About 20 years ago, I was a judge at the Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition, where, after two decades of slow improvement, many of the wines were dramatically better than they had been.
After the judging, I met with the editor of a Washington-based consumer magazine who said he needed a wine columnist.
“What brings you to Virginia?” he asked.
“I was judging Virginia wines,” I replied, to which he said, “Why? It’s all junk.”
I asked, “When was the last time you tasted a Virginia wine?” He said it had been so long he couldn’t remember.
“Well, a lot of them now are very good,” I said. He was skeptical, and from then on, he seemed uninterested in my writing for him.
I recalled the episode recently while sipping a superb but obscure red wine from Michigan. Since it’s hard to get, I thought I wouldn’t write about it. But days later I tasted another remote-region wine. And then another. All came from places that once made “junk,” in the word of that editor.
Then I realized what was happening: two unconnected trends were coming together at the same moment to make wine more exciting than ever.
- Millennial wine lovers aren’t only experimental, willing to try new aromas and flavors. They’re also eager to learn about obscure wines and regions.
- Fine wine is no longer the domain primarily of Northern California. Excellent wine is now being made in places no one would have believed just a few years ago.
Virginia now has dozens of top-rate producers, a fact that would shock Thomas Jefferson, who tried and failed many times to do likewise. One is 2015 Pollak Cabernet Franc ($28), a perfectly balanced, rich red wine.
The impressive Michigan red I tasted last week that sparked my realization of the two colliding trends was 2016 Blaufränkisch from Left Foot Charley Winery in Traverse City. ($18), on the Old Mission Peninsula. This Germanic red wine maybe the nation’s best wine ever from this grape!
I wasn’t surprised. Brilliant Michigan winemaker Bryan Ulbrich made it and it earned a silver medal at my recent wine competition.
Michigan’s recent claim to fame is a string of great dry and off-dry Rieslings, including a startling 2016 Riesling from Forty-Five North, Winemaker’s Reserve ($34). It was judged the best Medium-Dry Riesling in my competition.
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Those who love Riesling would do well to plan a trip to New York’s Finger Lakes, where two dozen wineries (!) are making world-class wines from Riesling. Three of the best are Fox Run, Red Newt, and Kemmeter.
One of the top fine-wine regions in the world, and one worth visiting, is Canada’s British Columbia. The conventional wisdom is that the region is too cold, but it really has milder weather, allowing for some startling white and red wines.
Most of these wines are not seen in this country, but many B.C. wineries have elaborate tasting rooms and some have superb restaurants.
Every U.S. state now has at least one winery (not all states have vineyards; they buy their grapes from other regions).
We have traveled to many states to try their wines, and some excellent wines now may be found at obscure properties. Here are a few suggestions for visits to smaller properties:
Washington: The second largest wine-producing state in the nation has more that 940 wineries. Its largest is Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose handsome headquarters isn’t far from Seattle in Woodinville. Most wines are of excellent quality.
Smaller but equally impressive is Maryhill Winey with two tasting rooms (Spokane and Goldendale) and a large portfolio of impressive wines.
Oregon: There are well over 700 wineries in Oregon, the most prestigious of which are located in the famed Willamette Valley, near Portland. Far less well known is the small southern Oregon region of Umpqua Valley, where two dozen properties thrive. Among the best are Reustle Prayer Rock (don’t miss the Syrah!) and Brandborg Cellars, both with striking portfolios.
Colorado: Many wineries are located on the eastern edge of Colorado (the Front Range). Almost all vineyards are at high altitudes and located in the west. Bookcliff Vineyards outside Boulder has always made superb wines and has a hospitable tasting room.
Ohio: The southern tip of Lake Erie is a picturesque landscape that’s not so cold, allowing vinifera grapes to thrive. Among the stellar cool-climate Rieslings of Ohio are Firelands, Debonne Vineyards, and Ferrante.
Texas: It has two major wine-making districts: the popular tourist mecca of the Hill Country near Austin, and High Plains, near Lubbock. Both make excellent wines, notably McPherson Cellars in the latter area, and in the former Fall Creek, founded four decades ago by Ed and Susan Auler.
If you can’t visit these far-flung wineries, most are willing to ship wines. Adventurous millennials will have lots of fun discovering the excitement.