Travel Through a Glass and (Re) Discover the Wines of the USA

by Erin Henderson, Certified Sommelier and Founder of The Wine Sisters

I have a fabulous navy sweater that’s cozy, comfy, stylish, and wearing it, to adapt a line from Marie Kondo, brings me true joy.

I wasn’t going to buy it; I really didn’t need another sweater. But on my very first trip to California wine country, way back in June of 2009, I was under-prepared for the cool mornings and evenings that bookend gloriously hot, blue-sky filled days.

Yes, I had learned about this so-called “diurnal shift” – a large temperature swing from chilly nights to blazing days – that contributes generously to the stunning wines coming out of the sunshine state, but, c’mon. I’m Canadian, I think I understand cool weather, you cute little Californians.

But I tip my toque to you, you sun-bleached winemakers. It turned out you are serious when you say things can get a bit nippy. Sure enough, while day tripping to wineries we realized quickly to book our visits in the morning, when temperatures were cool, but comfortable (with a sweater), because come afternoon, all you want to do is sit by the pool, roasting in the bright sunshine, with a cold glass of California white wine to quench your thirst.

This temperature swing (and often accompanying fog in many places), is what allows vines to really flourish: copious amounts of heat and sun during the day gives grapes the energy they need to develop intense and intriguing flavours, and the evening’s chill allows hard working vines a well-deserved rest, therefore preserving structure and much needed acidity, to create complex and balanced wines.

California is the 4th largest wine producing region in the world – a single state that comes in just behind the entire countries of Italy, France, and Spain. And the 4,200+ wineries (the vast majority family owned and into their second, third, or even fourth generations) produce more than 80% of the wine production for all of America. And of that, 80% of wines are made sustainably. Not too shabby for a state that only caught the world’s attention about 40 years ago (despite having made wine since the Gold Rush).

Canadians are well acquainted, and well enamoured, with the rich Cabernet Sauvignon and silky Chardonnays of the famous Napa and Sonoma Valleys, but there’s stunning diversity to California that reaches well beyond those pedigreed wines that wine lovers north of the border should discover.

California has AVA’s (American Viticulture Areas – aka officially designated wine growing regions), that span from as far south as the Mexican border to well into the deeply forested, ancient Redwoods of the north. From vineyards overlooking the shimmering Pacific Ocean in the west, to the soaring foothills of the Sierra mountains in the east. More than 100 varieties are grown across the state – from the classic stalwarts California built its reputation upon to maverick newbies like Barbera or Chenin Blanc and done in a range of styles: cool-climate, mineral driven Chards, fresh, crisp bubblies, elegant, focused reds.

The gentle giant that California is for wine production, sometimes means smaller wine producers can get overshadowed by its fame. Wine is made in every state in the US, most notably Washington, Oregon and New York.

The good news for Canadians is that these areas, depending on what end of the country you call home, is just a beautiful drive over the border away. But of course, with travel being a little confusing right now, travel through a glass is nearly as good.

If you’re a lover of rich and robust reds, Washington is the place you want to discover. A feast for the eyes, the landscape ranges from rugged coast to snowy mountains to arid desserts. This terroir is a boon for elegant and powerful reds and certainly Cabernet Sauvignon reigns King here.

Washington is the next largest wine producer in the US, with 19 AVAs, or official growing regions. Columbia Valley is the largest in Washington producing nearly all the state’s wines. It’s about a three-hour drive from the capital of Seattle, or about six hours (depending on the route) from Vancouver, BC.

Washington’s southernly neighbour, Oregon, with its charmingly bohemian capital of Portland, offers up some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. In fact, the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s largest wine growing area that’s about 80 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean and flanked by the Coast Range Mountains to the west and Cascade Mountains to the west, has terroir and topography that mirror Burgundy’s famed Côte d’Or. But unlike Burgundy, where reds can come with eye-wateringly expensive price tags, Oregon Pinots, with their delicate perfume and graceful structure, show exciting value.

But white wine lovers, do not despair, Oregon Pinot Gris is making some serious impressions on wine lovers in the know – including this one.

It’s strange times, indeed, and who is to know what the next few months of travel will look like. But among the many, many things I have always loved about wine and what has drawn me to the sommeleir profession, is how it will always connect people, whether they are by your side, or on the other side of border. Take my lead and go on an adventure at your local wine store to discover something new from Washington, Oregon or California. You will definitely be rewarded for your efforts. Just don’t forget your sweater.