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Teach Yourself

Teach Yourself American Wine Through 12 Bottles

U.S. wine doesn’t start and end in California. Here’s a primer on the regions you need to know

Pix Editors By June 29, 2022
wine bottles in front of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, who tried to establish winemaking in the USA. Illustration by Pix. Photos by pavlinec and Lana2011/iStock.

Compared with the rest of the world, America’s winemaking history may be young, but it’s most certainly one worth discovering. Home to over one million acres of vines, the United States’ winemaking scene spans a variety of grapes and styles, produced by talented producers across nearly every state. No matter what the palate preference or budget at hand, there’s an American wine to fit every need. 

Quick Facts

Historically, wine was first produced in the U.S. in the mid-16th century by French Huguenot settlers around the area of Jacksonville, Florida. However, the country’s modern-day history began about two centuries later, when the first significant vineyard was established near present-day San Diego, by Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra in 1769. 

Today, over 800 million gallons of wine are produced in the U.S. per year. That’s nearly two and a half gallons for every man, woman, and child who lives here.

Wine-producing areas in the U.S.

Nearly every state produces wine, though certain areas are undoubtedly more viticulture-focused than others. California is by far the backbone of America’s wine production, responsible for approximately 80% to 85% of the country’s annual output. In terms of quantity, Washington State claims second place, followed by New York state and Pennsylvania

Oregon’s production is smaller than the above, though is generally regarded as high quality. Viticulture is also on the rise in Virginia and Texas, both of which have small cult followings amongst industry folk and consumers alike. For those looking to get in on the country’s most popular up-and-coming scenes, check out bottles from Michigan, Rhode Island, and Vermont

California

Responsible for more than 80% of America’s wine production, California is undeniably the country’s most important and historic wine-producing state. Vines are planted from the North Coast all the way down to San Diego and are mostly dominated by Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, as well as numerous other varieties. The Golden State is home to a variety of producers, from traditional estates to up-and-coming natural winemakers. 

Washington

Washington state sits well behind California in terms of annual production, though is second of the 50 states. Most of Washington’s wine is produced on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. Washington is best known for its Bordeaux varieties, as well as Syrah and Riesling. 

Oregon

Although Oregon’s production clocks in fifth in terms of quantity, its quality is regarded as generally high. The state’s most popular region is the Willamette Valley, which sits at the same latitude, and experiences similar climate conditions, to that of Burgundy. Unsurprisingly, Oregon’s most widely popular grapes are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with Gamay and Pinot Gris on the rise. 

New York state

New York state is home to two famous wine-producing areas: the Finger Lakes, established for more than 75 years, and the North Fork. The more northern Finger Lakes area is best known for its Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc, whereas Long Island is best known for its Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties. 

Virginia

Virginia’s wine-making scene may be small, but is expanding. Thomas Jefferson first tried to grow wine grapes here, but was defeated by local conditions. A new approach in the 1970s established what is now a thriving wine culture. The state is particularly regarded for its Cabernet Franc and Viognier production, though a number of additional varieties are also cultivated, including Merlot, Chardonnay, and beyond. Petit Manseng also does well. Virginia’s most popular wine-growing area is located east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, home to a flourishing food and wine community. 

12 bottles to try:

California

bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay Napa Valley

Château Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay 2019 (~$49)

Château Montelena’s Chardonnay made history in 1976 when it took home the best white wine title at the famed Judgment of Paris tasting. Since then, the winery has continued to vinify its flagship Chardonnay with meticulous attention to detail, and it remains a landmark wine. On the palate, the wine is supple and dense, marked by flavors of stone fruit, honeysuckle, and lemon-like acidity. Oak use is present yet its use is restrained, leading to a balanced, beautiful wine. Drink now or lay down. 

bottle of Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (~$49)

Robert Mondavi’s eponymous California-based wine was established in 1966. Over the past five decades, Mondavi has become a household name for wine lovers across the country, from novices to long-standing collectors and every level in between. Today, Mondavi wines are produced across a vast price spectrum from a handful of grape varieties, though the estate’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is perhaps the most iconic. Expect a plush, age-worthy wine that’s perfect for pairing with equally robust foods in the present, yet can spend time in the cellar.

bottle of Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Santa Barbara County

Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2020 (~$17)

Au Bon Climat was founded in Santa Barbara County by the late Jim Clendenen. An early pioneer of restrained, low-alcohol wines, Clendenen helped pave the way for balanced, acid-driven expressions of California Chardonnay, and ultimately helped change the face of Golden State Chardonnay. This flagship cuvée is bright, restrained, and laden with ample natural acidity. The reasonable price of the wine is simply the cherry on top. 

bottle of Flowers Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast

Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2019 (~$42)

Founded in the 1970s, Flowers is one of California’s most iconic estates. Situated just a hop, skip, and jump away from downtown Healdsburg, the winery is credited with helping put wines from Sonoma, specifically those from the Russian River Valley, on the map. Their Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is silky, medium-bodied, and ripe with flavors of raspberries, rose petals, cedar, and sweet clove-like undertones. It’s a versatile wine that has wide appeal.

bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2018 (~$35)

America’s sparkling wine history has a lot to thank Schramsberg for. Founded in Calistoga in 1965 by Jack and Jamie Davies, the couple’s goal was always to make top-tier sparkling wine that rivaled the best of the Old World — and to say they succeeded is an understatement. Since then, Schramsberg wines have been served at the White House by every president since Nixon, who famously poured the estate’s Blanc de Blancs at his Toast to Peace in 1972. It’s an iconic, Chardonnay-based sparkling. 

Oregon

bottle of Domaine Drouhin Dundee Hills Pinot Noir

Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2019 (~$39)

Oregon’s Willamette Valley has become synonymous with world-class Pinot Noir production, and over the past few decades, has attracted numerous French winemakers to its basalt-based volcanic soils, referred to locally as Jory. Pinot Noir thrives in these iron-rich soils, rendering curiosity from Burgundians almost inevitable. One of the first vignerons to venture to the state was Joseph Drouhin, who has since built a 235-acre empire in Willamette’s Dundee Hills. For an Old World meets New World expression of Pinot Noir, this is a great place to start. 

bottle of Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir

Domaine Serene Evenstad Oregon Reserve Pinot Noir 2018 (~$74)

Founded in 1990 by Ken and Grace Evenstad, Domaine Serene has since become a benchmark staple for lovers of Pinot Noir and Oregon wines, and collectors everywhere. The estate produces its lineup of wines from six distinct vineyard sites, all of which are planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Evenstad Reserve has been their flagship cuvée since the winery’s early days. The wine pays homage to the estate’s mastery of the art of blending sites, though make no mistake, this wine is crafted exclusively from Pinot Noir. On the palate, the wine is concentrated, firm, and laden with well-integrated acidity.

New York

bottle of Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling

Dr. Konstantin Frank Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2020 (~$12)

The East Coast of America has a lot to thank Dr. Konstantin Frank for. Originally from Ukraine, Frank settled in the Finger Lakes region during the mid-20th century and is credited with planting the first vinifera vines on America’s East Coast back in 1957. Five years later, Frank founded his eponymous winery on Keuka Lake, where his legacy is still carried on today. The estate produces wine from a number of grape varieties, though their Riesling, which is vinified in numerous styles, is by far their most famous cuvée. Riesling skeptics, this bone dry bottle promises to change any preconceived notions you had about the grape.

bottle of Wolffer Estate Rosé 2021

Wölffer Estate Long Island Rosé 2021 (~$12)

East Coast dwellers are no strangers to Wölffer Estate rosé. Located in the heart of Long Island’s Hamptons area, this beloved New York estate attracts thousands of thirsty visitors each summer, all equally eager to taste the estate’s current release of their iconic pink sipper. Crafted from a unique blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, this fresh and floral wine is the perfect pick for pool sides, picnics, and happy hours everywhere. For a taste of summer year-round, this bottle is just the ticket. 

Washington

bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Columbia Valley

Château Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling 2020 (~$9)

Located in Washington’s wine-producing haven of Woodinville, Château Ste. Michelle is the state’s oldest winery, founded in 1954. The estate produces a wide range of wines from a handful of different grapes, though the winery’s claim to fame is undeniably its varietal Riesling. This budget-friendly bottle is medium-bodied, bright, and marked by a hint of residual sweetness. For an easy-to-find wine that pairs with a variety of foods, especially those with a bit of heat, this zesty bottle is the perfect match. 

Virginia

bottle of Early Mountain Cabernet Franc Shenandoah Valley Virginia

Early Mountain Shenandoah Valley Cabernet Franc 2020 (~$30)

Although Virginia’s wine-making scene is still up and coming, those in the know have likely heard of a thing or two about Early Mountain. This pioneering winery was founded in 2012 by forward-thinking Jean Case, along with her husband Steve, and has since gone on to become one of the benchmark estates for Virginia viticulture. For a tasty introduction to their lineup, dive into a bottle of this varietal Cabernet Franc. The wine is silky and structured on the palate, marked by ripe fruit flavors and soft tannins. It truly comes to life when served with food, though a simple glass on its own will still likely have you reaching for a second. 

New Mexico

bottle of Gruet Sparkling Brut

Gruet Brut New Mexico NV (~$12)

Sparkling wine fans, this off-the-beaten-path bottle from New Mexico is absolutely worth seeking out. The winery was founded in 1984 by Gilbert Gruet, of the famed Gruet Champagne house in France. Since then, the estate has remained family-owned and operated and continues to specialize in traditional method sparkling wine. Like many of its Champagne counterparts, this budget-friendly, easy-to-find bottle is produced from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wine is suitable for all occasions that call for bubbles, from casual weeknight happy hours to celebrations and beyond.