By Jodi Helmer
When it comes to wine country in America, Napa and Sonoma get all the attention. While both destinations deserve their reputations as premier U.S. regions, there are wonderful lesser-known locales where grape-laden vines dot the landscape, glasses of award-winning wines are poured in tasting rooms and festivals offer the opportunity to try grape stomping.
There are three great wine festivals in September and grape harvest is in full swing in October, making fall a popular season for wine festivals and tasting room tours. So this autumn, raise a glass in these four under-the-radar wine regions:
The Grand Valley, Colorado
Set against the backdrop of the Book Cliffs mountain range and Grand Mesa, the wineries here are among the highest in North America, with an average altitude of 4,700 feet. That means sunny, dry days and cool nights — a micro-climate ideal for wine production.
The Grand Valley extends from Fruita to Palisade, a small town just a few miles east of Grand Junction that is home to more than two thirds of Colorado’s vineyards.
These once-undiscovered regions are generating buzz thanks to their award-winning wines and scenic settings.
The best way to explore the picturesque valley, hailed as “The Peach and Wine Capital of Colorado,” is on two wheels. The Palisade Fruit and Wine Byway is a mapped (and well-marked) trail with routes ranging from five to 25 miles. You’ll pedal past 20 wineries, including Talon Winery, Grande River Vineyards and Mesa Park Vineyards (as well as a meadery and a distillery).
In September, the annual Colorado Mountain Winefest coincides with the grape harvest. Held in Palisade, it’s the largest wine festival in the state and offers the chance to sip wines from several local wineries, experiment with food and wine pairings and join educational seminars. You can even kick off your shoes and participate in the grape stomp event.
Newport County, Rhode Island
It might be known as “The City by the Sea,” but Newport also has a thriving wine region. The Northeast location provides a long, cool growing season (the harvest season extends into November) that mimics renowned French wine regions.
The area’s vineyards and wineries are all within a 45-minute drive of historic downtown Newport and include Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery, hailed as one of the top five sparkling wine producers in the nation, and Newport Vineyards, where pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and other varietals are produced from estate grapes grown on the 60-acre vineyard.
You can participate in tours and tastings at local wineries or pack a picnic lunch, buy a bottle of wine and enjoy the cacophony of fall colors. (Greenvale Vineyards, which overlooks the Sakonnet River and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is particularly pretty in the fall).
Newport is home to more 18th century historic buildings than any other city in the U.S. In honor of the colonial architecture, the area holds the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival at a trio of historic homes in September. The event features tasting events, a collectible wine dinner and seminars with leading wine experts.
Verde Valley, Arizona
Although the Northern Arizona wine region, which includes the communities for Sedona, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Jerome and Camp Verde, was established less than a decade ago, its wineries have produced several award-winning, critically-acclaimed wines.
The harsh desert climate creates stressful growing conditions but stubborn grapevines persevere. The fruit, while less abundant, has a more intense flavor than grapes grown in other regions. Southwest grapes are used to produce wines like viognier, mourvedre, merlot and chenin blanc.
The Verde Valley Wine Trail winds through the desert landscape, creating a route dotted with red rock canyons that connects five wineries and six tasting rooms. (Look for the painted wine barrels along the trail; the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce coordinated the public wine event, commissioning local artists to paint 40 wine barrels that are displayed along the route).
Sample the red and white wines and roses from grapes grown in the high-elevation growing region at Chateau Tumbleweed or stop at Page Springs Cellars where estate wines are served in the tasting room and yoga and therapeutic massages can be scheduled in the vineyard.
In late September, Sedona Winefest pairs local wines, cuisine and art for a weekend festival at Posse Grounds Park.
Yadkin Valley, North Carolina
Grapevines have replaced tobacco plants across the Yadkin Valley.
Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Southern wine growing region produces a combination of muscadine and scuppernong grapes used in sweet wines as well as European vinifera grapes used in merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.
The Yadkin Valley in northwest North Carolina (about 40 miles west of Winston-Salem) encompasses more than 1.4 million acres and was the first wine region in the state. There are more than 36 wineries in the region, including Carolina Heritage Vineyard and Winery, a 35-acre vineyard that was the first USDA certified organic vineyard and winery in North Carolina and Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery, which boasts a 6,000-square-foot Italian villa-style tasting room and 36-acre vineyard with the unique distinction of being certified as a Wildlife Sanctuary by the National Wildlife Federation.
In the fall, the cooler temperatures and seasonal harvest are reason to celebrate.
Shelton Vineyards hosts a Harvest Festival in October that includes winery tours and tastings as well as bluegrass music and hayrides.
October also brings the Yadkin Valley Grape Festival featuring more than 20 local wineries, food vendors and artisans.
Across the U.S., these once-undiscovered regions are generating buzz thanks to their award-winning wines, scenic settings and not-to-be-missed festivals and events.