The Alternate Guide to America’s Best Wine Regions

What to do, see, and eat when the wine tasting ends

Wine country is endlessly romantic. Whether you’re in the Willamette Valley, Sonoma, or Texas Hill Country, the idyllic rolling hills of vineyards and the precious tastings of their products are reason enough to spend the weekend indulging in wine-soaked afternoons and leisurely, well-paired dinners.

But, dare I say, there is only so much time you can spend sipping and spitting before you start yearning for a few non-dizzy hours. These regions may be known for their grapes, but they all offer a range of activities and sights worth seeing when you’re ready to take a break from comparing cabernets.

 

Napa Valley, Calif.

The best-known wine region in the U.S., Napa Valley is home to some of American wine’s most famous producers. And with Ubuntu, The French Laundry, and La Toque, the region is no stranger to some of the country’s best chefs and freshest ingredients. But once stomachs are full and happy, and glasses have been emptied, Napa Valley is ready to satisfy art lovers, theater aficionados, hot air balloon curiosities, cyclists, gliding enthusiasts, and farmers market obsessives.

One of our favorite activities is at the Fatted Calf (pictured), where you can take classes in butchery, preparing terrines and pâtés, or learn how to make sausages at home. We’d also stop by the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for a quick browse through their marketplace of spices, a cooking demonstration, or a peek into how chefs balance flavors in the Flavor Bar. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/{Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester})

The outdoor extravaganza that is the Di Rosa Art Center boasts sculptures, photographs, drawings, and paintings from some of California’s most notable artists. Guests can stroll the gardens and hills, with a new art work popping up at every turn. And in the evenings, Napa’s Uptown Theatre hosts live music, theater, and performances like Beck, Rufus Wainwright, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Taking a glider ride or flying lesson at one of the many outfitters in Napa will be just enough of a thrill to make you waltz right back into those tasting rooms for a bit of Northern California calm.

Willamette Valley, Ore.

One of the most exciting regions for wine in the U.S. right now, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a food-, wine-, and outdoor-lovers dream destination. Known particularly for pinot noir, the valley boasts more than 200 wineries to visit on your own or on a designated wine route.

Once the last glass has been poured, step into another kind of tasting room — at SakeOne. Then, sobered up, we’d rent bikes and venture out to one of the valley’s classic roads. You can bring bikes onto the Historic Canby Ferry to cross the Willamette Valley to continue your ride. Lovers of rest and relaxation will appreciate the rustic, off-the-grid feel of the Bagby Hot Springs.  

Space geeks can indulge in a trip to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, where the Spruce Goose, a B-17 Bomber, and the SR-71 Blackbird are on display, while food nerds will want to take advantage of the tours and olive oil tastings at the Oregon Olive Mill or book a trip with A Helfrich Outfitter to catch trout and salmon in the McKenzie River.

 

Charlottesville, Va.

The Monticello wine region bills itself as the birthplace of American wine. And while its history (which dates back to Thomas Jefferson) is rich, many wine lovers across the country are discovering this region for the first time. It’s been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, with certain wineries becoming a part of the conversation about America’s best bottles. And while vineyards have long been a focus of the region, there is plenty to do when visitors feel like moving beyond the tasting rooms.

Golfers will appreciate the award-winning courses in the region, though we’re more partial to an intimate, hands-on cooking class at the Seasonal Cook, where subject matters range from braising to salads and comfort foods to basic French fare. Scenic flights over the region would always be gorgeous, but in the fall when the leaves all change color, the view is unparalleled.

One thing we wouldn’t miss is the chance to tour Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello (pictured). A stroll through the famous vegetable garden would be followed by a stop in the café for seasonal snacks. Back to the vineyards for one last swill, and we’d be on our way to a horseback riding adventure in the Shenandoah National Park. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Southern Foodways Alliance)

Texas Hill Country, Texas

Embarking on a trail through Texas Hill Country’s wine region is to discover a unique set of vineyards. Small when compared to the Willamette Valley or Napa Valley, Texas Hill Country is different in that it was a food- and culture-lover’s destination even before becoming a notable wine region. Of course, that means there is much to do, eat, and see on breaks from the tasting room.

Don’t miss the chance to tuck into authentic Texas barbecue at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Barbecue. Try the brisket and the pork ribs with a side of beans or corn on the cob. For a sweet finish, head to Chocolat Quintessential Chocolates for hand-crafted liquid-filled chocolates made with a technique that’s more than 300 years old. Or head into the great outdoors on a fishing excursion with In The Hills Fishing.

The best way to head right back into the wine trail is via a vintage 1971 VW bus that will take you along the Texas Wine Trail, stopping at 25 wineries.

Walla Walla Valley, Wash.

Originally a farming community, Walla Walla Valley is pretension-free and wine and food obsessed. With more than 200 wineries dotting Walla Walla Valley and its surrounding valleys, the region is a premiere destination for wine lovers, but also has a rich history and a rustic, Old West charm to it. It is also a biker’s paradise, with rental services along the main drag as well as tours operating through vineyards and fields.

Book your bike from Allegro Cyclery and make your way through the center of town, stopping for beautiful pastries from the Colville Street Patisserie. Stop by the Fort Walla Walla Museum for a taste of Oregon Trail history before strolling through the Downtown Walla Walla Farmers Market, where you’ll find cheeses, locally made soaps, fresh fruits, and the famous Walla Walla sweet onions. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/M Hedin)

Take the opportunity to catch a classical music concert performed by the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra, which has been around for more than 100 years. And then hunt down Walla Walla’s first gourmet food truck, Andrae’s Kitchen, whose menu changes daily and whose ingredients are all local. The region is known for their outdoor sports, as well — with ample hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, and bird watching among the activities to join all year round, with great skiing in the winter.

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