Throughout history, wine has been an essential element of human celebration.
Winemakers have discovered the secret to producing hundreds of variations of wine, resulting in some outstanding flavors. But what’s more, wineries — whose spaces are often surrounded by picturesque vineyard vistas — feature tasting rooms, dining options, spectacular estates and facility tours and make fantastic destinations for groups. A tour of the wine country isn’t only about drinking fermented grape juice, though — there are myriad activities to experience in a wine region, from cycling through the vines to soaring over the countryside in a balloon.
These five regions that are known for their winemaking are excellent for groups that want to combine wine discovery with other ways to enjoy the landscape. Travel planners will be able to leverage the spaciousness to arrange tastings for their groups along with selected activities, many of them outdoors.
Napa Valley, California
California’s Napa Valley is only about 30 miles long yet has more than 400 wineries open to the public, most of them family owned. Its climate and topography are ideal for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, the two varietals for which Napa Valley is best known.
“People think of Napa Valley as a summer and fall destination, but it’s great to visit during the season between seasons — the late winter and spring months,” said Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “One of the best ways to experience it is a hot air balloon ride. Visitors also love to experience the Napa Valley Wine Train — it’s a great way to see the valley on one of their historic train cars.”
Cycling the Napa Valley Vine Trail is also popular. In spring, the region is blanketed in Instagram-worthy mustard flowers, and wineries have mustard-centric activities. Groups will want to visit Stag’s Leap, known for participating in the Judgment of Paris in 1976; Cakebread Cellars, which offers farm-to-table culinary experiences; V. Sattui, a historic winery with an artisan deli; and the William Hill Estate Winery, whose tasting room overlooks the 140-acre vineyard estate and is a lovely spot to watch the sunset.
Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Straddling Oregon and Washington states, the Walla Walla Valley is surrounded by the Blue Mountains, the Columbia River and the agricultural region known as the Palouse. It has 3,000 acres of planted grapes, primarily cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot.
“We have several microclimates — it’s amazing how different the climate can be over a small area,” said Shelby Pryor, communications and marketing coordinator at Walla Walla Valley Wine. “It isn’t what people expect. We have four distinct seasons and a vast elevation range, but that allows us to produce some beautiful wines.”
Groups won’t want to miss Tranche, which is surrounded by vineyards and has a large lawn for live music and food trucks; the Three Rivers Winery, where groups can tour the expansive barrel room and cellar before a tasting in their indoor/outdoor space; and Valdemar Estates, a Spanish winery where groups can do a tour and tasting with a meal of tapas.
The region is packed with outdoor recreational activities, with over a dozen hiking trails in the vicinity of the valley; among the choices is the popular Bennington Lake and Mill Creek, with over 20 miles of trails. Groups will want to visit the charming, walkable downtown district of Walla Walla, with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and tasting rooms, plus the Whitman College sculpture walk.
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
Just over the U.S./Canada border, the Niagara Peninsula is located at the isthmus of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and has 10 subappellations and two regional appellations. Combining glacial soils, a cool climate from the winds of the Niagara Escarpment and the largest freshwater lakes in the world, the region creates wines with distinctive characteristics. Close to 2 million cases are produced from the roughly 13,600-acre area. Varieties include riesling, chardonnay, gamay noir, pinot noir and cabernet franc.
“Ontario’s wine country welcomes over 3 million visitors per year, and it’s one of the most established wine tourism regions in the world, with the infrastructure to support and accommodate large groups,” said Magdalena Kaiser, director of public relations for the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario. “There are over 90 VQA [Vintners Quality Alliance, the Ontario wine appellation authority] wineries located in the Niagara Peninsula, and visitors can indulge in innovative cuisine, connect with nature on numerous hiking trails, take in a show or cycle their way through wine country.”
Winery groups will want to explore the Hare Wine Company, a family-owned winery known for its ice wine, situated on 10 acres in the Four Mile subappellation; Megalomaniac Wines, the highest-altitude vineyard in the Niagara region, located on the Niagara Escarpment and producing bold wines; and Château des Charmes, founded in 1978 by a fifth-generation French winemaker.
Located in southwestern France near the border of Spain and the Atlantic coast, Bordeaux is a region famed for its wine the world over. Its 280,000 acres of vineyards produce millions of cases of wine each year, making it the country’s largest wine-producing region. The region is home to almost 5,000 wineries, and roughly 1,000 of those are open to the public. Bordeaux is known for its merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, semillon and sauvignon blanc.
“We have plenty of things to do and see in a small region, from St. Emilion vineyard and its medieval village that is a UNESCO world heritage site to famous winemaker estates like Château Margaux,” said Sophie Gaillard, communication and wine tourism director at Bordeaux Tourisme. “You can have anything from a luxury experience at a chateau to lunch at a small estate with the growers themselves.”
There are many ways to experience the Bordeaux wine country, but some standouts include conquering an escape room game at a centuries-old chateau, harvesting grapes before enjoying lunch with the winemaker and cycling through sun-dappled vineyards, stopping to sip wine on local terraces.
Bordeaux is home to some of the most famous wineries in the world: Château Margaux, Château d’Yquem, Château Haut-Brion, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Lafite-Rothschild.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
Nestled in a 150-mile-long swath of the Pacific Northwest, the Willamette Valley comprises 10 subregions with more than 700 wineries. An hour from the ocean, the region enjoys a maritime climate that makes distinctive wines; the area is noted for its pinot noir and chardonnay in styles ranging from rose to sparkling.
“What characterizes the valley is that it feels very personal, even though you’re talking about a pretty large geographic region,” said Kayt Mathers, Willamette Valley Wine representative. “Wineries are welcoming, with opportunities to get into the vineyard and learn the process of growing grapes and making wine, rather than just going to a tasting room.”
The Willamette Valley offers other creative ways to tour wine country, like saddling up with Equestrian Wine Tours, getting a bird’s-eye view from a hot air balloon or being pampered among vineyards at the Allison Inn and Spa.
Groups won’t want to miss the Stoller Family Estate, founded in 1943 on 400 contiguous acres in Dayton in the Dundee Hills and known for its culinary program; Adelsheim, a sustainable winery in Newburg, one of the valley’s founding wineries; and Ken Wright Cellars, housed in a restored historic train depot in Carlton.