Adventure I Expected, but Wineries in Utah Were a Nice Surprise

Wine in Utah? Yes, and so much more in Greater Zion than a stunning National Park….although it’s a good idea to start there

The Zion National Park has never had an identity crisis; it’s always been a dramatic, scenic wonderland where visitors hike, breathe and wonder in awe at this natural wonder. If you are lucky, as I was on my first visit, bighorn sheep decide to come up to the road for a visit and stop traffic as they pick their way across the street.

The majestic scenery of Zion National Park, one of five National Parks in Utah.

Zion National Park sits in Washington County, Utah, but, after years of marketing as Washington County, the area realized that with dozens of Washington Counties across the U.S., possibly a nod to their famous park would draw attention – and the area became Greater Zion and is anchored by its famous resort town, St. George.

Glamping tents at Open Sky Resort tucked into the hills in Greater Zionfor ultimate privacy.

Dramatic scenery, fresh air with plenty of places to hike, horseback ride or experience canyoneering (or rappelling) in what seems to be undiscovered wilderness. Yet, there are guides and wilderness outfitters aplenty so you can approach these potentially risky activities with confidence. One of these guide groups, Rock Odyssey offers early morning canyoneering, terrifying at first and then quickly thrilling as you zoom down the face of rock cliffs, gaining in height as you become comfortable with this ride-of-a-lifetime.

How about rappeling down a canyon like this?

Rock Odyssey is part of a mini adventure conglomerate anchored by Water Canyon Winery and including short term rental houses, guided hikes, rafting and more. And, as the first Utah-made wine I tried, Water Canyon is pretty impressive. They grow several acres of grapes around the small winery in Hildale (fun fact: it is next to the Warren Jeffs former compound now a sober living facility) and other grapes are shipped in from Lodi, California, which is typical with many wineries in the area. Not every grape grows in Utah, but more vineyards are being planted that push the envelope. Climate change may actually work in Utah’s favor for certain warm weather varieties and then, of course, there are grapes grown at higher elevations that broaden the scope of native wine production. At Water Canyon, try the Sangiovese, Field Blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Barbera, or the 333 Blend.

The array of Water Canyon Wines.
The author punches down grapes at Water Canyon.

We stayed at the trendy, vintage-inspired AutoCamp Resort Zion, one of the newest in the AuroCamp family of custom-designed and fabricated Airstreams that provide an inclusive, tiny home approach to resort living. With everything you need, including room to expand to adjoining tents for larger families. AutoCamp is charming and complete with a camp store, bar and restaurant. In the evenings, find fire glowing throughout the camp, many of them surrounded by s’more enthusiasts. And, if you forgot your chocolate marshmallows and graham crackers, no worries, there are s’more kits available in the store along with gourmet microwave meals, water bottles, sunscreen and other necessities.

Well hello AutoCamp Zion.

Glamping is big here in Greater Zion and here in Greater Zion, there are many camping spots or tent accommodations that are heavy on the glamor and lighter on the camping. The most dramatic of these is Open Sky Zion Resort where raised tents truly raise the caliber of luxury, complete with outdoor showers, hot tubs, huge cody beds , deluxe bathrooms and more. Privacy, elegance and romance is the word here and amenities like a giant natural pond for swimming, breakfast delivered to your tent and a restaurant named Blue Sage that sources almost all of its ingredients from the outdoor garden and nearby purveyors. An excellent international wine list accompanies the elevated food and creative desserts. I could return time after time and never be bored of Executive chef’s Charles Parcell’s culinary creations.

A bathroom in a glamping tent at Open Sky Resort.

After a relaxing and hip stay at AutoCamp Zion, we moved into St. George and checked into the boutique Avenire Hotel in the heart of downtown. A walking town, we could fall out of the hotel and make it to several stores and restaurants in minutes. A little farther away is the original Swig soda store, a unique but wildly popular concept where sodas are mixed with fruits, syrups and toppings in a variety of strange but delicious recipes. Swigs are popping up everywhere but the idea and first shop started right here in Greater Zion. It’s a drive through and they won’t sell to walk up customers, so keep this in mind. It is one of the many service quirks of Utah, guidelines that make alcohol consumption challenging as everything must be poured by a bartender (no getting a can of cider) and accompanied by food, even if just an appetizer.

The eclectic lobby of the boutique Avenire Hotel in downtown St. George.

We walked easily to The Painted Pony, a hugely popular fine dining spot perched on the second floor of a shopping and office complex. Obviously a local’s favorite as we watched party after party greeting each other, including our guest, Mike Jackson of Zion Vineyards. Mike believes that the state’s limited precipitation, long growing season and unique soils offer great potential for varietals like Syrah, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, all of which have taken gold medals in the Utah State Wine Competition. I especially like the Grenache Blanc, a variety we rarely see but is a refreshing white alternative and perfect pair to many Mediterranean dishes.

The colorful labels of the estate-produced Zion WInes.

It turns out that Utah has a history of winemaking dating back to 1861 when thirty Swiss families with a history of winemaking settled in the area. The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) used wine in their rituals and winemaking prospered. But, the closing of the Silver Reef mine and the LDS church’s decision to discontinue using sacramental wine, meant the demand for wine in Utah dried up, as did the vineyards.

Our third day in Greater Zion was spent astride horses climbing up to the top of Snow Canyon through barely touched natural landscape complete with a guided tour of the plants and trees we found along the way. These horses were in excellent shape and many had been race horses in a former life. A long horseback ride and one of my favorite in recent history because of the gorgeous morning air and sun and the history lesson from the guide on what had gone before us. Check out Snow Canyon Trail Rides for a must-experience  activity in Greater Zion.

Riding high above Snow Canyon while getting a horticulture lesson in the Greater Zion area.

For a final dinner in this beautiful corner of Utah, we headed up into low hills to Bold & Delaney Winery where several acres of vineyards grow under the direction of a former sommelier and businessman who love pairing their wines from these volcanic soils at a higher altitude (providing cooler evening temperatures) with the cuisine of their friend Chef Jeff, who employs wellness and holistic principles in his cooking. The Dammeron Valley lies between two dormant volcanoes and seems to be ideal for growing varieties Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Tempranillo as well as whites like Verdejo and Semillon. Well made wines and spectacular cuisine.

Some amazing gastronomy found in Greater Zion!

I feel like we just scraped the surface of Greater Zion and I look forward to returning again and again. Part resort and golf living, part adventure and extreme sports and part winemaking, craft brewing and intentional locally-sourced cuisine. Whatever you have in mind for a getaway, you will find it here in Greater Zion.

The Virgin Jail and other fake western buildings in Virgin, Utah.