by Marina Muhlfriedel

The leftover mesquite chips have long since been tucked back in the garage besides the water skis, and the last fire-hued leaves of autumn drift lazily from the trees. No doubt about it, winter is on the way and the holidays grow nigh. So, one wonders, what to do with the weekends before the festivities kick in?

How about grabbing that special someone and day tripping down a country road to a winery or two? No longer does an excursion to a tasting room imply a journey to one of America's big four wine regions: Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and New York. While wineries have long existed in hamlets scattered America, in the last few years, dozens have stepped from the shadows of obscurity, putting both their offerings and hospitality on the table in a big way.

Wine trails now weave a national tapestry of traditional and specialty delectables. Many of the wineries are situated along some of our country's most scenic byways and offer inviting tasting rooms to warm the spirit, tempt the palate and provide an opportunity to find great holiday gifts.

For example, Missouri's Weinstrasse is a scenic 10-mile stretch of Highway 94 through St. Charles' County that was certified by the Federal Government in 1979 as America’s first Viticulture (Viticulture: The science, cultivation and study of grape growing) Area, and features an enticing selection of wine makers. One of them, the award winning Montelle Winery, teeters high on the Osage Ridge, 400 feet above the Missouri River Valley and boosts a terrace from which you can take in the magnificent view of the region. All of Montelle's grapes are grown in the vicinity and they specialize in Native American varieties. If you find it too chilly outside, you'll find the cozy tasting room, gift shop and cafe within. The tasting room is open daily Monday-Friday: 10:00 am to 5:30 pm Saturday: 10:00 am to 6:00 p.m. and Sunday: 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. Phone: 636-228-4464 or 888-595-9463.

Or, how about venturing to the big island of Hawaii? One mile from the entrance to the dramatic volcano park is the aptly named Volcano Winery where, with the spirit of aloha, vintners blend California grown Cariganon and Colombard grapes with the exotic jaboticaba fruit, which came originally from South America, but is now grown in Hawaii. Although no tours of this paradise are offered, the tasting room is open from 10-5:30 everyday of the year. Phone for directions; (808) 967-7772.

As unlikely as it may seem, Texas is the fifth largest wine producing state in the country and one of its loveliest regions, is the Texas Hill Country, north of San Antonio. There, in the mid-19th Century, German immigrants settled, bringing with them, their traditional grape growing and winemaking skills. Nestled in the Hill Country, in the center Kendall County, is the diminutive community of Sisterdale (population approx. 35), home to the excellent Sister Creek Vineyards. The winery is tucked in an alluvial area between the spring fed east and west Sister Creeks in a converted, century-old cotton gin. Their six varieties of wines are produced by Danny Hernandez according to traditional European methods, with minimal filtration and aged in French oak barrels. Sister Creek offers free tasting, and tours and also, for a fee, a premium tasting experience in fine Reidel Austrian crystal. Be sure to try the Muscat Canelli, a fruity and slightly carbonated Italian specialty. Phone: The tasting room is open daily, noon to 5 pm. Phone (210) 324-6704.

Surprisingly, one of America's most popular wineries is in western North Carolina at George Vanderbilt's famous Buncombe County, Biltmore Estate. Each year, more than a million visitors tour the castle-like 250 room, French Renaissance style chateau and about 60% of them also visit the winery, where tastings are included in the price of admission to the estate. The 8000-acre property is still owned by the family, but has not been inhabited by them since the 1950s. In the 1970's Vanderbilt's grandson, and heir, William A. V. Cecil decided that a French style winery would compliment the Chateau. Today they produce over two dozen varieties, sell in seven states and ship to several more. Try the sophisticated Cabernet Franc and the delightful Château Reserve Méthode Champenoise–Brut. Winery and tastings available everyday 9-5, phone 800 543-2961.

In another corner of the country, forty-four miles north of Coeur d'Alene, on the northwestern end of Lake Pend d' Oreille (pronounced "Pon-duh-ray"), Idaho's biggest lake, is Sandpoint, an lively, resort town and home to the fine, small Pend d'Oreille Winery. Julie and Stephen Meyer, who began their wine careers in France and later developed them, in Santa Cruz California, established the winery in 1995. While the grapes they use are grown in the nearby Columbia River Basin just over the Washington state border, and in Southern, Idaho, the Meyers painstakingly handcraft their award-winning wines using traditional French methods in the middle of downtown Sandpoint. They generally have about a dozen wines in release, with some additional selections available only through their tasting room and Wine Thief Society. During the winter season, tours are available by appointment only, but the tasting room and well-stocked home store are open seven days a week. Phone: 208 265-8545.

Before you head out on a wine expedition in your part of the country, call ahead, winery hours can be erratic in the winter season and don't be shy about asking if they charge for tasting, some do, some don't, but it has become a more common practice. If you're planning on stopping at more than one winery, be sure to bring some snacks and water bottles to consume in the car. Those teensy cups can really add up! Once inside the tasting room, begin with the whites and graduate to the reds, always moving from dry to sweet and finally, finishing up with dessert wines.

Check out for hidden Viticultural treasures in nearly every part of the country.





© Melt Magazine 2004