In honor of the immediate weekend and the upcoming summer, let’s talk about some American wine regions that are worthy of a pit stop. I’m not talking about the usual suspects in California, although if you have the chance to go you definitely should. Rather, I want to focus on some lesser-known (and hopefully less crowded and less expensive) regions.
Compared to California’s nearly 89%, the states that are home to the below regions are making less than .2% of American wine, and I happen to think that’s a good thing. You never know what treasure you might find when visiting one of these smaller regions, not to mention you’ll be supporting some local commerce in your travels.
I’ve picked three regions, all in geographic extremes of the country: The Pacific Northwest, East Coast, and the South.
Loudon County (Virginia)
I picked Virginia for a few reasons. First and mostly, Virginia is known for its excellent petit verdot, a grape that fascinates me. Second, I’m working on a book that happens to be set in Virginia, so it’s sort of on my mind All. The. Time.
If you seek picturesque rolling hills dotted with horses and estate homes, Loudon County will be most pleasing. As a bonus, with its proximity to D.C., you may see politicians roaming those same hills. In all seriousness, there’s a lot to do here as Virginia and this region in particular have played host to much of our nation’s history. You can sober up between wineries at a historical site or two or simply take in the beautiful and graceful landscape. This site is a great resource for planning your trip, but here are few winery stops I would make given the chance:
Willowcroft Farms Vineyards – Willowcroft has been at it for more than 30 years and actually replaced fruit trees with grapes. From the estate’s red barn tasting room, you can take in a paralyzing view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and obviously sip on some award-winning wine. While there, definitely get a pour of the 2012 Petit Verdot.
Casanel Vineyards – Casanel sits on 50 acres and offers tastings in a restored 19th century stone farmhouse. It’s very much off the beaten path, but is worth the jaunt. Owners and winemakers Nelson and Katie DeSouza are known for their hospitality, and of course, for making pretty exceptional wines, including award-winning cab, petit verdot, merlot, chardonnay and viognier.
Stone Tower Winery – Situated on Catoctin Ridge on Hogback Mountain, the owners of this estate explored the notion of winemaking because they thought their property looked like a vineyard. They committed to due diligence and brought in viticulturists and soil experts, got the sign off, and started making really good wine. Stone Tower’s estate produced wines are labeled Stone Tower Estate, but they are also importing grapes and producing some other very interesting wines under their Wild Board Cellars label. If you go, get your hands on a bottle of 2013 Sanglier Noble.
Snake River Valley (Idaho and Oregon)
This AVA in southwestern Idaho outside of capital city, Boise, extends into Oregon, as well. For a wine to carry the Snake River Valley seal, they must contain at least 85% of grapes from the region. I did happen to grow up in Boise, so I know that in addition to producing some pretty great wines, the scenery can’t be beat. Adding to all that is the simplicity, approachability and passion of Idaho winemakers. There is a beautiful lack of pretentiousness and a true dedication to doing it right and bringing Idaho heart to the craft.
To thoroughly plan your experience, amble over to the Idaho Wine Commission’s website. However, here are a few I wouldn’t miss:
Hat Ranch Winery – Hat Ranch is enthusiastic about terroir, and in addition to focusing on its own success, rallies for the success of the entire region and the promotion of Idaho as an overall exceptional wine state. Started in 2011 by Tim and Helen Harless, Hat Ranch has already won awards for its chardonnay, Riesling and tempranillo.
Split Rail Winery – These guys have a great and refreshing philosophy when it comes to wine: “Like what you like, not what you’re told to like.” I wouldn’t visit without leaving with a bottle of Split Rail’s 2012 Horned Beast Reincarnate, a syrah, Grenache, mourvedre blend. They also have a second label, Strange Folk, under which they’re producing wine kegs. There is also an art gallery on site with rotating exhibits showcasing local work.
Hells Canyon Winery – Hells Canyon boasts being the oldest Idaho wine grape vineyard, having planted in 1981 above the Snake River on the sunny slope. (Distinction must be made, as I know my grandparents along with many others were growing Concord grapes for juice and preserves long before then.) These guys have a great story that I encourage you to read. At present, they’re offering two limited edition series of wines: The Artist Conservation, which features fine art sporting labels on wines such as Retriever Red and Hells Canyon Reserve Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet and the Western Conservation with labels showcasing historic photos on the Deer Slayer Syrah and Seven Devils Red.
Texas Hill Country (Texas)
I’ll break form with this one a little bit. There are several viticultural regions in Central Texas and the Hill Country. The Bell Mountain AVA, the first recognized all-Texas growing region, is actually in the middle of the official Texas Hill Country AVA. There are others, such as Fredericksburg and the Texas High Plains that are close or adjacent. Therefore, I recommend visiting this site to learn about the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail. But, of course, I’ll talk about a few of my favorites, all of which I have visited personally. The wine is great, but so is the hospitality and charm of these family-owned and operated wineries.
Spicewood Vineyards –Spicewood got its start in 1992 and is in a truly beautiful setting. There isn’t much to do in Spicewood, so if you find yourself there, it’s probably to visit this winery. It’s family-owned and very down-to-earth. The family dog wanders in and out of the tasting room that is furnished comfortably and feels like a living room. This estate’s tempranillo has been gaining some attention – with the 2011 and 2012 both winning statewide awards. Spicewood also has a variety of interesting red and white blends and sources some of its grapes from the Texas High Plains around Lubbock.
Driftwood Estate Winery – Driftwood is tucked away and off the main road and is one of the coziest most welcoming wineries I have visited. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and the view from the deck is a breathtaking panorama of the Texas Hill Country. They have a few outstanding award-winning reds, including the 2012 Sangiovese, which is a Super Tuscan and you know how I feel about Super Tuscan; the 2012 Alamo Red, a Bordeaux style blend that just won gold at the Houston International Wine Competition; and the 2012 Longhorn Red, 50-50 cabernet-syrah that let’s you know you’re in Texas. I have tried them all and believe they are very much worth a trip to Driftwood.
Santa Maria Cellars – Owner and winemaker Martin Santamaria was born in Mendoza, Argentina, and received a classic winemaking education in Italy before bringing his passion and talent to Fredericksburg, Texas. I first encountered Santa Maria Cellars in 2012. Martin was pouring samples in a Fredericksburg wine shop and I bought a bottle of Malbec, which he signed. A few years later I made it to the Santamaria tasting room, met Martin’s wife and was able to try the rest of the Santamaria portfolio. Martin’s classic training and heritage definitely shine through in wines. They are exquisite, I think, because Texas and Argentina are warring within the bottle.
I hope this encourages you to gas up the car, pack up the kids (actually, don’t take your kids) and head out to the region closest to you. Half the fun, apart from drinking the wine, is meeting the people making it and hearing their stories, so get out there and be friendly. Happy trails, y’all!