By Laura Newcomer on November 10, 2021 in Travel
With nearly 300 wine trails scattered across the United States, there’s a winery for just about anyone who enjoys a glass of vino. Many wine trails are clustered together in distinct regions, which means you can visit upwards of a dozen wineries in a two- or three-day stint.
How do you plan a successful wine trail excursion, and where should you go? Read on to find out! We’ll detail some guidelines for visiting wineries and introduce you to 11 of the best wine regions in the U.S. — many of which may surprise you.
Make Your Trip a Success: Tips for Visiting Wineries
The first rule of any wine tasting trip: Drink responsibly. You won't be able to savor a wine's flavor if you're drunk, and it’s important to behave in a way that respects the winemakers, servers, and other guests. Make ample use of the spit buckets provided at every winery, and be sure to assign a designated driver, arrange for a paid ride, or take public transportation.
Beyond drinking responsibly, the following guidelines will help you make the most of any winery trip.
- Research food options.
Some wineries allow visitors to bring their own food for picnics, while others ask guests to purchase food on the premises. Before you go, research the rules of each winery so you can plan your meals accordingly. No matter where you source your food, incorporate eating into your plans. Even if you don’t plan to eat a full meal at a winery, bring snacks for the car ride so you can nosh between tasting rooms. If you're worried about cluttering your palate, stick to crackers, raw veggies, and/or unsalted nuts. Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Plan a visit in the morning (or the off-season).
During the high season, which runs from late August to mid-October, tasting rooms typically fill up after noon. To avoid crowds, plan your visit for earlier in the day. Also, consider visiting during the off-season or in the middle of the week. Or choose tasting rooms with a reservation system, so you don't have to worry about the place filling up.
- Stick to three or four wineries per day.
As a general rule, limit wine tastings to three or four wineries per day. It's easy to spend anywhere from 45 minutes to multiple hours at a single winery, so more than four stops will probably make the experience feel too rushed. At a certain point, your palate will be overwhelmed, or you may get tired.
- Bring a sunhat and sunscreen.
If you'll sample wines outside, prepare for time in the sun. Slather on sunscreen and bring a sunhat to keep your skin safe while you taste wines. Also, remember to stay hydrated.
- Skip cologne or perfume.
Smell is central to wine tasting, which is a multisensory activity. Strong colognes or perfumes can overpower the olfactory senses, which can diminish the overall experience for you and others. Go au naturel in the tasting rooms to maximize your ability to savor wines.
- Pack chairs and a picnic blanket.
Bring comfortable seating options in case all the seats at a tasting room are full. You’ll enjoy yourself more if you can lounge on a lawn chair or picnic blanket while sipping.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Allow your inquiring mind to run wild both before your trip, during the research stage, and while you visit wineries. Research the region beforehand to better understand its ecosystem, growing conditions, and the wines that thrive there. Once you’re in a tasting room, ask the server about wine terminology, production processes, and flavor notes. You’ll learn a lot while having fun.
- Consider a wine tour.
If you plan to visit several wineries, it may be worth hiring a wine tour company. They can help you plan a well-paced trip that introduces you to a variety of wines and helps you learn about the region. Plus, you’ll have a designated driver on hand. Once you choose a destination, do an internet search for that region and “wine tours” to find options.
The Top Wine Regions in the U.S.
When Americans hear the phrase "wine country," most of us probably think of sun-lit vineyards along the California coast. While the Golden State is home to 85 percent of the United States' wine production, according to the National Association of American Wineries, it's far from the only notable wine region in the country. Here are 11 remarkable wine regions worth visiting:
- Charlottesville, VA
Charlottesville's wine region got a later start than many other areas in the country. The industry didn't take off until the 1990s, although Thomas Jefferson may have experimented with wine production in the region well before then. Now, you can visit more than 40 wineries within a 25-mile radius of the quaint city of Charlottesville, and most of them are part of the Monticello Wine Trail. The scenic region's fertile soils produce internationally renowned Cabernet Franc among other styles of wine.
- Fingers Lakes/Watkins Glen, NY
New York's Finger Lakes region, and Watkins Glen in particular, is known for its scenic cliffs and gorges. It's also home to several notable wine trails, including the Seneca Wine Trail and the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. The latter is the oldest wine trail in the U.S., established in 1983. The region's cooler climate produces award-winning Rieslings and unique ice wines. Many of the area's tasting rooms boast gorgeous scenery.
- Fredericksburg, TX
Since the earliest European settlers arrived in Fredericksburg, the region has produced wine. Today, Fredericksburg sits at the heart of Texas's burgeoning wine scene and offers access to more than 50 of Gillespie County's wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms. Also, the Texas Hill Country boasts more than 100 wineries and vineyards. Want to hit as many tasting rooms as possible in a short time? Check out Fredericksburg Wine Road 290, which offers easy access to a variety of wineries along U.S. Highway 290.
- Lake Erie, PA
Spanning 50 miles along the shoreline of Lake Erie, the sprawling Lake Erie Wine Country allows visitors to sample unique, handcrafted wines in a picturesque and low-key setting. The region's wineries are open year-round, and each one boasts its own personality. The area is also home to a variety of breweries and spirits distilleries, so if your palate tires of wine, you can choose from plenty of other beverages.
- Missouri River Valley, MO
Back in the 19th century, the Missouri River Valley was the epicenter of the U.S. wine industry. While Napa Valley has since taken over the title, you can still drink delicious wine in Missouri. The state now ranks number 10 in U.S. wine production and sells approximately 1.6 million gallons of wine each year. Augusta makes a great launchpad into the state's prime wine region. From there, you can access multiple vineyards and wineries run by exceptional vintners who have learned to navigate harsher growing conditions than their coastal counterparts.
- Napa County, CA
If you're interested in wine, you're probably familiar with Napa County. It's one of the world's most popular destinations for wine tourism, and it boasts more than 400 wineries — exceeding the number in any other county in the U.S. The region benefits from diverse soils and ideal climate conditions for wine growing, which allows vintners in the area to produce a range of award-winning wines including Cabernets, Chardonnays, and Merlots.
- Paso Robles, CA
Nestled into California's Central Coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles is the state's fastest-growing wine region. The area already includes more than 40,000 acres of vineyards and more than 200 wineries, thanks to the long growing season, diverse topography, ideal temperatures, and desirable soils. The region’s many vintners grow more than 60 wine grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Roussanne, Syrah, Viognier, and heritage Zinfandel.
- Sonoma County, CA
Located west of Napa Valley, even closer to the Pacific Ocean, lies California's peaceful Sonoma County. The county features more than 60,000 acres of vineyards and several hundred wineries, and its vintners produce a variety of award-winning wines including Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs. You can visit a variety of eco-friendly and biodynamic vineyards here as well as the historic Hanzell Vineyards, which was the world's first winery to ferment its grapes in temperature-controlled, stainless-steel tanks.
- Snake River, ID
When it comes to crops, Idaho is better known for potatoes than grapes. However, the Gem State is home to 60 wineries, and that number is growing fast. Together, the state's wineries produce nearly 132,000 gallons of wine per year, including award-winning Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Syrah, and Viognier. A 40-minute drive from the state capital of Boise, the Snake River Valley is home to the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, which comprises 56 vineyards and wineries — nearly all of which are family-owned.
- Walla Walla, WA
Nestled into a valley amidst the Blue Mountains, Washington's Walla Walla wine region boasts more than 120 wineries. Most of these are boutique outfits, and many of them produce premier Bordeaux-style wines. More than a half-million visitors flock to the wine region each year to sample wines at tasting rooms distributed across six key districts. Each district boasts a distinct specialty and allows visitors to hit multiple tasting rooms within a short drive of each other.
- Yamhill County, OR
Tucked into Oregon's gorgeous Willamette Valley, Yamhill County boasts innovative wine growers and old-school vintners. The region is home to more than 80 wineries and produces some of Oregon's most highly prized Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It also boasts one of the state's oldest tasting rooms, located at Sokol Blosser winery. If you're craving panoramic views of the Cascades and Coastal Mountains with your wine, head to the scenic Fairsing Vineyard.
The U.S. is home to hundreds of wineries and dozens of wine regions, all with their own unique flavor (literally!). No matter whether you’re a Cab fan, on the hunt for organic wines, or craving mountain views with your sips, one of America’s wine regions will suit your palate.
Before embarking on any wine tour, familiarize yourself with the wineries and general tasting room etiquette. Keep an open mind, ask questions, and be willing to try new wines. You’ll return home with a broader palate (and perhaps several new bottles of wine).