By Brian Jewell
If you have a contingent of wine-lovers or other epicureans in your group, then get out your map — great wine experiences are closer to home than you might think.
For years, certain well-known wine-growing destinations have dominated the wine tourism landscape. But the explosion in viticulture and wine popularity has led to the growth of the wine industry in all 50 U.S. states, and some unexpected regions have become regional hot spots for wine experiences.
Up-and-coming destinations from Virginia to Washington offer opportunities for tour groups to have wine-focused travel experiences. We’ve found four distinctive areas where a critical mass of wineries, a friendly disposition and growing national acclaim add up to make delightful wine tour experiences for groups.
Walla Walla, Washington
Walla Walla has been a fixture of Washington agriculture for more than 150 years. In the past 40 years, wine has become a key part of the area’s industry.
“Our first vines were planted in the 1960s, and our first winery was established in the late ’70s,” said Michele Rennie, interim executive director of Tourism Walla Walla. “The founding fathers of Walla Walla wine are still here and still very active.”
Some 150 wineries operate within a 20-mile radius of Walla Walla, and around 90 of them open their doors to visitors. Few are set up to accommodate a full-size tour group, but some area wineries have found a solution to that. Rennie said that facilities like Northstar Winery and Pepper Bridge Winery, which are located within a quarter-mile of each other, will each take half of a group for a tour and tasting, and then switch, so that every group member gets to visit both wineries.
Groups may also enjoy visiting the area during several annual wine events, among them Spring Release on the first weekend in May and Fall Release on the first weekend in November. At both of these events, wineries introduce new vintages to consumers for the first time.
“Typically our wineries release their big red wines in the fall because grapes are crushed in the fall, and it takes them about two years to go through the aging process,” Rennie said. “That’s typically syrah, merlot and cabernet. During Spring Release, you’re going to get white wines and varietals that don’t require as much oak aging.”
— www.wallawalla.org —
A small town situated on the banks of the Missouri River west of St. Louis, Hermann was settled by German immigrants in the 1830s. Those settlers brought with them an Old World winemaking tradition, giving the city more than a century and a half of wine history.
One of the most historic wineries is OakGlenn Vineyards, situated on the site once cultivated by Missouri wine pioneer George Husmann.
“George Husmann grew grapes in Hermann for a long time before moving to California,” said Jim Grebing, director of tourism at the Hermann Chamber of Commerce. “Some people think that the origins of the Napa wine industry date to him moving to California. Husmann had some vineyards where OakGlenn is now, and they still have some of his vines growing; so there’s a lot of history associated with that winery.”
Groups visit OakGlenn for a tour and a tasting, as well as for meals in the restaurant that overlooks the Missouri River.
In downtown Hermann, the Hermannhof Winery occupies a number of historic buildings. Groups can tour the wine cellars and old mill at the site, or have lunch or dinner in the restaurant. There’s a historic inn for interested overnight guests. And at the Tin Mill Brewery, visitors can sample locally made beer.
Of the six wineries on the Hermann Wine Trail, Stone Hill Winery is the most popular with groups.
“It’s the real showpiece of the Missouri wine industry,” Grebing said. “They have wine cellars that are unique — they’re the largest arched wine cellars in North America. They have a large tasting room for groups, and the Vintage Restaurant serves a selection of great German food.”
— www.visithermann.com —
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