Weekend Trips for the Wine Lover

Make the most of a long weekend in top wine regions across the country with these must-do wineries, vineyard tours and festivals.

Photo By: Hoberman Collection / Contributor

Photo By: George Rose / Contributor

Photo By: George Rose / Contributor

Photo By: Finger Lakes Wine Country

Photo By: George Rose / Contributor

Photo By: Pepper Bridge Winery

Photo By: Pedernales Cellars

Photo By: Barboursville Vineyards

Photo By: Chaddsford Winery

Photo By: Black Star Farms

Napa Valley, California

The U.S. ranks in the top five of wine producing countries, and California leads the way among the states. There are 12 distinct wine regions, and each one is worth a weekend visit. However, first-time visitors should start with the world-famous Napa Valley, part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Napa is a wine-soaked paradise with more than 400 wineries, many of which do Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay particularly well. Start with the Silverado Trail, since it has a more manageable 40 wineries, and includes heavy hitters such as Robert Mondavi. Venture off the trail for the iconic Castello di Amorosa.

For something different, explore one of Napa’s oldest wine caves at Schramsberg Vineyards, which is beloved for its sparkling wine. You can also take a wine class at the Culinary Institute of America, and stomp grapes during harvest season. Barrel blending, where you can create your own blend, is also available year-round at many wineries, including Conn Creek, one of the first to offer it. Hop aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, which combines a gourmet meal with (of course) wine. It also runs bus tours to some of the best estates, including an after-hours tour of Grgich Hills Estate. Wine festivals can be found year-round. Flavor! Napa Valley is a five-day food and wine pairing dream.

Sonoma County, California

About an hour away from Napa, Sonoma County is considered more low-key and spread out. However, it holds its own with an equal number of wineries, and the region excels at Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Standouts include the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, owned by the famous movie director. Not only does the estate produce more than 40 wines at its on-site facility, but the grounds also include two eateries, two swimming pools, a movie gallery and bocce ball courts. Add ongoing wine tastings and wine experiences, and you might not have a chance to visit anywhere else. Korbel Winery is a must stop for sparkling wine lovers; 50-minute winery tours cover its wine cellars and conclude with a tasting at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards.

Bike tours are another great way to experience Sonoma’s bucolic countryside: Wine Country Bikes offers single and multi-day tours. For the ultimate wine country experience, check out Sonoma County Grape Camp—three days worth of harvesting grapes, blending wines and eating farm-to-table fare.

Take your pick of ongoing festivals, but if you have to choose, the Harvest Fair draws wine aficionados from around the country for a weekend of wine tasting, grape stomping, seminars and more.  

Santa Barbara, California

About 90 miles north of Los Angeles, picture-perfect Santa Barbara is perhaps best known for its beaches, but it produces high quality wines as well, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir. In fact, you may remember the region from the movie Sideways. You can even recreate it by following the Sideways wine trail, which includes wineries from the movie. Among those featured are Firestone Vineyard, which was founded in 1972 and is now an institution; Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, founded by the actor who played Davy Crockett; and Foxen Vineyard & Winery, which provides a more personable experience at “The Shack.” If the movie trail isn’t your thing, there are more than 100 other wineries to explore. Be sure to attend the Celebration of Harvest Weekend if possible. 

Finger Lakes, New York

The state’s largest wine region, located upstate, is packed with more than 100 wineries. The area is best known for Riesling, but it also produces Gewürztraminer, ice wine and sparkling wine. Choose from three different wine trails: The Cayuga Wine Trail is considered the first organized wine trail in the U.S. Keuka Lake Wine Trail is the smallest of the three, but the birthplace of the Finger Lakes wine industry. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail boasts the largest wine trail—not just in the area, but in the state—with more than 30 wineries.

Dr. Frank Wines (also known as Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars) helped launch the local wine industry when he planted vinifera vines, a type that originated from Europe; you can find it along the Keuka Wine Trail. Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard was another early pioneer, and has since built a reputation on its Rieslings. For something different, Sheldrake Point Winery and Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars are good stops to try the region’s ice wines. 

Willamette Valley, Oregon

Oregon has a handful of wine producing centers, but the action centers around the Willamette Valley, which is known for its Pinot Noir. The region counts more than 300 wineries and five wine trails, including one geared toward cycling enthusiasts: Pedaling for Pinot. Whether or not you follow a trail, many wonderful wineries abound. For example, Silvan Ridge Winery was one of the first in 1979, and has since become one of the most beloved. While in its tasting room, also try the 2013 Malbec.

King Estate Winery produces the most pinot gris in the country, and its pinot noirs, cabernet sauvignons and syrahs also receive high marks from wine professionals. Willamette Valley Vineyards and Sokol Blosser Winery are other don’t misses for pinot noir. However, the International Pinot Noir Celebration is the ultimate pinot noir mecca known the world over. The three-day event, now in its 30th year, features tastings from more than 70 of the world’s best pinot noir producers, vineyard tours, and drinking and dining under the stars.

Walla Walla, Washington

Although Walla Walla’s wine industry didn’t start until the late ‘70s, it’s rapidly built a reputation as one of the top wine regions in the country, and even earned comparisons to Napa. Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are among the wines it does well, and there are more than 100 wineries, spread across four wine regions, in which to try them. The Walla Walla Wine Alliance provides a thorough rundown to get oriented. Leonetti Cellar was the region’s first commercial winery in 1977.

Woodward Canyon Winery was another early pioneer—not just in wine production, but in sustainable wine production at that. Pop into its tasting room to sip its acclaimed 2012 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon. Pepper Bridge Winery excels at Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and its tasting room, housed in a small yellow structure straight out of a storybook, is the perfect setting to try them. If you enjoy being the first in the know, Spring Release Weekend provides the chance to explore new releases while learning about them directly from the winemakers.

Hill Country, Texas

In between Austin and San Antonio, the rolling green landscape of Hill Country is home to 46 wineries producing excellent Viognier, Tempranillo and Syrah. The Fredericksburg Wine Road 290 is a good place to start, with 15 wineries along this wine trail. Among them, Pedernales Cellars represents the old guard, and creates award-winning Tempranillo and Viognier.

Becker Vineyards
 is another institution; the 46-acre estate includes a German-style stone barn and lavender fields. Book ahead to visit its Reserve Wine Library for the chance to sample the owners’ private collection and take a behind-the-scenes tour of the production facility. In addition to wine, Hill Country is also famous for its bluebonnets, which spring to life in April. Enjoy the best of both with tickets to the 2016 Wine and Wildflowers Trail, which includes free tastings at all participating wineries. 

Charlottesville, Virginia

Virginia counts at least 250 wineries and 17 wine trails around the state, and each trail offers something to recommend it. However, Monticello, located in scenic central Virginia, has Thomas Jefferson to thank for its origins. While Jefferson’s attempts weren’t fruitful, it’s still considered the birthplace of American wine. The area now numbers about 30 wineries, and produces a wide assortment, including Orange Muscat, although it excels in Viognier and Cabernet Franc.

The Monticello Wine Trail provides a helpful guide, and naturally Jefferson Vineyards is the best place to start. The winery’s owners aren’t descendants of the Founding Father, but the current vineyard was established on land that Jefferson gave to Filippo Mazzei, a grape grower from Italy. Fast-forward to today, where it produces award-winning wines, such as the 2013 Viognier. 

Barboursville Vineyards is another property with historic roots, as a friend of Jefferson’s owned this land too. You can easily spend the day here, from wandering the extensive grounds, which are anchored by an 18th-century estate, to taking a guided winery tour. Don’t leave without trying Octagon, a world-class red wine that’s considered its signature. Other notable wineries along the trail include Blenheim Vineyards (which was founded by musician Dave Matthews).

Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania

The bucolic Brandywine Valley resides about an hour west of Philadelphia, and is perhaps best known as the birthplace of famed painter Andrew Wyeth and home to Longwood Gardens. Wine production in this region might be under the radar, but it’s where you’ll find award-winning Chaddsford Winery, one of the largest wine producers in the state. Its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are among the wines it does well. Tastings are available in its 17th century barn, and tours are also offered.

While it’s the best known, Chaddsford isn’t the only winery in the area. Penns Woods Winery is nearby, and produces a range (Merlot, Rosé), from Pennsylvania-grown grapes. There’s also the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail, which includes four wineries. Or time your visit to also squeeze in the annual Brandywine Food and Wine Festival in order to experience the best of the region in one place.

Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan

Just north of Traverse City, the Leelanau Peninsula is a scenic spit of land jutting out into Lake Michigan. The area has become a foodie destination in recent years, and don’t be surprised if you spot chef Mario Batali around town—he owns a summer home on the peninsula. The area has also attracted notice for its wineries, and Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Franc are among the wines to try here. The Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail numbers 25 wineries dotted along three trails: Sleeping Bear Loop, Northern Loop and Grand Traverse Bay Loop. L. Mawby, is considered the gold standard for Michigan sparkling wine, and its tasting room offers the first two pours for free.

Black Star Farms is another standout when it comes to Michigan wine. It offers three locations, but its flagship is on the peninsula. You could easily spend an entire weekend here, since the farm includes an upscale inn, dining options and several tasting areas. If your time is limited, hop on a wine tour: numerous companies, such as Grand Traverse Tours, cover the highlights. For something different, participate in the annual Harvest Stompede and race through vineyards—literally.

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