, El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras counties. Together, they are home to over 50 wineries. Amador, with its volcanic soils, warm climate, and old vines, is famous for its spicy, hearty, fruity red Zinfandels. El Dorado, boasting higher elevations and a cooler climate, supports a wider array of varieties. The smaller appellations of Calaveras and Nevada County also produce high-quality wines.www.goldcountry.winecountry.com
Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains, approximately 75 miles south of San Francisco, are home to one of California’s most rugged, scenic wine regions. Heavily influenced by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the high elevation of many of its vineyards, Santa Cruz wine country features some of the most majestically situated wineries and individualistic winemakers and wines found anywhere in the world. Given its cool, marine-influenced climate, it specializes in varieties like chardonnay and pinot noir, although merlot and cabernet sauvignon also are produced successfully. Santa Cruz wineries are not easy to get to, but their beautiful mountain settings and idiosyncratic wines are worth the trek.www.santacruz.winecountry.com
South of Santa Cruz in the fertile coastal plains of the northern central coast, Monterey County is among California’s largest premium wine-growing regions, focused primarily on cool-climate varieties like chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, and gewürztraminer. It boasts one of California’s most beloved tourist destinations, the lovely seaside town of Monterey; its most famous golf course, Pebble Beach; Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world, and two of California’s most beautiful natural attractions, the Carmel Valley and Big Sur, in Los Padres National Forest.www.monterey.winecountry.com
San Luis Obispo
Encompassing some of California’s most beautiful coastline, as well as superb vineyard acreage, San Luis Obispo lies equidistant between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its primary winegrowing region is near the town of Paso Robles. Despite its proximity to the ocean, Paso Robles is a warm growing region that specializes in red varieties – not only cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel, but Italian varieties like barbera and French Rhone Valley varieties like syrah, grenache and mourvedre.www.sanluisobispo.winecountry.com
Santa Barbara County
South of San Luis Obispo, along California south central coast, Santa Barbara County’s ocean-cooled valleys (Santa Maria, Los Alamos, and Santa Ynez), produce some of California’s finest wines, especially chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah. It is also one of the state’s most beautiful wine regions, with vineyards carpeting its sloping coastal hills and pristine valleys, which are dotted with small family wineries. Just a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara wine country is an easy day trip from that city and, in addition to its fine wines, offers superb dining and wonderful accommodations in its many small, quaint towns.www.santabarbara.winecountry.com
Located in southwestern Riverside County, Temecula is California’s only prominent American Viticultural Area south of Los Angeles. Situated between 1,400 and 1,600 feet above sea level, Temecula Valley’s 3,000 acres of vineyards provide ideal conditions for growing premium wine grapes. A dry, moderately warm daytime climate, evenings cooled by breezes from the Pacific Ocean 22 miles to the west, and well-drained decomposed granite soils combine to create wines with fresh, distinctive varietal flavors and superb structure. Fourteen small wineries flourish in Temecula Valley, offering excellent chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc, as well as Mediterranean varietals such as viognier, syrah and pinot gris. www.temecula.winecountry.com
The Willamette Valley, which stretches from Eugene in the south to Portland in the north and encompasses two-thirds of Oregon’s population, is the largest wine-growing region in Oregon. Sheltered by the Cascade Mountains to the east and Oregon’s Coastal Range to the west, and on the same latitude as France’s famed Burgundy region, the valley has gained international recognition as a world-class growing district, especially for cool-climate varieties like pinot noir, pinot gris, riesling, and chardonnay.
To the northeast of the Willamette Valley are the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley appellations, which Oregon shares with Washington These warmer, drier appellations are well-suited to the cultivation of red varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah.
In the southwest of the state are the Rogue Valley, Applegate Valley and Umpqua Valley appellations. Although generally drier and warmer than the northern wine districts and well-suited to Bordeaux (cabernet, merlot, and cabernet franc) and Rhone Valley (syrah) varieties, each contains cooler microclimates allowing for the successful cultivation of the Burgundian varieties that flourish in the Willamette Valley.
Collectively, these six wine-growing regions contain over 11,000 vineyard acres and over 200 wineries, which together produce over one million cases of wine annually. www.winecountry.com/regions/oregon/
After emerging in the mid-1970s as a promising young wine region, Washington State has become the second-largest wine producing region in the United States, after California. A $2.4 billion enterprise, Washington’s wine industry boasts more than 240 wineries, 300 wine grape growers and 29,000 vineyard acres. Production has more than doubled over the past decade, and Washington wines are now sold in all 50 states and in more than 40 countries.
The Cascade Mountains divide Washington into two distinct regions. While the western region receives about 50 inches of rainfall per annum, the Eastern region is dry and desert-like, receiving only eight inches of rain annually. The desert climate engenders warm days and cool nights, a temperature disparity which leads to grapes and wines with fully developed fruit flavors and lively acidity, attributes enhanced by the region’s dry, volcanic soils, which are ideal for cultivating high-quality grapes. Virtually all of the state’s vineyards are east of the Cascades, in five districts: Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Columbia Valley, Puget Sound and Red Mountain.
Washington produces more than 15 wine grapes varieties and is especially celebrated for its red wines, particularly merlot, cabernet Sauvignon, and syrah. www.winecountry.com/regions/washington/
The pioneering spirit of Texas is especially apparent in Texan vintners. From the area around Dallas in the northeast to the western plains and the Hill Country of the south, growers and vintners are dedicated to the cultivation and production of high-quality grapes and wines. The efforts of these pioneering winegrowers have made the Texas wine industry the fifth largest in the United States.
Winemaking in Texas dates back to the 1650s, when Franciscan priests began producing sacramental wines from local grape varieties. The quality of their wines convinced others to plant vineyards, and the Texas wine region was born. During the second half of the 19th century, German immigrants in the Hill Country discovered the mustang grape, still produced today, and ushered in the golden era of Texas winemaking, which ended with Prohibition. It was not until the 1970s and ‘80s that the modern Texas industry was born. Today, it is thriving, with over 200 commercial vineyards and nearly 50 wineries in six defined viticultural areas producing nearly 1.5 million gallons of wine annually.
The leading varieties in Texas are cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, but high-quality cabernet franc, pinot noir, zinfandel, sangiovese, and viognier are also produced. Because Texas wine regions enjoy generally warm climates and alkaline soils, Texas wines have the rich fruit flavors reminiscent of California wines balanced by the acidity and structure typical of French wines.www.winecountry.com/regions/texas/
New York state boasts over 30,000 acres of grapes, but most are labrusca varieties used to make grape juice and jelly. There are only 5,000 acres of vinifera varieties, almost all planted in New York’s two finest winegrowing regions: the Finger Lakes and Long Island. While the Finger Lakes boast more wineries, Long island produces the state’s best wines.
During the past decade, Long Island’s wine industry has come into its own. From humble beginnings in 1973, when the first vinifera grapes were planted, the region has grown from a smattering of small vineyards into a wine district with nearly 20 wineries, including several large-scale, nationally known producers. The little island has big ambitions, and, with its winning combination of wealthy patrons and marine-influenced vineyards, it is poised to become one of the foremost wine regions in the U.S. Just two hours from New York City, the its wineries and small, quaint towns make it a delightful destination.
Most local wineries feature merlot, the most widely planted red grape on the island, as their signature variety. Long Island merlots are bright and fruity, with strong notes of black cherry and plum. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc are also grown successfully. www.winecountry.com/regions/newyork/
Although wine has been produced in Virginia for 400 years, it is only in the past decade that Virginia wines have garnered national and international recognition. Spurred by Thomas Jefferson’s love of fine wine and his cultivation at Monticello of classic vinifera varieties, a small wine industry arose in the early 19th century, but suffered setbacks during the Civil War and Prohibition. Wine production resumed in the mid-1970s and has soared since as winemakers refine production techniques. Today, over 60 wineries produce a wide variety of quality wines. Virginia now ranks as the 6th largest wine producing state in the U.S.
Extreme weather conditions and unpredictable rains at harvest time confront Virginia winemakers and grape growers with challenges, but growing expertise in grape and vineyard selection and harvesting practices has helped state winemakers produce consistently high quality wines. Virginia wines now win numerous awards at national and international wine competitions. www.virginia.winecountry.com