Lower prices, less traffic and that sense of discovery are often the best reasons to consider alternatives to the familiar destinations when it comes to wine. In the case of four off-the-beaten-path wine regions, add small-town charm and big-time hospitality to the top reasons for groups to visit.
Kelowna, British Columbia
As the birthplace of wine in British Columbia, Canada, Kelowna is the largest city and international gateway to the Okanagan Valley. The growing region is now home to more than 40 wineries within a 30-minute drive of downtown. While it all started in Kelowna (the first winery opened in 1931), there are now over 175 licensed wineries in the Okanagan Valley (the area within a two-hour radius of Kelowna).
The top five grapes planted in the area are merlot, pinot gris, pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
“We have a wonderful concentration of wineries that offer a really authentic experience,” said Jennifer Horsnell, director of sales for Tourism Kelowna. “At many you are able to enjoy food that is grown locally, as we have a wonderful farm-to-table program.”
The options are endless, she added, from cocktail receptions, to chef’s dinners among the vines or cooking classes.
Among the top wineries for groups are Quail’s Gate Estate Winery, Mission Hill Family Estate, Sandhill Wines, 50th Parallel Estate Winery and Summerhill Pyramid Winery.
“Mission Hill Family Estate is iconic,” Horsnell said. “It’s architecture is phenomenal, and it offers some cool experiences. They have a beautiful room with a Chagall tapestry and a culinary theater where they do cooking classes.”
The Tri-Cities, which includes Kennewick, Richland and Pasco, labels itself the “Heart of Washington Wine Country,” extending from Pasco to Prosser and including the renowned Red Mountain AVA.
The region boasts more than 200 vineyards, tasting rooms and production facilities within a one-hour drive of the Tri-Cities.
“We set ourselves apart with small-town charm alongside cosmopolitan amenities,” said Lara Watkins, director of convention sales for Visit Tri-Cities, Washington. “Plus, we have some of best wines in world at very affordable prices and some of the most memorable experiences for groups.”
A standout offering is Tulalip Lane in Richland, featuring three outstanding winery-restaurants: J. Bookwalter Winery, Barnard Griffin and Tagaris Winery.
Another unique option is Badger Mountain Vineyard/Powers Winery, the first certified organic vineyard in Washington State. It is also home of Yo-GOAT-a, which gives groups the chance to do yoga alongside playful resident goats.
Meanwhile, Red Mountain Trails takes wine enthusiasts through Red Mountain vineyards on horseback or in a horse-drawn wagon.
Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center is destination to experience Washington wine, food and agriculture.
Situated east of San Francisco in the Bay Area of Northern California, the Tri-Valley is made up of three distinct valleys that straddle two counties and include three cities and one town: Livermore, Dublin, Pleasanton and Danville.
“We have lots to offer, especially for the traveler looking to get a taste of local California,” said Robin Fahr, director of marketing for Visit Tri-Valley. “We always say, of course you have to see San Francisco and Yosemite, both wonderfully iconic, but if you want to see how real Californians live, the Tri-Valley is the perfect blend of original wine country, craft beer trails, outlet and boutique shopping, natural beauty, art and science, and as far as we know, home of the only Ice Cream Trail west of the Mississippi.”
The region is actually the birthplace of California’s famous chardonnay and at one point in the early 1900s, was the largest wine region in the state, with more than 100 wineries. During prohibition, all of them shut down, with the exception of Concannon and Wente, both still going strong today.
For groups, one of the most unique attributes is the combination of wine and music, as several of the prominent wineries feature resident bands or a lineup of concerts featuring everything from local jazz to big-name entertainment, Fahr said.
Wente has long been a standby for exceptional events, but there are several others, she added.
“Some of my favorites are Palm Events Center at Rubino Winery and Casa Real at Ruby Hill Winery, which are lovely places for events,” Fahr said.
Meanwhile, wine isn’t the only liquid lure of the region nowadays. Its budding microbrewery scene has led to the creation of the Tri-Valley Beer Trail.
“There are now 21 breweries on the trail, and many are great for group events,” Fahr said. “Several feature delicious cuisine—which I like to call high-end pub food on steroids. We’re even planning a wine versus beer event in which food will be paired with both in a fun competition.”
The Lompoc Wine Trail encompasses the Santa Rita Hills AVA, a nice alternative to the more popular Santa Barbara County wine routes. The town of Lompoc, home to the Wine Ghetto industrial park, has the second-largest concentration of tasting rooms in the county, making it a perfect stop for groups.
A standout is Kita Wines, owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and boasting the first recognized Native American winemaker in the U.S.—Tara Gomez.
Ever-passionate about her craft, Gomez offers private tastings of her award-winning wines, which appear on the menu at Hotel Corque in nearby Solvang, another Santa Ynez Chumash property.