The East Coast Quality Revolution | Northeastern United States / by Brian Yost

Brian Yost is Editor in Chief of Wine Tourist Magazine. He also blogs about Virginia wine as The Virginia Grape and writes for a variety of local and regional publications.

Last summer I spent a week exploring the wine scene in Rhode Island. I found a few great wine bars in Newport and published an article about them in the Wine Tourist Magazine’s October 2015 edition. While examining the wine menus in more than one establishment, I happened to notice a number of New England wines. Of course wine is produced in all 50 states, but the fact that the wines were featured in some fairly high-end restaurants really peaked my interest.

As a result, I managed to fence off an afternoon to visit local wineries. What I discovered was the existence of fine wine in a part of the country I considered too far north. Of course that is silly, since it is not far from the Long Island region in New York and experiences similar growing conditions. In any case, this began my expanded quest to learn more about the wineries and regions north of my current home in Virginia. Listed below, you will find three wineries of note I found along the way.

Rhode Island—Newport Vineyards

Newport Vineyards, Rhode Island

Newport Vineyards, Rhode Island

There are only ten wineries in Rhode Island. John and Paul Nunes opened one of these, Newport Vineyards, in 1995. They currently have sixty-two acres under vine, which makes Newport Vineyards the largest grower in New England and the largest producer of fine wine. I can recommend the Vidal Blanc, but I thought the Gewürztraminer simply remarkable. Among the reds, I liked the Rochambeau, which is a blend of Bordeaux varietals (plus a bit of the French hybrid Landot Noir). The Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon were also well crafted, but the Blaufrankish was simply over the top.

The New England Wine Gazette described Newport Vineyards as a “Napa experience.” I think comparisons to Napa are used far too often. It is not Napa. It is Rhode Island and that is what makes the experience so remarkable. Newport Vineyards is a must-visit winery producing some exceptional offerings.

Pennsylvania—Penns Woods Winery

Penns Wood Winery all pretty in the winter.

Penns Wood Winery all pretty in the winter.

According to American Winery Guide, Penns Woods Winery is one of the 222 Pennsylvania wineries, but it stands out among that number. It is my understanding that the quality of wine in the Keystone State is spotty, but Penns Woods is one of the state’s premier boutique wineries producing about 3500 cases annually.

Owner and winemaker Gino Razzi started Penns Woods as a commercial project only ten years ago, but purchased an existing vineyard with forty-five-years-old vines. Estate grapes are exclusively vinifera, but Gino sources additional fruit from other in-state growers and as far away as the Fingerlakes. The end game is world-class wine, so emphasis is placed on using only the highest quality fruit.

The Barrel room at Penns Woods.

The Barrel room at Penns Woods.

I sampled about a dozen Penns Woods. All of the whites were uniformly excellent and earned gold-medals in a variety of competitions. The Chardonnay and Traminette were particular standouts. Among the reds, the Chambourcin was another gold-medal winner and an excellent example of that hybrid. Gino opened a 2005 Meritage that was made from the old-growth estate fruit. In addition to being a world-class blend, it also demonstrated the aging potential for some of the Penns Woods wines.

Delaware—Nassau Valley Vineyards

In 1987, Peggy Raley began growing grapes on her property near Rehoboth Beach, despite the fact that Delaware did not allow the production and resale of alcohol. So in 1991, Peggy successfully challenged the law and two years after that she opened Nassau Valley Vineyards. Aside from being the state’s first commercial winery, it is fair to say that Nassau Valley is the best and most highly regarded winery in the state.

There are not enough commercial vineyards in Delaware to support demand, so Nassau Valley sources some fruit from New York and other east coast vineyards. I was most interested in tasting the estate wines of which there were five on the tasting menu. I started with a lightly oaked Chardonnay before moving on to the reds. Among these were a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a pair of Bordeaux blends. I will say that all of the wines were well crafted and as good as any wine found elsewhere in the Mid Atlantic region.

Nassau Valley Vineyards, Delaware

Nassau Valley Vineyards, Delaware

Opportunities for Wine Tourism

This short article outlines a handful of high-end wineries in three eastern seaboard states. While New York and Virginia are the largest producers of fine wine, quality wine can be found in all the east-coast states from Georgia north to Massachusetts. This means that potential wine tourists no longer need to travel to Europe or the west coast. From any of the major east-coast cities, wine country can be reached by car in a matter of hours.

It is also possible to find these wines in restaurants and retail outlets, but their reach is limited. Markets tend to remain local even for some of the largest eastern producers. The majority of boutique wineries, on the other hand, have very little distribution. Most sell direct to consumer through wine clubs and tasting rooms. So exploration of these emerging regions is necessary, but that is all part of the adventure. If you want sample the wine, you have to journey to the source. So be a #winetourist. 


US BevX 2017  

The theme of this year's Wine and Beverage Expo in Washington, D.C. will specifically explore the quality revolution.