The Future of American Wine Isn't Where You’d Expect
Dan Dunn spent much of his adult life drinking, albeit for professional reasons (he’s the former nightlife columnist for Playboy). He’s a whisky aficionado, cocktail expert, and beer enthusiast. The only tipple that never tempted him was wine.
So when he finally decided he needed a break from the fast lane, Dunn decided to take a slow road trip around the U.S.—and it occurred to him he could structure it around eliminating his last booze blind spot.
So on that 15,000-mile trip, he set himself a single mission: learn everything he could about wine. “Wine is made in every single state in the U.S., and every state grows grapes—though they’re not all good,” he confesses by phone from his home in California, “There are only four wineries in Wyoming, the fewest, but in every state, there’s someone somewhere making wine.”
He turned that booze-soaked road trip into the new memoir-slash-travelog, American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues. He wanted to understand, in particular, how wine drinking and making had changed stateside since the Judgment of Paris, when upstart American wines bested French vintages in a blind tasting. That was 40 years ago this May, and the unexpected New World victory kickstarted a Californian wine rush. After sipping his way through dozens of vineyards across the country, he has a prediction for what’s next. “At least right now, they’re not making wine anywhere in the United States better than California. Forty years from now? Things are going to look a whole lot different.”
We asked Dunn to offer his pick of seven vineyards that are likely to form part of that new wave. Here are his recommendations, from Vermont to Wyoming.
With its chilly climate and no tradition of viticulture, Dunn admits Vermont isn't a place you’d “expect to be a hotbed of winemaking.” But there’s one standout exception: this winery run by married couple Ken and Gail Albert. “It isn’t the typical California story where a guy makes $50 million in the Valley and buys a winery,” Dunn continues. Instead, erstwhile IBM engineer Ken dabbled in grape-growing as a hobby, first in his backyard and then by renting a plot of land on a local farm. That smallholding would become his own winery, once he found grapes that thrived in the local terroir, such as the pinot noir descendant Marquette, hardy enough to weather New England’s winters. “The Marquette Reserve was a revelation—I’d never heard of it, and here was this medium-bodied wine, well-composed and bursting with fruit flavor. I didn’t see a lot of that in New England.”
Dunn was staggered to learn that Hill Country, the wilds just south of Austin, was the second-largest wine tourism area in America, after Napa. This 14,000-square-mile stretch is dotted with 32 wineries. “It reminded me of Yakima Valley in Washington state—rolling hills, but wide open, too, with big skies,” he explains, “Nobody seems to know it because it’s all Texans that go down there.” The hot, dry climate is ideal for the Tannat grape, originally popular in Southwest France and now the main grape grown in Uruguay. “It’s a really tannic grape that in the U.S. is most often used in Rhône blends, like Bonny Doon, but they’re counting on it becoming a sought-after wine in and of itself.” The best place to sample some Tannat-based vintages is the booming Bending Branch Winery; it has gone from a small production of around 800 cases in 1998 to more than 15,000 last year.
Blenheim Vineyards and Trump Winery, Virginia
“The Southern United States is associated with quintessentially American traditions—triple-A baseball, segregation, deep-fried everything,” Dunn says, “But there are over 240 wineries in Virginia alone—it was the site of the first commercial winemaking venture in the USA.” (Like so many things, it seems, we have Thomas Jefferson to thank for bringing wine stateside)
Two of the most impressive vineyards today stand opposite each other, in every sense: Blenheim was started by Dave Matthews, the Obama fundraiser-playing rocker, in 2000. It’s an eco-friendly operation that uses reclaimed wood and is designed so that it can be operated using natural light during the summer.
Directly across the street, teetotaling reality-star-turned-Presidential candidate Donald Trump snapped up Virginia's largest vineyard from former owner Patricia Kluge after she was bankrupted during the Great Recession. Kluge remained on staff to oversee bottling and marketing. Today, both wineries produce impressive riffs on the state’s favorite grape, crisp and floral Viognier, though Dunn says the Trump winery’s product wins by a hair.
Maynard James Keenan made a name— and a fortune—as frontman for Grammy-winning alt-metal band Tool, and he’s ploughed much of that money into a winemaking operation in northern Arizona near Flagstaff, in a onetime mining boom town that’s now a sleepy hamlet. (There’s even a movie that documents his efforts, Blood Into Wine.) Don’t be distracted by the rocker’s attention-seeking theatrics (the vineyard’s named “Merkin”) and focus instead on his impressive red blends, many of them using Italian and Spanish varietals.
Come to cowboy country for the experience, Dunn warns, rather than the wine—for now. Bold experimenters such as Table Mountain Vineyards are only beginning to figure out how to use the rich land for grapes. This particular winery emerged when the resourceful son of a longtime farming family vowed to save its smallholding with an inventive repurposing of the land. Alongside his sister Amie, Patrick Zimmerer won seed money from a local contest after presenting his ambitious business plan to open a winery; the first grapes were grown in 2001, and wine was produced three years later. “Walk in to the tasting room on a Friday afternoon, and there will be five old cowboys—maybe 75, 80 years old— sitting in what looks like a VA hall, drinking wine, rather than whisky or beer,” Dunn says, “In wineries, there’s none of that [baloney] red state-blue state. Wine is such a unifying thing.”
St. Paul is a town “somewhere between where the f--- am I, and get me the f--- out of there” in rural Nebraska, says Dunn. It’s also home to one of the country’s unlikeliest wineries, one that Dunn visited after a tip from a sommelier. He was staggered to learn that white wines from the area had bested better-known rivals in a tasting competition in Sonoma. With sandy loam soil and temperatures that can vary between -10 and 90-plus Fahrenheit, winemakers Mick and Loretta McDowell turned to the Brianna grape, a cold-climate Muscat hybrid created by Elmer Swenson, nicknamed the godfather of cold-climate grapes. “It’s a very, very popular grape in the Midwest, which has a tropical flavor, sort of pineapple-mango, to it,” Dunn explains, “But you can’t let it stay on the vine too long or it starts getting this oversweetness to it.” Try some at its best in the couple’s award-winning dry white, Solace.