The three most well-known U.S. states that produce good quality table wine are California, Washington, and Oregon. You’ll see wines from these states on retail shelves throughout the entire country. The reason is that these states have ideal conditions for growing wine grapes.
To the above, I would add the Upper Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico and the Finger Lakes District as well as the Long Island areas of New York.
The Midwest and the mid-Atlantic regions contain hundreds of wineries but I have been unimpressed, overall, with the quality. The eastern half of the country receives too much rain and has too much humidity for standard varieties of fine wine grapes to thrive in ideal conditions. There are exceptions, of course, especially where vineyards are planted at higher elevations and the winemaker is technically trained. Some wineries in Virginia, for example, have shown promise with dry table wines made from certain European grape vareties.
The United States uses the American Viticultural Area, or AVA, as the quality designation. AVAs begin on a state level and work their way down to specific regions. Example: California - Central Coast - Santa Barbara County - Santa Ynez Valley. The wines become better, and more expensive, the smaller the AVA. Thus, a wine from the Santa Ynez Valley would be much higher quality and much more expensive than a wine labeled simply California.
Tasting Tip: Buy your American wine by the AVA, much like you would wine from other areas of the world. The smaller the AVA, the more passionate the local winemakers are about quality because they have a reputation to uphold.
California is far and away the largest wine producing state in the U.S. (roughly 90% by volume). There are three major regions: Central Coast, North Coast, and South Coast. I’ll discuss only the most well-known AVAs in each region.
The Central Coast roughly follows a series of major faults, including the San Andreas, from San Francisco Bay south to Santa Barbara County just north of Los Angeles. This area produces exceptional Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Also of good quality is Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, and some Chardonnay, although most California Chardonnays are oaky and buttery which I don’t care for.
Within the general Santa Barbara County area, excellent AVAs are Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Maria Valley. These AVAs, especially, produce world-class Pinot Noir and were the setting for the 2004 movie Sideways.
Further north in the general San Luis Obispo County area, you’ll find the quality AVAs of Arroyo Grande Valley, Edna Valley, and Paso Robles. The Paso Robles AVA is a large one in extent, and today produces much wine for retail shelves. Excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir are found here, along with Chardonnay.
Moving further north, we come to Monterey County, producer of world-class Pinot Noir and Syrah, along with good Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The AVAs here are all outstanding: Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, and Arroyo Secco.
Tasting Tip: I have personally visited nearly all of the AVAs listed above for the Central Coast and can testify to the excellence of the wines.
Finally, the northern-most portion of the Central Coast is the San Francisco Bay area where lower quality wines (in my opinion) are produced. Notable AVAs include Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Clara Valley.
The North Coast is the most well-known wine region to Americans because of Napa and Sonoma Counties. However, there are other excellent areas to explore where the wines are world-class and the tourists much fewer.
Just north of San Francisco are Napa and Sonoma Counties, both of which produce some of America’s best wines. In Sonoma County, the best AVAs are Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Rockpile, Knight’s Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Chalk Hill, and Los Carneros (shared with Napa County).
Tasting Tip: Sonoma County is much more idyllic and scenic than Napa. The Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley, in particular, still retain their rustic, pastoral character.
World class Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Bordeaux style blends are produced here, along with outstanding Champagne style sparkling wines. Some excellent Italian varietals are also produced as well.
Tasting Tip: The Carneros AVA produces, in my opinion, some of the best Champagne style wine in the world. I enjoy the sparkling wines of Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer, in particular. The Carneros region overlaps the southern portion of both Napa and Sonoma Counties.
In Napa County, look for the AVAs of Oakville, Stag’s Leap, Pope Valley, Yountsville, Rutherford, Atlas Peak, Oak Knoll, St. Helena, Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Chiles Valley, and Los Carneros (shared with Sonoma).
Several of these AVAs are extremely small, having been legally designated back in the days when single wineries or vineyards could qualify for an AVA.
Tasting Tip: Napa is most well known for its Cabernet Sauvignon which is as good as any in the world. However, prices reflect this fact, unfortunately, since many Napa Cabs are over $100/bottle.
Just to the north of the Napa/Sonoma area lies Mendocino County, producer of outstanding Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and crisp Chardonnay, as well as decent Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Very good Champagne style sparkling wines are also produced as well.
There are many AVAs in Mendocino, most of which are extremely small. The major one of consequence is the Andersen Valley.
Tasting Tip: Mendocino County lies just two hours north by auto from the San Francisco airport and is an excellent alternative to tourist choked Napa/Sonoma. Most wineries are along the scenic Andersen Valley, and just to the north and south of the town of Ukiah.
To the east of Mendocino County is Lake County, worth visiting in conjunction with a trip to Mendocino.
An area that produces outstanding Zinfandel and Rhone and Italian varietals is the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. Amador County is where you’ll find, in my opinion, some of the best Zinfandel in California, as well as excellent Italian wines. Nearby El Dorado County, being higher in elevation, excels in producing Rhone wines.
Tasting Tip: El Dorado and Amador Counties can easily be visited in one trip of 2-3 days. The scenery is superb, the wines outstanding, and the tourists few. Be sure to stop in at the Renwood Winery tasting room and enjoy the awesome display of large format bottles.
The final area to talk about in the North Coast is the Central Valley which runs from Sacramento south to the San Joaquin Valley. Here is where much of California’s jug wine is produced and where E & J Gallo—the world’s largest wine producer—is located. In my opinion, there is not much top quality wine to be found, although there are a few good producers in the Lodi area.
This region lies to the south of Los Angeles and encompasses Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego Counties. Chardonnay has been the dominant wine produced, but recently there has been an effort to increase production of Rhone, Italian, and Spanish grape varieties because the hot, dry climate is especially suited to these grapes.
The South Coast region does not yet produce much wine for national distribution. However, you may occasionally come across quality AVAs such as Temecula Valley, Cucamonga Valley, Ramona Valley, and San Pasqual Valley.
U.S. Pacific Northwest Wines
The U.S. Pacific Northwest wine producing region includes the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. This area of the country produces, in my opinion, not only many excellent white and red wines, but, in particular, some of the best Syrah and Viognier in the world.
The climate here is perfect for wine grapes and matches many of the same conditions found in France, Italy, and Spain. Hot summer days and cool nights, combined with arid conditions and ideal soils, ensure the right levels of sugar development and acidity.
Of the three states, Washington is a major producer of nationally distributed wines, followed by Oregon which produces less. Idaho, although a maker of quality wines, is not yet a major producer.
(Note: Please refer to the page on California wines for a discussion of the AVA system.)
Much of Washington is included in the Columbia Valley AVA because the Columbia River drains most of the state. However, it is no guide to quality and wine enthusiasts must focus on more narrowly defined AVAs within the Columbia Valley area discussed below.
The Walla Walla Valley AVA is, in my opinion, one of the world’s great sources of awesome wines. World class Syrah, Viognier, and Merlot are produced here, along with excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. Unfortunately, the Walla Walla Valley is somewhat isolated and remote, and the AVA is very limited in extent, so wines made from grapes grown here are unlikely to be on retail shelves in other states.
Tasting Tip: A visit in person to Walla Walla is definitely recommended. I have been there twice for a total of six days and still have not quite visited every quality producer. Prior to my first visit, I was not a fan of Merlot. However, the bold, fruity, bright cherry notes of Walla Walla Merlot converted me on the spot. You can be sure I’ll be back again soon.
Further to the west, quality AVAs you should look for on bottles include Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Rattlesnake Hills, and Wahluke Slope. Excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Viognier, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling are produced here in sufficient quantities that some of the wine is distributed regionally and nationally.
In far southwest Washington, the Columbia Gorge AVA includes Pinot Noir in the suite of wines produced. (The AVA crosses over into Oregon as well.)
The Puget Sound AVA is located along Puget Sound, including the islands. It is not known for the production of fine dry table wines due to the excessive rainfall and humidity. Instead, much of the wine production focuses on lesser known grape varieties that do well in this climate, but which require an adjustment of palate to appreciate.
Oregon has made its claim to fame by producing some of the best fruit-forward Pinot Noir on earth. However, in the past decade, the wine industry has become increasingly well known for other fine wines including Pinot Gris, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
The general Willamette Valley (pronounced ‘will-lamb-met’) AVA is where the majority of wines are produced. This region runs roughly southward from Portland to Salem. However, as is the case in Washington, you must look to smaller, more specific AVAs within the valley for the better wines.
Look for the AVAs of Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, and Yamhill-Carlton District for the best wines.
Tasting Tip: Argyle Winery in the town of Dundee produces an array of excellent Champagne style sparkling wines. Argyle is worth a stop for a refreshing change from tasting all the Pinots in the region.
Southwest Oregon contains the Rouge River AVA which also produces excellent Pinot Noir and other varietals. However, due to its isolated location and limited production, you must visit in person to have an opportunity to enjoy the wines.
Finally, east of Portland an hour lies the Columbia Gorge and Hood River AVAs which both produce an outstanding variety of wines. The Hood River AVA, in particular, has excellent Pinot Noir made in a slightly different style than in the Willamette Valley.
Idaho is primarily known for wines produced in the Snake River Valley AVA in the southwestern part of the state, although there is limited production further north in a non-AVA region. Excellent Syrah, Viognier, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon are produced. In addition, Tempranillo and Malbec also seem well-suited to the climate.
Surpringly, Canada has a significant wine industry due to micro-climate conditions. The most important areas of the industry occur in two regions: southern Ontario and southern British Columbia. The Canadian wine industry uses the quality designation Vintners Quality Alliance, or VQA. Look for this on bottles of Canadian wines.
There are good growing and climate conditions for cold weather grape varieties from Niagara Falls (Lake Erie) northward to the south shore of Lake Ontario. The major VQAs are Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula, Niagara Escarpment, and Lake Erie North Shore. Common wines are Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Vidal Blanc.
The real claim to fame in this wine region is the production of outstanding Ice Wines, made by allowing the grapes to partially freeze on the vines before harvest. This concentrates the sugars and allows relatively low alcohol, very sweet dessert wines to be produced.
The main wine producing region of British Columbia lies just north of the border with Washington State. The most important VQAs are Okanagan Valley and Fraser Valley. These areas produce a variety of crisp whites such as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Viognier, and quality reds such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.
The British Columbia wine industry also produces excellent ice wines.