Toast-to-Toast

  • Roger Grody
  • 07/6/22

Reprinted with permission from go.kw.com

The days when a wine country getaway required a journey to California are long gone, with productive vineyards now planted in practically every state. Not only are some of the efforts of pioneering winemakers in places like Arizona and Michigan highly respectable, but their wine-growing regions are rapidly developing into complete destinations that tourists are eager to explore. 

Vineyards in states such as Minnesota and Tennessee used to be considered novelties, but thanks to the proliferation of talented winemakers and, in some cases, climate change, there is commendable wine produced in every corner of the nation. Currently, there are recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — bona fide wine grape growing regions that bring credibility to local products — in 34 different states and counting. Tourists now gather at wineries and tasting rooms in unexpected places like the Toast-to-Toast By Roger Grody The Golden State may dominate American wine production, but summertime wine country escapes are enjoyed coast-to-coast. Ozark Highlands of Missouri or the Escondido Valley of Texas. 

Representing the heart of California wine country, Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma Valley offer an incredible concentration of luxury resorts and Michelin-starred restaurants. Recently arrived hotels include the Four Seasons Napa Valley and Montage Healdsburg, while restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and SingleThread anchor one of the world’s most fertile food scenes. 

But wine country escapes are found throughout California. Santa Barbara County, a short drive from Los Angeles, has more than 275 wineries and a highly developed hospitality infrastructure. Two hours north of Santa Barbara is Paso Robles, where innovative winemakers and a laid-back ambiance appeal to oenophiles anxious to expand their horizons. 

Lauren Lekai, founder and owner of PasoRoblesWineries.net, which promotes the region’s wines to enthusiasts and vacationers, reports the Paso Robles AVA is gaining international attention, reflected by local winery Tablas Creek Vineyard’s affiliation with renowned French producer Château de Beaucastel. “What makes Paso Robles special is not only the wines, but the stunning geography, ancient oak trees, wildlife, and historic downtown,” says Lekai, who insists, “Everybody is warm and welcoming, which adds to the experience.”

A wide range of leisure activities make Paso Robles a compelling destination for California day-trippers and out-of-state travelers alike. In addition to wine tasting, visitors take advantage of craft distilleries and breweries, art galleries, horseback riding, ziplining, and local museums, while dining options range from taquerías to award-winning cuisine. Some of the most spectacular stretches of the California coast are minutes away, as well as the famed Hearst Castle.

Hotels in Paso Robles are less flashy than their Napa Valley counterparts, but properties like the Tuscan-inspired Allegretto Vineyard Resort offer a relaxed vibe that suits the destination’s personality. Several boutique properties — the Hotel Cheval, for example, features 16 rooms wrapped in European-style luxury — are situated close to Paso Robles’ charming town square and steps from tasting rooms. Lekai, who reports Paso Robles draws not only nationally but internationally, suggests it offers a more approachable and inviting wine country experience than Napa Valley. “It’s a huge draw for wine lovers who want to get out of the city,” insists Lekai. 

New York State’s Finger Lakes region is one of the most idyllic places in America, where enchanting villages and family farms surround a series of narrow, glacier-carved lakes. Grapes have been cultivated in this chilly part of the Empire State for almost 200 years, but only recently has the district emerged as a world-class winemaking region. With nearly 150 wineries, watersports and inviting lakeside inns, the Finger Lakes is a destination worth discovering.

“Wine has really helped to propel the region forward because it’s tangible,” reports Brittany Gibson, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region. “You can experience it, taste it and talk to the winemakers,” she explains, adding, “All of the things that make us a prime location for winemaking make us a great place to visit.” Citing the historic Belhurst Castle and Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars among the area’s luxury hotels, Gibson notes the wine industry is also attracting ambitious chefs who are transforming the dining scene.

“We’re still a very rural area with bucolic, wide-open spaces,” advises Gibson, who says artisanal farms and creameries contribute to the local culture. “That’s part of our identity and we don’t want to lose it,” she explains, but reports the city of Geneva, at the northern tip of Seneca Lake, offers more cosmopolitan offerings, as does nearby Ithaca. Because the Finger Lakes are within a five-hour drive of a quarter of the U.S. population, the region hosts visitors from throughout the Northeast, but also wine enthusiasts from California and international tourists.

With a long history of winegrowing, Virginia earns respect from connoisseurs, and the state’s scenic wine country draws visitors from around the world, in addition to weekenders from Washington, D.C. The renowned Michelin three-star dining room at the Inn at Little Washington, about 70 miles from the U.S. capital, reserves space for home state products on its 90-page wine list. Among them are a Chardonnay from Ankida Ridge in the Blue Ridge Mountains and a Bordeaux blend by Barboursville. 

Rita McClenny, president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corporation, reports that in addition to visitors from the entire East Coast, there is considerable interest in Virginia wine country from the UK, France, Germany, and Canada. “We often hear from our international guests that they appreciate the subtlety of the Old World styles blended with the distinct taste that Virginia’s unique landscape brings to the varietals,” she explains. 

“As Virginia continues to become a wine destination, the industry has increased its accessibility to travelers,” says McClenny, referencing tasting rooms providing winemaking classes and hotels offering special packages to wine lovers. “Virginia offers more than 300 wineries that stretch across every region of the state, from the waters of Chesapeake Bay to the Appalachian Mountains,” says the tourism executive. 

“Virginia is one of the only wine destinations in the country where visitors can kayak to a winery, enjoy bluegrass music while sipping local wines or sample regional wines at a national park or historic landmark,” says McClenny. She adds, “Virginia is also home to wine trails that allow aficionados to sip their way across the Commonwealth, including the Monticello Wine Trail, inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s vision of winemaking.” The scenic Blue Ridge Mountains are the backdrop for Virginia’s Blue Ridge Whisky Wine Loop, which also includes craft distilleries.

Michigan’s surprisingly robust industry — winemakers are experimenting with hardy varietals that suit the state’s harsh climate — draws day-trippers from Detroit and Chicago, as well as tourists exploring the state’s natural beauty. “Michigan sits on the 45th Parallel, along with some of the best winegrowing regions in France,” observes Dave Lorenz, travel director at Michigan Economic Development Corporation. He reports there are approximately 140 wineries in the state, many of which were founded in the last decade, and that wine tasting is a major attraction in Traverse City and other destinations.

“The state offers high quality wine at beautiful wineries, which has benefitted our ‘Pure Michigan’ brand and the perception of a renaissance state,” says Lorenz. Noting Michigan is one of the nation’s leading agricultural states, the tourism specialist explains, “People take pride in Michigan-made products and restaurants throughout the state are emphasizing locally sourced food, wine and distilled products.” 

He adds that wineries provide an ideal way to connect tourists to that agrarian heritage and further dispel the state’s Rust Belt image. “What visitors need to know about Michigan is that it’s a place of incredible natural beauty, has authentic destinations and provides unique experiences, including its wineries,” says Lorenz.

An even more unexpected winegrowing region is New Mexico, but its arid climate has not discouraged serious winemakers. The Gruet family began producing Champagne in France in 1952, but took a gamble on the Land of Enchantment in the distant American Southwest. After initially acquiring property near the colorfully named town of Truth or Consequences in 1983, the Gruets ultimately expanded their vineyards to approximately 400 planted acres. The winery creates exceptional sparkling wines from its own grapes in the traditional méthode champenoise used in France. 

“The sandy loam soils, rich with magnesium, are perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the principal grapes used in producing high-quality Champagne,” explains winemaker Cyril Tanazacq. New Mexico is far removed from France’s renowned sparkling wine region, but the winemaker immediately recognized some commonalities. “While the soil type in Champagne, France, where I’m from, may be different, the principles surrounding good drainage and positioning towards the sun are similar in both terroirs,” he says. What makes Gruet Winery’s achievements so remarkable is that some of its New Mexico vineyards are at extremely high elevations — several thousand feet higher than France’s most acclaimed Champagne properties. One of more than 20 wineries showcased on the New Mexico Wine Trail, Gruet operates tasting rooms in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon tends to dominate the discussion on wine, but Italian immigrants began planting wine grapes across the border in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley in the 1800s. Now, some 120 wineries produce a wide range of varietals, including Albariño, Nebbiolo and Sémillon. Luxurious accommodations are found at The Marcus Whitman, an historic hotel offering fine dining and wine tours in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce.

Many major metropolitan areas lie unexpectedly close to wine country. Baltimore residents can follow Maryland’s Chesapeake Wine Trail, and even bourbon whiskey-crazed Louisville has an expanding number of Kentucky wineries just outside the city limits. Up-and-coming Texas Tempranillo is produced close to Austin, and the award-winning wine list at Phoenix’s historic Wrigley Mansion dedicates an entire section to Arizona wines.

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