Cool air envelops you as you step into the underground winemaker’s cave and stroll past hand-hewn oak barrels. The jovial owner of the family-run vineyard hands you a glass of his award-winning Riesling, and encourages you to sip slowly. As he asks for your feedback, he pours you another taste, and another. Welcome to Ohio Wine Country. Yes, Ohio.
Sure, you’ve heard of Napa and Sonoma. And visiting the wineries of Long Island’s North Fork is on your to-do list. But did you know that Iowa has more than 225 vineyards?Or that New Mexico has been producing wine for four centuries?Or that Michigan’s mitt lies on the same grape-friendly parallel as Bordeaux?There’s a world of wine waiting—maybe even in the state next door.
“What hidden trails offer is a deeper education and experience that larger, more commercial wineries can’t,” says wine author and expert Laurie Forster. “It’s also a wonderful way to find a wine no one has heard about or is drinking yet.”
Travelandleisure.com did some digging in order to find great off-the-beaten-vine-laden paths, each of which features wines (and wineries) as diverse as the states producing them. From Ohio to New Mexico, North Carolina to Iowa, scores of new wineries are opening their doors and welcoming tasters in by dozens. What’s more, on these lesser-known wine trails it’s possible to gain a deeper appreciation for what’s in your glass by walking among the vines, feeling the soil, talking directly to the owners—personal, hands-on experiences that aren’t always possible in California’s well-oiled wine country.
Those craving a day trip paired with a rustic, intimate setting should think small. Thanks to the climate, weather, slope of the land, and angle of the sun—all of which allow for dramatic grape-growing seasons in western Colorado, eastern Ohio, and a few little-known valleys in California—such trails guarantee a variety of wineries so close they’re within walking or biking distance from one another. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley (which showcases nearly 30 wineries spread out over 200 lush miles) and North Central Texas’s 300-mile wine route are both ideal for long-trail travel that shouts “weekend experience.”
For others, wacky winery transformations are the driving force behind grape-inspired pilgrimages. At King’s Crossing Winery on western Iowa’s wine trail, the patio includes an oversize checkerboard—complete with tree-trunk checkers 12 inches around. In Traverse City, in northern Michigan, Left Foot Charley’s tasting room used to be a laundry facility in an insane asylum; Shady Lane Cellars’ tasting room (on the Leelanau Peninsula) is a former chicken coop.
There are plenty of other surprises. These unexpected trails—perfect for both the experienced and the curious—are giving the larger, better-known vineyards something to, well, “wine” about.