Say "American wine road trip," and we can predict what comes to mind: It's a golden journey through Napa Valley and Sonoma, California, with rolling hills covered in vineyards as far as the eye can see. But while those areas of northern California get all the buzz, you can get a much more off-the-beaten-path travel experience in other corners of the United States, from the Deep South to Arizona, from the Pacific Northwest to the Rockies, and from the heartland to New England. On backroads in these areas, travelers are often surprised to find award-winning wines being produced at local wineries and vinyeards operated as small family businesses. Visits in the fall usually mean amber leaves and harvest season in full operation (typically well before the first freeze), but summertime journeys mean vernal strolls while the fruit still hangs heavy on the vine. To help inspire your next journey, we're guiding you to 11 areas for vineyards and wineries that should be on your travel radar.
North Carolina: Asheville and the Western Mountains
North Carolina, which boasts being the home of America's first grape, has more than 400 vineyards and 100 wineries across the state. Asheville, located in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains at the confluence of the Swannanoa River and the French Broad River, includes the country's most-visited winery, The Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore House, built between 1889 and 1895 by George Washington Vanderbilt, is still owned by one of his descendents and is the largest privately owned house in the nation. Also in Asheville, pay a visit to award-winning Burntshirt Vineyards. The high altitude, long, sunny days and cool nights in the mountains let Burntshirt grow some European varietals, including Grüner Veltliner, which is rarely produced in the United States. Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards is a family-owned winery that sits on land that has been farmed for more than nine generations. The climate and soils are similar to those in Europe, allowing the vineyard to grow French, German and Austrian grapes.
Missouri: Augusta Region
The closest major wine district to St. Louis runs along Highway 94 south of Highway 40—watch for signs and you can’t go wrong. Within this group are wineries in Augusta, America's first official viticultural district. Most wineries are open daily; some offer entertainment, and some provide more extensive dining options. While some of these wineries charge a small fee for tastings, others don’t. Don't miss stops: Chandler Hill Vineyards, equipped with a magnificent tasting room and deck overlooking the vineyards; Yellow Farmhouse Winery, in downtown Defiance near the Katy Trail and bike rentals; Sugar Creek Winery, also in Defiance, offers a pleasant hillside setting among the vines and frequent live music; Montelle Winery, perched 400 feet above the Missouri River valley for the best views along Highway 94; Mount Pleasant Estates, off Highway 94 in Augusta; Augusta Winery, also in Augusta; Noboleis Vineyards & Winery, relatively new but already reaping awards left and right; and Blumenhof Vineyards and Winery near Dutzow, where crowds convene on weekends for live music and great wine. [See also: A Guide to Missouri Wine Country]
Rhode Island: Newport County
Newport County is home to the Coastal Wine Trail. With cold winters and temperate summers, the region's winemakers produce delicious cool-climate white and sparkling wines. Sakonnet Vineyards & Winery is Rhode Island’s oldest and largest, comprising 50 acres. The vineyard’s microclimate and soil are similar to that of northern France, allowing for production of distinctive wines. Greenvale Vineyards produces wines from estate-grown grapes. Greenvale has jazz every Saturday from May through November and a yearlong schedule of concerts and open houses. Don’t forget to stop by the Newport Vineyards for a tour of the winery and vineyard that ends with a tasting bar.
Arizona: Verde Valley
It turns out that Arizona is not too dry to grow wine grapes. In fact, the Verde Valley area, in northern Arizona, is known for its cycle of winter precipitation, spring drought, summer precipitation and fall drought. The area has four mild seasons marked by abundant sunshine and clean air, and it's a good recipe for grape production. Home to the Verde Valley Wine Trail, there are varieties to meet just about every wine-drinker's tastes. In addition to a tasting room and six varietals, Alcantara Vineyards and Winery has weddings in its vineyards. Page Spring Cellars is a family-owned vineyard and winery with a tasting room 15 minutes south of Sedona, California. Oak Creek Vineyards and Javelina Leap Winery round out the wineries. The Trail also includes four tasting rooms: Cellar 433, Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, Pillsbury Wine Company and Burning Tree Cellars.
California: The Sierra Foothills
In California, look beyond Napa Valley and Sonoma. Instead, point your gaze south to the Sierra Foothills. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought vineyards to the Sierra Foothills area to provide wine for the thirsty miners. Many of the oldest grapevines in the United States, some more than 100 years old—mainly Zinfandel—are in the Sierra Foothills, which are within driving distance of Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe. Gold Rush-era ghost towns still dot the area, serving as reminders of the Wild West. Wineries include Boeger Winery and Lava Cap Winery. Lava owners, David and Jeane Jones, a family of geologists, specifically selected the location for its prime volcanic soil that is particularly well suited to growing fine-wine grapes. Perry Creek Winery and Skinner Vineyards also are among the area's many wineries.
New York: The Finger Lakes
Finger Lakes is named for the 11 lakes in the area that range in length from 40 miles (Cayuga) to only 3 miles (Canadice) and in depth from 618 feet (Seneca) to 30 feet (Honeoye). Some of the lakes are well developed with booming tourism industries, and some are pristine and undeveloped with miles of picturesque hiking and biking trails. The area offers more than 100 wineries and vineyards, many of which have gained worldwide recognition. The Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars offers the standard winery and vineyard tours, but it also has a hotel and is the setting for many weddings and events. Glenora produces Rieslings, dessert wines, fruit wines, sparkling wines and many more. Other winemakers in the area include Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars and Ravines Wine Cellars, which is on a hillside overlooking the glacier-carved Seneca Lake.
Colorado: The Western Slope
Colorado is perhaps best known for skiing and other gravity-fueled mountain sports, but it also is an excellent place to go for a winery tour. The Western Slope incorporates everything in the state west of the Continental Divide, including Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Ouray and San Miguel counties. Hiking trails wind around stone canyons that plummet down to rivers, creating white-water rapids in the white-peaked Rocky Mountains. Many of the Western Slope vineyards, found around towns such as Palisade and Grand Junction, are family-owned. The area boasts almost 30 wineries, including Anemoi Wines (owned by Canyon Wind Cellars), Carlson Vineyards, Desert Sun Vineyards, Hermosa Vineyards, Talon Winery (which produces everything from Chardonnays and Syrahs to blackberry and chocolate strawberry wines) and Two Rivers Winery. In 2015, Anemoi’s 2012 Cabernet Savignon-Clone 4 received 93 points from the Beverage Tasting Institute, the highest score ever received by a Canyon Wind Cellars wine from that publication.
Washington: Columbia Valley
West of the Cascade Mountains, Columbia Valley is the state's first official wine-growing region (recognized as an official American Viticulture Area) and the largest wine-growing region in Washington. This makes it a great choice for people who want to explore the winemaking industry in a rural setting. Many vineyards are down small country roads (some are not open for tastings or are only open occasionally for scheduled events). The Columbia Valley has at least 53 wineries, including 360 Cellars Estate. Victor Cruz, 360 Cellars' winemaker, cares for the estate's grapes and selects grapes from local Columbia Valley farmers to be incorporated into the wines. The estate features a bed and breakfast and event space. Others include Foxy Roxy Winery, Neff Cellars (which includes an 1800-square-foot loft-style guest house overlooking a vineyard and Lake Chelan), Sun River Vintners and Tagaris Winery.
Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York: Lake Erie Wine Country
The region along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York is a great place for growing wine grapes. With only a handful of stop lights from beginning to end, a drive through almost 50 miles of vineyards in in the wine country will transport visitors to a bygone era. With 23 wineries, this is a small viticulture area. Some of the wineries include 21 Brix (which can be booked for bridal and baby showers, high school reunions and retirement and birthday parties), Courtyard Winery and Noble Winery (with a 14,000-square-foot facility and a 150-foot-long outdoor patio).
Virginia: Loudoun County
In addition to presidential estates and Civil War battlefields, Loudoun County—just outside of Washington, D.C.—has scenic horse-riding trails, farmers markets and farm restaurants. Wineries are located in several clusters, and it is possible to explore a cluster as part of a tour. Tour companies use cars and buses to ferry visitors to wineries, but green-minded travelers can follow the Loudon wine trail on bicycles. There are at least 21 wineries in the area. The Vineyards & Winery at Lost Creek is a 50-acre boutique winery in the hills of northern Virginia, 10 minutes outside of historic Leesburg. Naked Mountain Vineyards offers breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Georgia: North Georgia Mountains
Accolades aren't limited to well-known regions such as Tuscany, Burgundy and Napa. In fact, north Georgia's wineries are earning praise from critics and wine-lovers. There are plenty of places to taste award-winning wines—and enjoy a romantic getaway—in Georgia Wine Country. Tiger Mountain Vineyards, on a rocky hillside in Rabun County, produces award-winning, European-style wines in 10 varieties. Crane Creek Vineyards is located in the shadow of Georgia’s highest peak, Brasstown Bald, and the tasting room is housed in a historic farmhouse. Just a half-mile from the Alpine-themed village of Helen, Habersham Vineyards and Winery produces award-winning Georgia wines and is open daily for self-guided tours and complimentary tastes of Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yonah Mountain Vineyards & Winery in Cleveland grows seven grape varieties and has of an on-site tasting room.