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These seven distinctive U.S. wine-growing regions are hiding in plain sight.
If you’re considering visiting wine country here in the United States, you’re likely thinking of places like Napa Valley and Sonoma County in California or the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Most people do. But there are several distinctive wine-growing regions hiding in plain sight, from the East Coast and Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains and desert Southwest.
These regions may be less well known than their flashier cousins, but they’re offering impressive wines and memorable travel experiences to those in the know.
NEWPORT COUNTY, RHODE ISLAND
The City by the Sea has become synonymous with sailing and Edwardian mansions, but thanks to a cool growing season that actually extends into late fall, it also boasts a wine region that produces Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and other varietals.
The wineries are just 45 minutes from Newport. You won’t want to miss Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery, one of the top five sparkling wine producers in the United States, or Greenvale Vineyards on the Sakonnet River, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And, if you’re planning a fall trip, you can enjoy the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival each September.
FINGER LAKES, NEW YORK
Hanging like tears beneath Lake Ontario’s eye in north-central New York, the Finger Lakes region comprises 11 glacial lakes that lie from north to south in an imaginary triangle between Syracuse, Rochester and Elmira-Corning. With so many Finger Lakes and nearby Oneida Lake, often called the thumb on the Finger Lakes hand, you have roughly 134,000 acres of pristine waterways to explore.
You also have the Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area. More than 100 wineries and 11,000 acres of vineyards dot the landscape around the deep lakes, which create a microclimate that supports the healthy growth of Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc grapes, as well as native American varietals.
YADKIN VALLEY, NORTH CAROLINA
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this 1.4-million-acre wine-growing region is just 40 miles west of Winston-Salem. Its specialities are muscadine and scuppernong grapes used in sweet wines, and European vinifera grapes used in Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The Yadkin Valley is home to more than 36 wineries, including the 35-acre Carolina Heritage Vineyard and Winery, one of the state’s first USDA-certified organic wineries, and the Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery, which is a National Wildlife Federation-certified wildlife sanctuary. In October, Shelton Vineyards hosts a harvest festival with tours, tastings, hayrides and bluegrass music, and the Yadkin Valley Grape Festival celebrates more than 20 wineries as well as local food vendors, artisans and craftspeople.
GRAND TRAVERSE BAY REGION, MICHIGAN
Many people think the upper Midwest is too cold for producing wine, but the “thumbs” of Michigan and Wisconsin lie near the 45th parallel — just like Alsace, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Lake Michigan creates diverse microclimates, and in the Grand Traverse Bay region, that means perfect growing conditions for Riesling.
Michigan now has more than 70 commercial wineries, and many of the premier operations are located on the two peninsulas that run northward into Grand Traverse Bay. The Old Mission Peninsula is home to eight wineries and hosts winter events like the “Winter Warm Up” in January and “Romancing the Riesling” in February. The Leelanau Peninsula has 24 wineries, which are organized into three wine trails, and it offers “Sips and Soups” and “Taste the Passion” during the same months.
DOOR PENINSULA, WISCONSIN
Locally produced wines are nothing new on the Door Peninsula. It was home to an Algoma winery as early as the 1960s and two Door County wineries by the 1980s, and these businesses tapped into America’s Cherryland fervor by producing Montmorency cherry wine. Decades later, the association between fruit wine and the Door remains powerful.
But it’s no longer the whole story. Eight wineries (and a distillery) now operate in Door and Kewaunee counties, and they aren’t the cute mom-and-pop shops of our collective imagination. Today’s wineries employ talented, world-class winemakers who offer unique experiences in a wine country that also incorporates deeply beloved, longtime hotspots like Peninsula State Park, Wilson’s ice cream parlor in Ephraim and Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, with its iconic rooftop goats.
GRAND VALLEY, COLORADO
Believe it or not, Colorado winemaking boomed a century ago, but after Prohibition decimated the industry, most vineyards were replanted with fruit trees. The region from Fruita to Palisade is still known for its fruit (think Palisade peaches). Roughly 40 years ago, however, winemaking returned to the valley, and it’s now home to two-thirds of the state’s vineyards.
With an average altitude of 4,700 feet, these are among North America’s highest wineries, and they enjoy a microclimate that’s ideal for wine production. Bicycle tours are a favorite way to explore the valley; the Palisade Fruit and Wine Byway offers routes from 5 to 25 miles in length, and you can pedal to 20 wineries, a distillery and even a meadery. The annual Colorado Mountain Winefest in September coincides with the harvest and is the state’s largest wine festival.
VERDE VALLEY, ARIZONA
This young wine region, which incorporates Sedona, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Jerome and Camp Verde, is less than 10 years old. While it does have a challenging desert climate, certain types of grapes manage to survive, thrive, and offer more vibrant flavors than those grown elsewhere. In fact, several of the Verde Valley’s wines have garnered critical acclaim.
The Verde Valley Wine Trail traverses the desert, its red rock canyons and its higher-elevation growing regions, linking five wineries and six tasting rooms. Not only will you be able to sample Southwestern versions of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Mourvedre and Merlot, you’ll find spots to schedule special estate-wine tastings, take a yoga class, and even enjoy a massage. In late September, Sedona Winefest celebrates local wine, art and cuisine. And here’s a fun fact: The wine trail is adorned with 40 colorful wine barrels, all painted by local artists.