The mention of "wine country" in the West still tends to stir images of Napa and Sonoma counties, with perhaps a nod to the California central coast region made famous by the wildly funny 2004 film Sideways.
The truth of the matter, however, is that burgeoning wine regions are being uncorked all over—providing planners with a plethora of venues and activities to choose from. Here’s a look at a trio of up-and-coming areas that will seriously raise the "grape expectations" for wine-related events.
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
The mercurial growth of the wine industry in the breathtaking Okanagan Valley mirrors the industry’s explosion in the entire province, which has been downright phenomenal in bursting from 17 wineries in 1990 to 175 today.
The boom resulted greatly from the NAFTA free trade agreement between Canada and the U.S., with a nice assist from the region’s nurturing climate and conditions. Include the splendidly unspoiled scenery and wealth of lodgings, and the result is a great grape getaway for any group size.
"The Okanagan Valley is truly a wonderful place to visit," says Josie Heisig, a travel specialist with Tourism British Columbia. "With well over a hundred wineries to visit, the area is sometimes called Napa North—and the wines won’t disappoint. From crisp whites to big, bold reds, there are some outstanding vintages to sip and swirl. Complementing the wine touring, there are also beautiful resorts that are perfectly suited to meetings as well as individual travelers."
It’s no surprise, given this context, that the region’s most substantial event facility—the Penticton Trade & Convention Centre—would be a hive of wine-focused doings. The facility hosts gatherings of up to 3,500 attendees, with 60,000 square feet of flexible space that includes an attractive atrium holding up to 1,200 guests.
"We host several wine-based events at the Penticton Trade & Convention Centre," says Director of Sales Paul O’Beirn. "We host the fall wine festival, which includes the medal awards tasting Friday night, followed by two days of public tasting with more than 80 local wineries represented. We also host the Enology Viticulture conference, which is presented by the B.C. Wine Grape Council and normally attracts more than 500 delegates and exhibitors over the course of the two-day program, which takes place in July of each year."
Tours and activities can be easily arranged at or by the convention center, as well as by Penticton & Wine Country Tourism. Among the best of these are undoubtedly the wine tasting and food and wine pairing seminars presented by Rhys Pender, a highly qualified expert who’s among an elite handful designated in Canada as a "Master of Wine." Pender sets aside all pretension and focuses on making the get-togethers fun, informative and tailored to the knowledge level and expertise of participants.
Another option is a wine-blending seminar offered by Laughing Stock, which can be presented at its Penticton vineyard or the convention center. After attendees are instructed on the concept of wine blending, they’re then given wine to blend on their own. They can take any approach they like, whether it’s logical and scientific or wildly imaginative.
Among the numerous wine tours possible are those offered by Nixdorf Classic Cars, taking attendees from vineyard to vineyard in vintage chauffeured convertibles. Planners can even combine one of these tours with a paddle wheel cruise on shimmering Okanagan Lake aboard the Casabella Princess, a winning combination that was a major highlight for attendees and spouses at a 2010 conference for the B.C. Fire Chiefs Association.
According to Heisig, the entire region offers attendees the chance to explore some uncharted territory in a locale that’s both refreshingly different and convenient.
"The Okanagan Valley is easily accessible via Kelowna International Airport," she says. "Or, for those looking to embark on a scenic road trip, the Valley is approximately a four-and-a-half-hour drive east of Vancouver."
Washington County, Ore.
When it comes to getting away from it all without leaving it too far behind, Oregon’s Washington County is about as good as it gets. Nestled in the scenic Willamette Valley just 20 minutes from downtown Portland, the region offers a mix of solitude, serenity and superb wines.
"Washington County is emerging as one of Oregon’s fastest-growing wine-producing areas, increasing from about 16 wineries just five years ago to approximately 27 wineries today," says Sylke Neal-Finnegan, director of marketing and communications for the Washington County Visitors Association. "Although Washington County boasts many of Oregon’s best-known, family-owned wineries—Ponzi Vineyards, Montinore Estate, Oak Knoll Winery, to name a few—the area is becoming known for its boutique wineries. As a wine destination, Washington County can stand toe-to-toe with the West Coast’s biggest and brightest wine regions."
Two top wineries for event consideration are Quailhurst Vineyard Estate in Sherwood and Garden Vineyard in Hillsboro.
Quailhurst, known for producing some of the West Coast’s most acclaimed pinot noirs, offers extensive gardens as well as equestrian activities.
"We can do casual picnicky or upscale country class, but we’re fun no matter what," says sales and marketing representative Linda Huotari, adding that the winery can host events for up to 100 people.
Garden Vineyard, which can host up to about 300 for an outdoor gathering, is frequently used for corporate outings, including events for Nike and Intel. They often turn to Wild Bill’s, a Portland-based team-building company, to arrange on-site activities that include obstacle courses winding through the vineyard.
Washingting County is also home to SakéOne, the world’s only American-owned-and-operated large-production sake brewery, in Forest Grove, which offers a wide variety of event areas, in-depth-tours and a tasting room. Those integrating a sake stop into a larger winery tour are urged to start with the sake, however, as it is more delicate on the palette than traditional grape wine.
Even more unexpected is a one-of-a-kind lodging option a half-mile down the road: McMenamins Grand Lodge. The whimsical 77-room estate inspires creativity with displays of original art, a movie theater, spa and even a Frisbee golf course. Guests can also enjoy McMenamins own wines, as well as those from several nearby vineyards, at the lodge’s pubs and restaurants.
Mendocino County, Calif.
While for many years it stood in the shadows of nearby Sonoma and Napa counties, Mendocino is coming into its own as a wine destination. A near-perfect climate for wine production and a thriving agricultural environment have lured scores of award-winning vintners, many devoted to organic methods, to Mendocino in recent years.
"More than ever, consumers, wine enthusiasts and travelers have discovered Mendocino County’s unique varietals, tasting rooms, personalities and passion for sustainability," says Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino County. "In fact, Mendocino County is known as America’s Greenest Wine Region, with more organic wines and vineyards than any other destination.
"Among the county’s 84 wineries located in 12 diverse regions growing dozens of classic wine-grape varieties, there is a winery and wine for every taste," he continues. "And most of the wineries are smaller, family-owned businesses where the tastings are still free."
In addition to the many vineyards along Highway 128 in the Anderson Valley, Hopland is a real hotspot for grape growing and winemaking. The most recognizable of all the winemakers here is Fetzer, which falls right in line with the area’s green theme, even adopting "The Earth-Friendly Winery" as its official slogan.
Regarding event venues in Hopland, it’s hard to top the variety of settings available at Brutocao Cellars, including the Brutocao Schoolhouse Plaza.
"We have several different areas for weddings, rehearsals, receptions, bocce tournaments, baby showers, birthdays, family gatherings, you name it," says spokesperson Kathy Richter. "We are kind of a unique location, with a tasting room, restaurant, bocce courts and banquet room all on-site. And we host many different social gatherings along with doing all of the Brutocao Cellars Winery events."
In addition to the Schoolhouse Plaza’s outdoor patio area, which has six bocce courts, a small private dining room, an expansive upper lawn and an indoor banquet room, Brutocao has a new off-site venue at their nearby Contento Vineyard just down the road. The pastoral setting includes a 3,200-square-foot tent surrounded by sweeping lawns along with a bucolic old barn and spacious dance area. This site can accommodate up to 200 in the tent and another 200 or so on the lawn areas.
Lodging possibilities for a group include numerous affordable hotels in nearby Ukiah and Cloverdale (12 miles away to the north and south, respectively). But more intimate groups might consider the Hopland Inn, a Victorian-style 21-room property mixing modern amenities with intimate settings that include a handsome patio and charming banquet room.