Arizona, Missouri and Texas probably aren't the first states you associate with winemaking. But according to Ray Isle, executive wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, many non-West Coast states are experiencing "a real burst of creative energy in terms of winemaking." He wrote "The Underdog American Wines that are Competing with the World's Best." [Ed. note: More from Isle on preserving old vines and classic wines from around the world.]

Noelle Carter: One interesting statistic you mention is that as recently as just a few years ago, wine was produced in all 50 states.

Ray Isle
Ray Isle

Ray Isle: It's really quite surprising. There actually is quite a long history of wine being produced in states other than the West Coast states that everybody is familiar with: California, Oregon and Washington.

If you go back, wine has been produced in Missouri for quite a long time, for instance. To have wine produced in every state in the union is kind of remarkable, especially states that you wouldn't expect like Hawaii.

NC: When I think of good wine, I think of wine produced on the West Coast. If I were to think of wine made in the Midwest or in the South somewhere, I don't necessarily think of it as being the quality I would want to buy.

RI: I think that's changing actually, which is really exciting from a wine-writing point of view. In the past it has been very tough to find good wines in the non-West Coast states. I think over the past 7 or 8 years, there have been little pockets of really ambitious winemaking that have sprung up in places like Virginia, Texas, Arizona, Michigan and the Finger Lakes in New York, which has been going on for quite a while, actually. You're starting to see wines that are quite competitive with what you'd get out of California, Washington or Oregon. It's exciting, especially as we fall more and more into this idea of eating locally. It's nice to be able to drink wine locally too.

NC: In your article, I love how you mentioned you were traveling with your father a few years ago through Texas. You tried some of the wines and you weren't impressed. Then just last year, you did a food and wine tasting and you were blown away by the results. Can you describe some of the eye-opening experiences you had recently with these regional American wines?

RI: That Texas situation was classic because I did travel; it was great fun. I took a trip through Texas. I'm from Texas, so it was father and son traipsing through my home state. But this was 7 or 8 years ago and the wines we tasted -- we kept going to the wineries, having a great time and then thinking, "This isn't that great."

I came back to the Austin Food and Wine Festival a couple years ago. I was on a panel with a group of Texas wines. I tasted these wines and I had a little bit of trepidation because it's that awkward thing where you're on a panel in your home state with a bunch of wines and you hope they're going to be good. In fact, they were terrific. They were really fantastic wines. That was the beginning of this thought process.

"We all tasted it and thought, 'No lie. That is in fact a really remarkable wine.'"
-Ray Isle

Shortly after that I was at a tasting at Christie's in New York, the auction house, where Jancis Robinson, who is an English wine critic, had brought a bunch of different wines. One of them was a Bordeaux-style blend from Virginia of all places. She said, “You know, I think this is a really remarkable wine.” We all tasted it and thought, “No lie. That is in fact a really remarkable wine.” Which got me thinking.

I spent some time traveling through Virginia tasting wines. The top wines coming out of Virginia are really spectacular. Because I live in New York, I've been following the Finger Lakes, which is inarguably the best riesling-producing region in the U.S.

After that, a wine director down in Scottsdale, Arizona, Pavle Milic, got in touch with me about Arizona wines. I tasted some samples and thought they're doing some really interesting things with Rhone variety grapes, syrah, grenache, in this high Sonoita desert area.

In Michigan, places like the Leelanau Peninsula, you've got some really, really nice rieslings. There are some terrific wines coming out of Missouri as well.

It all coalesced into this idea that -- whether it's a renaissance or tipping point or whatever term you want to use for it -- there's something where these states that aren't the West Coast states, there's suddenly a real burst of creative energy in terms of winemaking, which is incredibly exciting.

NC: Are those local wines more difficult to find?

RI: If you're in the state where they're produced, they're actually quite easy to find because you can go directly to the winery, among other things.

The trick for a lot of these wineries is getting some kind of national distribution, and that's pretty tough. So it can be very difficult to get Texas wines, for example, if you live in Idaho. That's partly due to the vagaries of the wine distribution system in the U.S., and it's partly because one of the selling points they have is the local thing. You can sell Texas wine in Texas much more easily than you can sell it in Idaho.

But I'm hoping that eventually the U.S. ends up like France. It's not uncommon to see wines from the Languedoc in Paris. The different regions in France have distribution throughout the country. There's no reason why the U.S. couldn't go down that road eventually, too, and it wouldn't be strange to see an Arizona wine on a New York wine list.

Noelle Carter

Noelle Carter is a chef and test kitchen manager at the Los Angeles Times.