It all starts with grapes, of course. Fields of them that stretch beyond your line of sight. And when these tiny bits of fruit are baked in the sun just right and then fermented under the correct conditions, they taste exactly like the ideal retirement. One person who discovered his retirement dream in a bottle of wine is Chuck Johnson. A former vice president for a transportation company in Omaha, Johnson, 47, retired from the corporate world and bought a 10 ½-acre farm in Yadkin Valley, North Carolina's wine country. Now Johnson, his wife, Jamey, and their two teenage sons tend vines and mow grass at Shadow Springs Vineyard. In a brick-and-stone tasting room, they chat about their latest creation, a bold red wine blend infused with dark chocolate called Dark Shadow.
But like many jobs, planting a vineyard as a retirement career also casts a shadow, and not a chocolate-flavored one. "For a guy coming from the corporate life with hundreds of people working for him, having to do everything is a really daunting task," says Johnson. "I'm working 70 hours a week, seven days a week. At 3 a.m., before I open, I am trying to program the cash register." There's a lot more to retiring in wine country than just watching grapes grow.
U.S. News asked a handful of wine experts how wine lovers should decide where to retire. (You can make a personalized list of best places to retire using this search tool.) "If you are a real wine lover and you know a lot about wine, California offers the most intellectual stimulation in terms of the number of different and magnificent wines you can taste," says Karen MacNeil, director of the wine program at the Culinary Institute of America and author of The Wine Bible. In California's wine powerhouses, Napa and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, you can sip a glass of world-class locally grown wine with every meal. But that luxury comes with an exceptional price tag that could keep fixed-income retirees out of the area.
Luckily, many other wine-producing regions in the United States offer exceptional beauty and a low-key lifestyle coupled with a much more affordable cost of living. Ithaca, N.Y., and Jefferson City, Mo., both have median home prices below $200,000 while surrounded by gorgeous farmland. "You could probably do well financially if you retire there because it's not that glitzy yet," says Mary Ewing-Mulligan, president of the International Wine Center and coauthor of Wine Style: Using Your Senses to Explore and Enjoy Wine, about the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York "I just tasted a whole lot of Finger Lakes Rieslings, and the wines are very exciting."
The remoteness of many vineyards is both a perk and a drawback. It can be useful for retirees to maintain at least some proximity to a city for medical care, access to airports for travel, or even to enjoy the bright lights and amenities on occasion. "It gets pretty wearing if you have to drive down an unbelievably mountainous road to get a quart of milk," says MacNeil. "You may not want to be so far from civilization." One winemaking region that offers a nice mix of proximity to a major city and plenty of lush vineyards and farmland is Leesburg, Va., which is about an hour's drive from Washington. Austin suburb Georgetown is also close to the 24 wineries of the Texas Hill Country without being too remote. Bill Mateja, a retired director of consumer affairs for Montgomery Ward, and his wife, Susan, moved from West Palm Beach, Fla., to the Sun City Texas retirement community in Georgetown four years ago. The couple get out to the Texas Hill Country about once a month for black bass fishing, antiquing, and tours of the region's famous wineries. "We will go out to the Hill Country just to inhale the beauty of it," he says.
Few rural areas can rival the stunning variety of wines that you can get in a big city. "The closer you get to any wine country, even Napa Valley, the less access you have to a very large range of wines," cautions Claude Robbins, president of the International Wine Guild. "I would rather have access to wines from all over the world." International wine-loving retirees may want to consider living in a big city near grape-growing regions such as Seattle or Portland, Ore., which provides access to wines made all over the world in addition to local masterpieces. For beer drinkers, both cities also have a thriving microbrewery industry.
If you do need or want to work during the retirement years, a part-time job in a wine shop or tasting room can be a great way to earn money, meet new people, and keep up with developments in the wine industry. "If you go to most wineries, you're going to find a lot of retirees who are working in tasting rooms," says Robert Richards, a Pennsylvania State University professor and author of the forthcoming book Wine Savvy: The Art of Buying, Pairing, and Sharing American Wine. "They like talking with people, and they're very knowledgeable about wine." Jan King, 69, a retiree in Grand Junction, Colo., works two days a week at the Plum Creek Winery tasting room. "Most of the fun is pouring the wine for visitors from all over the world, and during the quiet times we give tours of the wineries," she says. King enjoys chatting with the visitors about the wine, local attractions, or even about the winery's cat, Silvia. The paycheck gives her some extra spending money to eat out and travel. Working in a winery comes with another valuable perk in many parts of the country: discounts at other wineries and local businesses. "That's how I buy most of my Christmas gifts," says King.
If you can't pick just one swath of wine country to put down your roots, you could spend your retirement traveling them all like Terry Sullivan, 58, a retired middle school teacher. He and his wife, Kathy, say they have visited 365 wineries all over the world, and they chronicle their adventures on their website, winetrailtraveler.com. The 2½-year-old website and blog bring in about $4,000 a year from advertisements, which helps subsidize the approximately 10 days a month the couple spend in various wine regions. "You meet people who care about other people at wineries," says Terry. Plus, "the ambience of being out among the vines is really nice."
Check out these 10 great places for wine lovers to retire.