You voted, we counted: See which of these rivaling wine regions our readers would rather visit
In our August 2012 issue, we pitted Napa against Sonoma in our first-ever Wine Country Face-Off, asking experts from each mighty wine region to make a case for their valley's superior offerings, in areas such as wine quality, innovation, and visitor experience. Sonoma won our editorial battle by the skin of its teeth. But we wanted to know: What do our readers think is the superior Northern California wine region? And, for that matter, what about all those other glorious wine countries of the West? Your collective wine tourism wisdom follows.
Each year about 4 million visitors ply the vineyard-dense Napa Valley to sip Cabernet, dine at Michelin-starred restaurants, and rest their light heads in luxury hotels. And while Napa's blockbuster reds are indeed legendary (Screaming Eagle, Shafer, Sloan), there’s more to the region than pretty cult Cab. Think peppery Turley Zinfandel, Paloma’s rich Merlots, and ethereal Sauvignon Blancs from Randy Mason too.
The county’s 1,576 square miles are a sprawling garden of organic produce, free-range meats, and since 1824, grapes. In Sonoma, you can access countryside, towns, and tasting rooms—sans appointment—to try some of the most distinctive and innovative wines available. Each of Sonoma’s 13 AVAs has its specialties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast), Cabernet (Alexander and Sonoma Valleys). Don’t forget Zinfandel, which was practically invented in the Dry Creek Valley.
Northern California Reader Winner
Santa Barbara, CA
Scenic views abound from every corner of the Santa Barbara wine country, but it's the diverse microclimates throughout the county that make it such a dynamic wine region. Visit Happy Canyon, the warmest wine-growing pocket of Santa Barbara, for cabs and cab blends that rival Napa's; cooler regions like the Santa Maria Valley or Santa Rita Hills are worth a stop for Santa Barbara's more well-known Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and other Rhone varietals.
Paso Robles, CA
Less than 20 years ago, Paso Robles had a mere 30 wineries. Today, more than 200 are serving up an unusual diversity of wines that stand tall with the world's best, in tasting rooms that run from cottage quaint to high-style sleek (and all lacking pretension). On the must-try list? Cypher's Grenache Blanc, a rich white Rhône from Daou, Petite Sirah at Clayhouse, and one of the masterful red blends at L'Aventure.
Central Coast Reader Winner
Willamette Valley, OR
The beauty of this cool Oregon valley is that you can get lost on the backcountry roads but always find a good glass of Pinot Noir or crisp, lean Chardonnay around the bend. Need more direction? Try Pinots at Anne Amie, Freestone, and Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Chardonnays decked out in minerality instead of tons of oak at Adelsheim, Domaine Drouhin, and Chehalem.
Pack your sense of adventure and a real love for wine as you explore Eastern Washington. Once the wild, wild West of regions, it's now tamed with cult Syrahs and Euro winemakers. Stop and sip Grenache at Maison Bleue Family Winery in Prosser, Merlot at Cooper in Red Mountain, and a single-vineyard Syrah at Dunham Cellars in Walla Walla.
Northwest Reader Winner
When some enterprising winemakers realized that the high-desert terroir of Arizona's Verde Valley—warm days, cool nights, limestone soil—could produce great Syrahs, Zinfandels, and Grenaches, a new wine region took root. Our favorites include Page Springs Cellars, where you can have lunch and a flight on the deck overlooking the vineyards, and linger for bocce or a creekside massage. Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery is also a pleasant stop: bring a lunch, grab a bottle of Zinfandel or Barbera from the tasting room, and picnic in the mesquite grove. Those who prefer Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays should make a trip down to the Sonoita wine region, south of Tuscon.
The surprising home of the country's oldest vineyards, New Mexico's wines all but disappeared after Prohibition. Back now with a vengeance, New Mexico now boasts more than 40 wineries producing cabernets, chardonnays, and merlots worthy of the trip. Hit Gruet Winery for some stellar sparkling wines at affordable prices.
Southwest Reader Winner
Grand Valley, CO
With its miles of cattle ranches and fruit orchards, the Grand Valley once had a reputation among Coloradoans for being a bit boring. But that rep is on the outs these days as day-trippers from Denver and Boulder drift west along Interstate 70 to discover a drop-dead gorgeous valley that’s a mini Napa-meets-Boulder-meets-Moab. There are more than a dozen wineries to explore, but we love Carlson Vineyards, where the tasting room is a shaded shed overlooking the vineyards; try the tropical-tinged Laughing Cat Gewürztraminer. We also like Canyon Wind Cellars for its crisp, dry rosé, best enjoyed on the tree-shaded lawn with Grand Mesa as a backdrop.
Snake River Valley, ID
A decade ago, there were 11 wineries in Idaho; today there are more than 40. The winemakers in this emerging region have put themselves through a virtual crash course, finding out through trial and error what grows well where, and how to craft the crop into stellar wines. A getaway to this dry, high-desert swath east of Boise is no doubt a trip worthwhile, especially for fans of Spanish Tempranillo--the region produces some of the best earthy, tangy reds and even looks a bit like Spain. Viogners are often winners, too--try one at Williamson Orchards & Vineyards.
Rocky Mountains Reader Winner