Ultimate Guide to American Wines

American Wine Regions

Although the most significant wine making region in the U.S. is California's Napa Valley, there are four major U.S. winemaking states as well as other winemaking regions with respectable vineyard acreage and wineries with growing reputations. Winemakers in the United States are hard to pigeonhole. There are both traditionalists and innovators among its hardworking viticulturists. Two consistent qualities they share, though, are a fierce dedication to creating superior wines and a conviction that technology is an important confederate in achieving that goal.

California - If you think of the Golden State when someone mentions American wines, it shouldn't be much of a surprise. California produces almost 90 percent of the wine made in the U.S. and nearly 75 percent of the wine sold here. Numerous wine grape varieties are grown up and down the state, taking advantage of the favorably mild climate and natural air conditioning provided by mild Pacific Ocean breezes. California grape harvests are relatively consistent from year to year, too. The state doesn't see much rainfall during the grape growing season, a major variable that can cause big challenges in other parts of the world. Instead, California grapes receive much of the water they need via closely monitored irrigation systems.

The prime location for grape production for the region is about an hour and a half drive from the San Francisco Bay area -- Napa Valley. Famous throughout the world, Napa Valley is a narrow, curving band of relatively flat, fertile land nearly perfect for growing grapes. The southern portion of the valley is coolest, favoring Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, but grapes are grown throughout the valley floor and on the hills and mountainsides to the west and east.

Oregon - The Beaver State has been making wine for more than 40 years, and three of its most successful grape varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. There are a number of wine growing regions (AVAs) in Oregon, from the Willamette Valley to the Columbia and Walla Walla Valleys that Oregon shares with Washington State.

Washington - Where most of Oregon's vineyards are coastal, in Washington State, the largest growing region is east of the Cascade Mountains in the Columbia and Yakima valleys. This dry but well irrigated zone is a prime location for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Blanc, Bordeaux, Chardonnay, Semillon and Syrah grapes. It's also a good spot for growing the grapes for one of Washington's most prized exports, Merlot. A second large wine producing region is in the Puget Sound area, a spot not far from Seattle where many of Washington's larger wineries are located.

The Great Southwest - Including the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, the American Southwest encompasses great geographical diversity and numerous challenges, from arid growing conditions to punishing elevations. There are lots of success stories, though, from the fine Cabernet Sauvignon wines of Texas to the superior Merlots and sparkling wines of New Mexico.

New York - There are three primary wine regions in New York: Long Island, Finger Lakes and the Hudson Valley. Finger Lakes has the distinction of being the largest wine growing area east of California with its Chardonnays, Rieslings and Pinot Noirs. New York's cold winters can be a challenge for grape growers. Hardy Native American varieties (yes, there are some) like the Concord and Delaware have historically been very successful, but more traditional European Vitis vinifera grapes have been grown successfully over the last few decades, increasing New York's cache for producing world class red and white wines.