To be commercially successful, vineyards need space, certain soil conditions and ample sunshine; factors that tend to coalesce in beautiful, pastoral places. That brings broad appeal to road trips centered on winery tours: Even if you’re not an oenophile or a wine hobbyist, you can still find something to savor about rolling through sun-christened hills and valleys dominated by huge fields of sweet-smelling fruit.
The pit stops should leave you in a pleasant mood and, unless you decide to pull a Paul Giamotti move from the movie Sideways, you’ll find the people you meet along the way to be generally nice folks.
Here’s our short list of winery road trips to get you started.
Anderson Valley, California
When I first drove Highway 128, between Sonoma and Mendocino, CA, I rolled the window down and let the luxuriant Anderson Valley air wash over me. I pulled into Goldeneye winery, one of only 3 LEED-certified California wineries, to taste what air can do to a grape. From an umbrella-shaded patio, I gazed over Goldeneye’s 220-plus acres of vines and sipped an expansive, soothing pinot noir, a liquid rendition of the view before me. Next stop: Five miles north to Standish winery, an apple and sheep farm-turned-winery within an old farmhouse. In retrospect, it’s good I didn’t make it to the other 40-plus wineries strung along Highway 128.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
Most people don’t think of Oregon when they hear the word ‘wine.’ But the Willamette Valley, a 5,200-square mile basin in the state’s northwest, is among America’s most fertile swaths of land and, not coincidentally, is home to more than 200 wineries. The valley is the most populated part of Oregon but is still peaceful and bucolic, where country lanes, covered bridges and roadside produce stands abound. Willamette Valley Wineries has winery routes to suit many tastes, from the cozy hills and towering pinots of Highway 47 in the north, just outside Portland, to the fertile vineyards of McMinnville, nested in the Coast Range foothills of Yamhill County.
The wines of Umbria may not be as popular – or, admittedly, as good – as those of neighboring Tuscany, but the hilltop towns and sprawling vineyards of Umbria are ripe for road tripping. Cold, moist winters and – yes! – dry, sunny summers feed a bountiful growing season. But the grapes here are still often overshadowed by the regionally famous chocolates, olive oil, pecorino cheese and medieval architecture. Euro wine experts Cellar Tours strongly endorse the Umbrian reds Colli Altotiberini, Colli Amerini, Colli Martani, Colli Perugini and Colli del Trasimeno, along with the regional towns of Assisi, Orvieto, Gubbio and Perugia.
Let’s not mince words: You won’t find the world’s best wines in Chile. But Chilean wine has improved since it burst onto the global scene in the 1990s and, besides, some winery road trips are designed to transcend the grape. On my first trip to Chile, I spent 5 days skiing beneath 16,000-foot peaks in Valle Nevado, one hour east of Santiago, before spiraling out of the Andes and driving one hour west of the city, to the Maipo Valley, Chile’s most famous wine region. They’ve been making wine here since 1555, and the history is palpable – both in the wine and in other area diversions, such as the short drive to Valparaiso, the seaside hometown of poet Pablo Neruda and a gratifying spot for a fresh seafood meal.
Rioja red wines from Spain’s Rio Ebra valley are famous – 3 distinct sub-regions yield a variety of grapes to sate most palates – but it’s the Ribera del Duero region that many oenophiles say produces Spain’s premier red wines. You can sample both regions in one road trip: Start in Ribera del Duero, a landscape of fecund hills and stellar Castilian restaurants 90 minutes north of Madrid. Then drive a couple hours northeast to Rioja, where undulating hills rise to rows of mountain peaks. Visit the Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marques de Riscal in Elciego. The town of Haro hosts a wine festival every June 29, featuring the Batalla de Vino, a wine battle that leaves contestants soaked, so bring a change of clothes.
We would be remiss not to caution you that those pours add up quick, so don’t overindulge and drive. In most wine regions, hotels and inns are easy to find.
Travel writer John Briley always prefers to gather his wine knowledge on location.