8 Up-and-Coming Wine Regions in the US

Americans are drinking more wine than ever — let’s toast to the newcomers to the New World wine scene

Last week, America made headlines when it was discovered that it was taking over the global market for wine consumption — curiously snubbing our Old World friends in Europe, the world’s pros at drinking and making wine. According to the Associated Press, America is now the largest wine market in the world, consuming nearly 13 percent of all the wine made worldwide. And while we’ll always love a good riesling from Alsace or a good Bordeaux, it’s become clear that Americans are drinking wines born in the USA now more than ever.

American wine industry is robust and growing, both at home and abroad, with their increasing exports,” says Doug Bell, the national wine buyer for Whole Foods Markets, who’s been buying wine for nearly 30 years. While Bell notes that there will always be a demand for Old World Wines from France, Italy, and Spain, American drinkers are becoming more knowledgeable and curious about all wines — including New World wines. “I think the consumer ‘perceives’ New World wine as a comfortable purchase because they pretty much know what they are buying with how the New World is labeling its wines… by varietal,” he says. “They are comfortable with that more than, say, a Piesporter Michelsberg Spatlese or a Chassagne-Montrachet German Riesling and French White Burgundy, a chardonnay.”

And it could be why Americans are gravitating to local wines. Bell buys nationally from the bigger wine regions that have total coverage in the U.S., because some of the up-and-coming wine regions aren’t distributed nationally. While Napa and Sonoma may be the ruling wine regions in the country, many more states and regions are exploding into the wine world; there are now more than 7,000 wineries in the U.S., a huge jump from the 1970s, when there were just 400 wineries. Bell says Whole Foods Markets has 12 regional wine buyers as well as approximately 225 wine buyers at the store level, who tend to heavily focus and promote wines in their regions-states-markets. “We are big supportes of the locally crafted wines,” Bell says.

Some emerging wine regions in the U.S., like Virginia, may taste more Old World than new, but that doesn’t mean that the wine regions on our list aren’t redefining what the American wine landscape looks like.

“Idaho has been on the verge of coming into its own regarding wine production for several years,” says Kathryn House, the owner and oenologist of Wine Wise Idaho, a wine education, analysis, and consulting company. She says it’s because winemakers and growers are moving from the more established western wine regions (California and the Pacific Northwest) back to the “wild west.” “This influx of knowledge, hard work, and a desire to learn about Idaho’s unique terroir, along with the talent of great farmers and established producers seeking to work together to improve quality and explore have really pushed the industry forward,” she says.

What kind of wines can you expect to find in Idaho? The good news is that a wino with a big palate will find just about every varietal they love: intense, aromatic white varieties such as riesling, viognier and gewurztraminer as well as red varieties such as syrah, malbec, mourvèdre, and tempranillo, says House. She says certain wineries, like Colter’s Creek, Clearwater Canyon, and Lindsay Creek express the distinct terroir of the northern region. But in the Boise area, “urban” wineries like Coiled, Cinder, Telaya, and Syringa are also producing diverse, quality wines. Some of the larger wineries, like Sawtooth Winery, are being recognized nationally for its wines; for example, Wine and Spirits named Sawtooth’s 2011 Riesling a “US Best Riesling” in August 2012. A riesling from Idaho? We can’t argue with that. “Whatever your palate, there’s an Idaho wine that can suit your taste — but half the fun is trying them all!” says House.

Many people may not know Virginia’s long history with winemaking — and it’s about time they did. “Our region’s history is rooted in vine planting,” says Michelle Gueydan, a sommelier formerly of John Besh’s restaurants and Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. (Now, she oversees the Best of Virginia program at Early Mountain Vineyards.)

More than 400 years ago, Jamestown settlers recognized the Virginia terrain was suited for vine planting, and many years later, Thomas Jefferson insisted that Virginia could produce great wines, says Gueydan. (No wonder those Founding Fathers loved their wine so much.) But success didn’t come quickly to the region; Gueydan says Virginia had to come into its own as a wine region. “In recent years, we have seen a shift in the focus from both growers and winemakers capitalizing on varieties and blends that set us apart from other regions, and to work with (not against) Mother Nature to confront frequent climatic fluctuations,” Gueydan says. Now, the region is concentrating on making single-bottled varieties like viognier, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, which is separating Virginia from the pack. “Instead of following ‘blueprints’ from other wine producing regions, we are creating our own,” she says.

Virginia is now home to 220-plus wineries in the state, with wines that seem to fit the Old World standards more than the new: “high in acidity, low in alcohol, and are typically described as ‘terroir’ driven, says Gueydan. “Even though Virginia is a part of the New World, our wines tend to not be as ‘fleshy’ and fruit-forward as the wines from a region like California.” It seems to be paying off: at the first Virginia Wine Summit, Virginia winemakers faced off their varietals in a blind taste test with varietals from more recognized wine regions. Of the eight categories, Virginian wines won six.

Some of the most innovative wineries in Virginia? Gueydan has a full list: Linden Vineyards, Barboursville Vineyards, Breaux Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, Chatham Vineyards, and the list goes on and on. Clearly, Virginia is becoming the new California (even Gueydan herself returned to Virginia fresh from a harvest season in Russian River Valley, Calif.). “It has been especially encouraging that both pioneers and newcomers in our industry are not only setting exemplary standards for the quality of wines produced in the State of Virginia, but are also willing to share their experiences with others in order to lift the status and exposure of our region as a whole,” Gueydan says.

Long Island, N.Y.
The Finger Lakes region isn’t the only wine region in New York feeling the love: Long Island wineries are getting their due respect. Long Island was recognized as one of the Top 10 Travel Destinations for 2013 by Wine Spectator, and its wines are becoming more well-known outside of the state. It’s thanks to the rising popularity of merlot, says Elizabeth Schneider, a certified sommelier and wine specialist, and the creator and host of the popular Wine for Normal People podcast and blog. Because Long Island shares some climatic similarities to Bordeaux, the merlot from Long Island stands out for its spicy flavors, bright acidity, and subtle tannin. (Bedell Cellars’ merlot was the first New York wine to be served at a Presidential Inauguration celebration.) “As the U.S. distaste for merlot gets righted — such a wrong, thanks, Sideways! — Long Island’s star is going to rise higher,” she says. Other notable wines from the region are its cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, and even some sparkling wines and chardonnay, but it’s all about the merlot from this almost-Europe wine destination.

And it’s not just the North Fork of Long Island that has winos excited. “The North Fork of Long Island is the mini Napa Valley of New York state,” says Samantha Shaw, assistant sommelier at Restaurant Latour in Crystal Springs, N.J. “[The North Fork] at times [is] reminiscent of Highway 29 in the summertime; one highway with a single lane in both directions boasting 50 to 60 vineyards all right next to each other. But hop on the ferry that takes you across the sound back to the South Fork and you find yourself in a completely different wine-o world.” What you’ll find there: Wölffer Estate Vineyard, known for its rosés (“it’s become the ‘wine of the summer’ in the Hamptons, and for good reason”), and Channing Daughters Vineyard, known for its innovative rosés and rosatos.

Of course, Long Island and the Finger Lakes have boosted New York state as a wine region as a whole. “The wines of New York state have always struck me as intriguing, complex, food friendly wines,” says Scott Waller, sommelier and beverage manager at Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, N.Y. “The range of expression is stunning as well. There are light refreshing styles, shown in mineral driven white wines that are challenging some of the best wines of Germany, and France. Red wines from New York have the ability to pair with food wonderfully. They tend to be less deeply extracted, and have palate-refreshing characteristics. This style allows the food to shine through, supported by the wine, not overtaken by it.”

New Jersey
When The New York Times declares the days of “Springsteen, Snooki, industrial pollution, the mob” in New Jersey over and decrees the Garden State as the new Napa, you pay attention. “New Jersey winemakers refuse to be put down,” says Shaw. They understand the hardships in appealing the wine world, but have found a place in the hearts of the locals.” What makes New Jersey wines different from its Californian cousins, or its New York siblings, is that its winemakers have embraced the climatic challenges to make better wine. New Jersey soil is very similar to that in Long Island, says Shaw, but has some diversity in both geography and geology that makes for a diverse winemaking set. “Most winemaker’s in New Jersey are not trying to make the bold cabernet sauvignons that are coming out of California, or the overly oaked chardonnays,” says Shaw. “Rather, they are aware of their temperamental climate and their varied soil compositions throughout the state. What they grow here is unlike most wines coming from anywhere else.”

The New Jersey wineries that are making big waves coast to coast? Shaw shared her favorites: Unionville Vineyards, for its Bordeaux blends (“In a blind tasting, it would be truly hard to decipher between a young New Jersey blend, and young Bordeaux”) and viogniers; Ventimiglia Winery, for its “hybrid wines” and merlot; and Hawk Haven for a gewurztraminer “that is comparable to any gewurztraminer from Alsace, France.” It’s clear that New Jersey wines are here to stay.

Walla Walla, Wash.
Walla what? Of course, no one is immune to the rising star power of Washington wines, Williamette Valley and Columbia Valley being two of the most well-known wine regions in the state. “It’s a warm weather area that specializes in bold reds like merlot and syrah,” says Schneider. “This is probably the highest quality red wine area in the state and certainly the most ‘organized’ and poised to make a big marketing play to get their wines out to those of us in the rest of the country.” That means some very promising cabernet and malbecs from the region. But one particular part of Walla Walla is certainly making the region stand out — the rocks section. “The Rocks section is the remains of an ancient river bed from after the last ice age,” says Doug Zucker from Stew Leonard’s Wines. “The river carried rocky debris from glacial melt, and as the river dried up dropped them to the ground. The stony soil today is very reminiscent of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Wines from The Rocks region are vastly different from the rest of Walla Walla and Washington as a whole: hugely aromatic aromas of bloody meat, bacon (yes those are two good things!), iodine and quite rich-tasting.”

Cleveland’s Pier W’s level two sommelier, Kliment Stevoff, says Walla Walla is one of the top regions in the U.S. (outside of California) for syrah, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. “This region produces some concentrated and lush red wines that are beautifully balanced,” he says. “Some of my favorite wineries are K-Vitners, L’Ecole, Northstar, and Leonetti.”

Paso Robles, Calif.
Consider Paso Robles, Calif., the underdog in the California wine world — but not for long. “Unlike Napa and Sonoma, Paso Robles is still growing and experimenting,” says Zucker. What the region also has to its advantage is its climate: Zucker explains that Highway 101 splits the area right down the middle — east of the highway is hot and mostly flat, west of the road are the mountains that funnel the cooler breezes off the Pacific. “For most of its wine history (1880s onward) it was zinfandel planted by Italian immigrants on the hotter east side,” he says. “Today the most exciting wines are coming from the cooler slopes of the west.” One of those wineries doing unexpected things? Villa Creek Cellars, known for its Rhône and Bordeaux blends that Wine Spectator regularly scores in the 90s.

Albequerque, N.M.
When asked to name the most unexpected wine region in the U.S.,Whole Foods Market national wine buyer, Doug Bell’s first response? Albuquerque. “Gruet Winery in Albuquerque, N.M., has vineyards 150 miles south of the winery near Truth and Consequences, N.M.,” he says. “Chardonnay and pinot noir from New Mexico? Yep, and their wines really rock, especially their sparkling wines. They are really delicious.” It’s clear that the Gruet family is leading the way for a new breed of Southwestern wines.

Michigan may be the fastest-growing wine region in the country: Michigan’s wine grape acreage has doubled within the last decade, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And overall, acreage of wine grapes increased from 1,300 to 2,650 acres. Michigan has already established itself as a wine destination, and 2012 will certainly further the state’s premier status, said Paolo Sabbatini, Michigan State University assistant professor of viticulture in a release about the state of Michigan’s wines. Despite some hard climatic challenges (80-degree temperatures followed by a freeze) that hit the state’s fruit crops hard, the grapes flourished. “The quality of grapes last year was exceptional, perfect ripening conditions of the fruit allowed several grape varieties to perfectly express all their varietal characteristics,” he said. “Much of the fruit harvested last year will produce reserve-quality wine.”