There’s A Big World of Wine Out There

Wine lovers love wine tasting rooms … as long as the charges to taste wine aren’t too high.

The original reason for wine tasting rooms was to allow potential buyers to sample the current releases, which decades ago could be erratic.

In many of the world’s far-flung regions years ago (and in some places even today), tasting before buying was crucial. In some places, vintages can vary greatly, and what’s new and just released can be good or terrible.

That was routinely the state of the wine game 40 years ago in most places. In the last four decades, grape growing and wine making skills have advanced so rapidly that it’s a whole new game for wine lovers.

Forty years ago, very few wines were reliable, year-to-year. Today, most wineries have tools to make sound wines almost every year. Thus the tasting room isn’t as important as it once was.

The new reason to visit tasting rooms today is to hear the stories of how wine is made, complete with the history of the property and its vineyards, tales of why certain grapes were planted — and why you should spend $22.50 for that bottle of Muscat.

So where to go? Here are a few off-the-tourist-path ideas for summer and autumn wine country tours.

Western Canada: British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, with its spectacular mountains, valleys and waterways, is a wine lovers’ dream. Not as cold as some might expect, the broad region has literally dozens of superb wineries, many of the larger ones with impressive restaurants.

Around the nearby towns of Kelowna and Penticton are dozens of excellent wineries, some of them on the Naramata Bench that produces some of the top red wines in the region.

Yarra Valley, Australia: Australia seems far off, but if you are headed Down Under, one superb getaway location is an hour’s drive from downtown Melbourne.

The Yarra is a broad plain filled with wine specialists who are located in an area cool enough to grow superb grapes for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But that’s not all the area produces, and its various wineries all have fun stories. Many wineries have terrific restaurants.

In the charming town of Healsville is Phil Sexton’s excellent Giant Steps winery and restaurant, artisan bakery, cheese shop and coffee roaster. Nearby is a gorgeous animal sanctuary.

Moreover, Melbourne is one of the best cities to visit in Australia.

Finger Lakes, New York: A drive north from Manhattan to this handsome region, into the heart of New York’s upstate wine country, is a half-day excursion best done by taking a slower route — the smaller roads (the blue highways) through quaint eastern Pennsylvania. (Which also has some excellent wineries along the way.)

Once in the Finger Lakes, there are so many great wineries to visit it’s hard to know which lake to concentrate on. Both Seneca and Keuka offer stunning views, great wines (notably Rieslings), and wonderful tales of pioneering winemakers.

If you’ve never visited, New York’s upstate wine country is a trip of adventure and delight.

Umpqua Valley, Oregon: Tree-covered hills, streams and incredible vistas lure fishermen, hunters and hikers to the Umpqua annually.

In the last decade, this gem of southern Oregon has included its emerging wine country. Two-dozen wineries here make fabulous wines that are all but unknown to the rest of the world.

There is no “wine road” as such, so touring the far-flung wineries requires a bit of planning.

But the taste treats are well known to wine judges at competitions, who regularly award these wines numerous gold medals. And prices are fair.

A side trip to the Oregon Coast is a special treat.

Michigan’s Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas: Lake views are everywhere in these abutting areas, where many homes are summer getaways for Chicagoans.

The wines of northern Michigan are gaining worldwide stature, especially the Rieslings, and recently we have seen some spectacular advances in red wines as well.

The best time to visit is after the tourist rush in summer, so think of fall as a great time to visit.

Many of the best wines in Michigan can be found only in the tastings rooms hereabouts — including a few spectacular cherry wines!

Real wine lovers do not stick to expensive cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays; they discover the greatness available in seyval blanc, noiret, pinot blanc, grenache and chancellor, some of the wines you can only find by visiting these and other remote wine regions.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at [email protected].