The 10 Best U.S. Cities to Visit for Wine Lovers
California isn't the only place for world-renowned wines anymore.
The roots of the American wine industry can be traced to the Gold Rush in the 1850s when miners descended on Northern California. "By [the] 1900s, the thriving California wine industry was [exporting] wines all over the world," according to the UC Davis Library. Of course, Prohibition put a stop to this and all but decimated the American wine industry.
It wasn't until 1976 that the booming U.S. wine market we know today began to take hold. That year, producers entered their wines into a blind tasting comparing California and French wines. "The judging panel was exclusively French, so it was a shock when the California wines were ranked the highest in both of the competition categories: Chardonnays and reds," UC Davis explains.
Fast forward nearly 40 years, and you can find vineyards in all 50 states. Though 84 percent of them are concentrated in California (it's hard to beat their soil!), there are more and more highly regarded wine-growing regions popping up in all corners of the country, each specializing in their own varietals and offering plenty to do during a trip. We asked travel experts to share their top wine destinations, from classics to totally unexpected locales. Keep reading for the 10 best cities to visit for wine lovers.
Usually, it's Napa that's synonymous with California wine, with its oaky Cabernets and buttery Chardonnays. But on the other side of the valley, Sonoma offers the same rich varietals (and then some!) in a less tourist-heavy and commercialized setting.
"Sonoma County is quite large with warmer areas inland known for Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, as well as old vine Zinfandel, and also cooler extreme coastal areas growing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay," explains Vanessa Conlin, master of wine at Wine Access.
Though there are several pockets of wineries and charming small towns (including Sonoma itself), most experts we spoke with recommend Healdsburg, anchored by a 19th-century downtown and situated along the Russian River.
Sarah Quider, vice president of winemaking for Foley Family Wines, calls out Ferrari-Carano Winery, where you can also walk around five acres of gardens (visit in the spring to see over 10,000 tulips and daffodils). "There's nothing like being a bit secluded among the Ferrari-Carano vineyards, surrounded by 100-year-old olive trees, shaded beneath the pergolas, while sipping a selection of vineyard-designated wines," says Quider.
Other popular destinations include J Vineyards & Winery, Dry Creek Vineyard, and Davis Family Vineyards (where you can play bocce ball). Quider also notes that there are 26 tasting rooms in downtown Healdsburg alone.
Of course, all that wine sampling is going to get you hungry. "Restaurants like SingleThread (three Michelin stars), Barn Diva (one Michelin star), Dry Creek Kitchen (Chef Charlie Palmer's spot), Chalkboard, and many others make it a dining mecca," Quider explains. Upscale hotels are in no short supply, either.
Paso Robles, California
Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, off the Pacific Coast Highway, Paso Robles is another slightly under-the-radar wine destination in California. It has "small-town cowboy charm and boasts endless lodging options, from historic inns and luxury resorts to rustic vineyard escapes," says tourism entity Travel Paso. (Being able to spend the night at a vineyard is something fairly unique to Paso Robles.)
"With more than 200 wineries and 260,000 acres of vineyards, [Paso Robles] offers up Zinfandel, Bordeaux, and Rhône-style vintages," according to Conlin. She notes that the latter is "commonly referred to as the 'American Rhône,'" since this is where Rhône blends were first introduced in the U.S.
If you need a break from the wine, another major attraction in Paso Robles is Tin City. "This industrial area consists of tin buildings and connexes that house several restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and cider houses," explains Carly Brown, founder of travel blog Seek Out Serenity.
There's also Sensorio Field of Light, a 15-acre walk-through experience by artist Bruce Munro made up of close to 59,000 stemmed, fiber-optic spheres.
Santa Barbara, California
Roughly halfway between Paso Robles and Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is another unique wine destination. "This is the state's coolest climate for growing grapes, allowing the area to specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay," explains Lexi Stephens, sommelier, wine educator, and founder of Lexi's Wine List.
Stephens notes the majority of the vineyards are about a 45-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley. A fun fact is that this area has the highest concentration of women winemakers in the world, many of whom are "producing unique grape varieties you've never tasted, from Albariño to Gruner Veltliner," she says.
According to Food & Wine, a few of the best wineries to visit include Alma Rosa Winery, where you can sip "cool-climate Pinots and Chardonnays from [Sta.] Rita Hills," Foley Estates, where they say "don't overlook the rosé of Grenache," and Sanford Winery, "home to the oldest Pinot vines in Santa Barbara County."
Of course, staying in the Mediterranean-style heart of Santa Barbara is an option, but right in the Santa Ynez Valley is the small town of Solvang, Stephens points out. Solvang is modeled after a Dutch village, complete with Danish bakeries, European architecture, and plenty of wine tasting rooms and charming restaurants.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
West Coast wines don't end in California. Oregon also has incredible wineries, two-thirds of which (or roughly 700, to be exact) are in the Willamette Valley. The area is world-famous for its Pinot Noir, but you'll also find Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
"The wines of the Willamette Valley are often compared to the highly regarded wines from Burgundy, France. We're at a similar latitude to Burgundy which means a fairly similar climate," explains Lauren Gonzalez, co-founder and principal of L&L Hospitality.
Mark Fang, sommelier and founder of WineO Mark, suggests Rex Hill (where they've been making Pinot Noir for over 35 years), Domaine Drouhin, or Trisaetum "for outstanding wines and a view of the valley."
The Willamette Valley is just an hour outside Portland, so staying in the city is a viable option. Gonzalez notes that there are many tasting rooms and wine bars right in Portland, and a lot of the restaurants, including her own, Lolo Pass, offer local wines on the menu.
To stay right in the valley, Valerie Edman, owner and luxury travel advisor at Cultured Travel LLC, suggests Dundee, a countryside town within the famous Dundee Hills. "Dundee has the highest number of tasting rooms in the Willamette Valley," says Edman, and you can easily walk or bike between them.
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Walla Walla, Washington
Did you know Washington state is the second-largest wine producer in the U.S.? And at the center of it is the fun-to-say city of Walla Walla.
"This little town is well known for its picturesque wheat fields, welcoming residents, farm-to-table eateries, and historic Main Street," says Phillip Imler, founder and president of the Global Alliance of National Parks.
"This area has about 120 wineries and has a great offering mix of both red and white varieties," according to Emily Smith, founder of The Female Abroad. She explains that the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is split into six areas. The Eastside is "your quintessential rolling hills of vines," and the Westside "is regularly a winner for the best wine region in America."
According to Seattle Met, some of the most popular wineries in the area include L'Ecole No. 41, which is set in a former schoolhouse and famous for its Bordeaux Blend, Woodward Canyon, known to have the state's best Cabernet Sauvignon, and Waterbrook Winery, set on 49 rolling acres adjacent to a beautiful pond.
Snake River Valley, Idaho
Idaho is probably not the state that comes to mind when you think of wine, but the Snake River Valley AVA (aka Sunnyslope) is starting to make a name for itself with 15 wineries.
"With a climate that mirrors that of some great grape-growing regions in Spain, this Idaho wine region is well-known for many of its Spanish varietals, most notably the Tempranillos," say Samantha and Chris Caputo, founders of travel blog Boozing Abroad.
Though you won't find hundreds of wineries like you would in California or Oregon, the Idaho wine scene "feels refreshingly direct and laid-back," writes Eater. "In recent years winemakers have transplanted from California to apply their experience in the up-and-coming region—but there are also a lot of Idaho natives among the vintner ranks, including some on land handed down for generations."
Eater recommends visiting Ste. Chapelle, the first winery to open in the state in 1975 (and now the largest), and Koenig Winery, where you can try their Viognier and Syrah varieties that they say "do exceptionally well in Idaho."
As the Caputos note, the Snake River Valley is only about 40 minutes outside of Boise, a burgeoning city that's also great for hiking. Plus, the southern Idaho stretch of the Snake River offers much in the way of outdoor adventures.
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Albuquerque, New Mexico
Just as Idaho is an unexpected grape-growing region, so is New Mexico. The city of Albuquerque is probably best known for the International Balloon Fiesta and its red and green chiles, but it's also home to a growing wine scene that was started more than 400 years ago by Spanish colonists, explains Brenna Moore, director of communications and public relations at Visit Albuquerque.
"New Mexico's high desert climate and dry, nutrient-rich soil is ideal for producing wine and has led to more than 40 vineyards and wineries statewide, with several in Albuquerque," explains Moore.
Some of her favorite local wineries are Gruet Winery, one of the top sparkling wine producers in America with roots originating in the Champagne region of France, Sheehan Winery, where you can take a guided wine and bike tour, and Casa Rondeña Winery, located among the ancient cottonwoods in Albuquerque's serene North Valley.
Albuquerque also has a booming craft beer scene, complete with an entire Brewery District. And when it comes to restaurants, the regional cuisine, which incorporates Mexican, Native American, and Spanish flavors, is completely unique.
Loudoun County, Virginia
Loudoun County, Virginia has earned itself the nickname "the Napa of the East," according to Anna Rossetto, a destination marketer for Development Counsellors International. With over 50 of the state's 300 wineries, the area is mostly set against beautiful countryside where "travelers could find themselves inside a rustic barn sipping vintage red … or in an intimate cellar next to a sprawling historic estate," describes Rossetto.
What's fun about this region is that most of the vineyards are small and family-owned, meaning their wines are not mass-produced. According to Food & Wine, a must-visit winery is Boxwood Estate, where you can sip their highly regarded Bordeaux-style red blends and Sauvignon Blanc at a historic former horse farm.
Rossetto recommends Sunset Hills Vineyard, a winery known for its sustainability efforts, Casanel Vineyards, the only winery in Virginia to grow and produce a 100-percent varietal Carménère, and Fabbioli Cellars, where you can try the up-and-coming Tannat varietal.
Being just an hour outside of Washington, D.C., makes Loudoun County easily accessible and perfect to tack on to a trip to the city.
Southampton, New York
The North Fork is the section of the Hamptons best know for its long stretch of wineries. The drawback, however, is that this area can get packed with weekenders from New York City and bachelorette parties. On the other side of the bay, in Southampton, you'll find fewer wineries, but a charming, old-timey nautical experience. (And it's easy enough to pop over to the North Fork if you choose.)
A lovely place to stay is Sag Harbor, "an old whaling town where all the buildings are in their original state," as Joey Wölffer, owner of Wölffer Estate, told Travel + Leisure. "There is so much to do here … nature preserves, beaches, events, museums," she added.
And one of the biggest draws is Wölffer Estate itself. The winery "started making rosé in the early 1990s," according to The New York Times, when "many wine snobs in this country still associated the pink variety with sweet, budget-priced offerings." Today, its pink wine is one of the most popular out there. Visiting the vineyard lets you taste both rosés and their other wines. You can also check out their restaurant Wölffer Kitchen Amagansett for a food and wine pairing.
Finger Lakes, New York
If you're looking for some outdoor activities to go along with your wine tasting, upstate New York's Finger Lakes region is a great choice. "It's a breathtakingly beautiful destination producing world-class, cool-climate wines filled with charming small towns and glacier-made freshwater lakes," explains Brittany Gibson, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.
The 320-square-mile wine trail includes 27 wineries around the Seneca Lake AVA (American Viticultural Area). According to their website, "the region specializes in Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, as well as sparkling wines and ice wines."
Though there are so many wineries to choose from, Gibson notes that "some of the oldest wineries in the Finger Lakes are on Seneca Lake." This includes "Glenora Wine Cellars, Wagner Vineyards, and Lakewood Vineyards, and one of the most iconic Finger Lakes wineries: Hermann J. Wiemer."
In terms of where to stay, Carol Cain, principal and founder of Brave World Media, suggests Watkins Glen, where the state park has 19 waterfalls and 200-foot cliffs. Cain also points out that this is where the annual Finger Lakes Wine Festival is held each July.