Top Ten Hidden-Gem Wine Regions

Fall is a great season to get outside, with foliage-viewing high on everyone's list. But for a vacation that's a bit different, a trip to the vineyard during the eventful harvest season is in order. If you don't have the time—or money—to plan a trip to a wine region like Sonoma or Napa Valley, check out these off-the-beaten-path wine destinations, many of which are a quick dash from a major city.
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Vineyard, Traverse City, Michigan
Michigan's wine country starts in Traverse City, sharing latitude with France's famed Bordeaux wine region  (Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau)

10. Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania
Bucolic hills provide a lush backdrop for the eight wineries on the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail, located 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia and near Lancaster Amish country. Painter Andrew Wyeth captured the landscape of the area, and many Revolutionary War sites, like Valley Forge National Historic Park, dot the valley. The vineyards can be a nice day trip from the city, or be part of a vacation that includes visiting lavish historic estates or getting outdoors and canoeing on Brandywine Creek. Consider taking a side trip to Longwood Gardens, with displays of more than 11,000 plants and flowers through the grounds and conservatory. The wineries are small, family-owned, and are an easy drive from one another—the entire wine trail is 50 miles long. Barrels on the Brandywine takes place every weekend in March, and features tastings of new and developing vintages, live music, and special food events as well as classes and demonstrations.

9. Traverse City, Michigan
Located on the 45th parallel—the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France—this budding wine area is protected from harsh winters by its proximity to Lake Michigan. On peninsulas on each side of West Grand Traverse Bay, vineyards are making a variety of wines but are gaining a reputation for their Pinot Blancs. There are several camping and RV spots in the area, and Michigan Highway M-37, which runs up Old Mission Peninsula, is great for cycling with wide shoulders and diverse scenery. For the bed and breakfast experience, try Chateau Chantal, an 11-unit inn, winery, and vineyard that sits on a ridge overlooking both East and West Grand Traverse Bays. Across West Bay, visit the larger Leelanau Peninsula, home to nearly 20 different wineries. Stop by Black Star Farms, a bed and breakfast, winery, and creamery that produces artisanal cheese, as well as a farmers' market and café that serves farm-fresh meals.

8. Yakima Valley, Washington
Yakima Valley may not get as much attention as Walla Walla, but nearly half the wine produced in Washington begins with Yakima grapes. The area is sunny about 300 days a year and is blessed with rich volcanic soil. Irrigation has helped make it ideal for grape growing, producing wine ranging from Merlot to Sauvignon Blanc. Yakima Valley is about a two hour drive from Seattle, and Highway 82 bisects a lot of the vineyards. Consider staying in the town of Yakima, where the quaint historic district is in the midst of revitalization. There are more than 50 wineries in the region, and they tend to be family-owned, casual, and unpretentious. The Yakima Valley Association of Growers and Wineries has itineraries for several possible trips to different vineyards, from wineries with a view of the agricultural countryside to snow-capped volcanic mountains, establishments that offer food on site, or wineries that are dog friendly. Make sure to check out the farm stands that dot the area; the Valley is known for its apples and cherries.

7. Cleveland, Ohio
When you hear Cleveland, your first thoughts might be the Browns, the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, or even 30 Rock. But next time you flee to the Cleve, consider checking out a winery. There are 135 vineyards in the state, and many are concentrated in the Northeast on the shores of Lake Erie.

John Christ Winery is about 30 minutes from downtown Cleveland and has a cozy, laid-back tasting room—complete with board games—where you can order food to nibble on while you sample. The winery produces several varietals, including many drier wines, but the bestseller is the Special Blend that's made of sweet concord and Niagara grapes and tastes a whole lot like an alcoholic version of Welch's grape juice.

The area is able to grow many types of European classics like cabernet franc and pinot noir because of the long, dry autumns that give grapes time on the vine to ripen. But the region is also known for ice wine, which is made by allowing the grapes to remain on the vine after the first frost and pressed frozen, concentrating the flavors for this sweet dessert wine. Chalet Debonne in Madison has mastered its version of this.

If you want to learn more about wines from around the world, check out the locally based American Wine School, which offers professional and "leisure" classes organized by region or varietal.

6. Arkansas River Valley, Arkansas
Wine production in the southern slopes of the Ozark Mountains dates back to the 1880s, when Jacob Post, a German immigrant, and Johann Wiederkehr, a Swiss immigrant, both decided to open vineyards in the area that reminded them of the winemaking regions in their home countries. Two vineyards in the Altus, Arkansas, area are still run by fourth- and fifth-generation descendants, along with two more recent newcomers. Wiederkehr Wine Cellars offers tours of its winemaking operation and has a restaurant on site in the original 1880 cellar, serving European specialties, like schnitzel and fondue, by candlelight.

Altus is only 90 minutes north of Hot Springs, where you can check out its downtown, view art deco architecture, or partake in a famous hot mineral bathing experience at a local spa. If you want a break from wine, drive two hours from Altus to Little Rock, where you can visit the Diamond Bear Brewing Company, which produces several varieties of craft beer and offers weekend brewery tours.

Published: 25 Mar 2010 | Last Updated: 1 Oct 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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