Arizona Wine Country

Written by Niki D’Andrea, Leah LeMoine and Craig Outhier Category: Features Issue: September 2014

wine, javelina leap vineyardYour guide to the most quaffable wines, tantalizing tasting rooms, and beauteous B&Bs that Arizona has to offer..

Picking Your Poison
Arizona wine is rising up faster than a tangle of summer syrah vines. In 1990, there were five licensed wineries in the state. Today, there are 91, with roughly a dozen more due to open by the end of next year – each providing an additional tourism boon to the state’s three main growing regions. Similar but distinct, these high-country hotspots each present a dreamy fall drive.

 

Verde Valley
The Verde Valley really lives up to its nombre: An expansive canvas of greenery stretches as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the quirky, colorful buildings of Jerome, the misted purple jewels of grapes dotting vineyards, and the cloud-dappled blue sky that feels more immediate than in the Valley of the Sun 100 miles south. Home to well-known Arizona labels like Page Springs Cellars, Arizona Stronghold and Caduceus, Verde Valley is the most amenity-oriented of Arizona’s three growing regions, with a lively nightlife scene in Old Town Cottonwood and sundry art galleries and B&Bs in Jerome. It’s also the closest and most accessible to the Valley – roughly a two-hour drive from Downtown Phoenix.

Sonoita
Located about 45 minutes southeast of Tucson, Sonoita is the only wine grape-growing region in the state to be officially designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Deemed one of the top 10 wine trails in the United States by USA Today, it also boasts the densest cluster of wineries and tasting rooms of Arizona’s three growing regions, making it perfect for visitors who want to experience the straw-colored agrarian beauty of the high desert on bike or foot. Home to award-winning labels like Callaghan Vineyards and Kief-Joshua, Sonoita – along with the nearby town of Elgin – also boasts perhaps Arizona’s premier wine-country restaurant: Overland Trout.

Willcox
The most rustic and remote of Arizona’s three wine regions, Willcox also holds the most potential for growth. Sitting on roughly 400 square miles of loamy farmland about an hour east of Tucson, the region produces the majority of Arizona’s wine grapes, much of which is shipped to the Verde Valley and other northern wineries. Home to Pillsbury Wine Company, Sand-Reckoner, Keeling-Schaefer and roughly a dozen other up-and-coming wineries, Willcox is just beginning to develop its own winemaking infrastructure – along with the high-end restaurants, guesthouses and entertainment options that locals hope will transform the region into a weekend hotspot for Valley folk.

 

Cynthia Snapp

Terms to Know:
Wine Spectator score: The dominant benchmark for wine quality in the industry. Burning Tree Cellars and Page Springs Cellars were the first Arizona wineries to achieve 90 scores, both with 2010 vintage Syrahs.

Terroir: All Arizona wineries make Arizona wine. But not all use grapes sourced from Arizona vineyards. Deemed the single most important value by many winemakers, “terroir” refers to the qualities in a wine imparted by the soil. Thus, we’ve attempted to note which wineries chiefly source from Arizona vineyards whenever possible.

 

VERDE VALLEY
The Verde Valley encompasses 714 square miles in the geographic heartland of Arizona, bisected and nourished by the Verde River as well as Oak Creek, Beaver Creek, Sycamore Canyon and West Clear Creek. Comprising some 30 wineries and tasting rooms, the region is conveniently layed out west of the I-17, about 90 minutes north of Phoenix.

Getting started. The life-giving waters, hot days and cooler nights, mineral-dense soil (from volcanic ash to sandy loam), and diverse geography distinguish the Verde Valley from its southern wine country brethren. The region’s winemakers and wine aficionados range from Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan to former high-tech titans like Bob and Barbara Predmore. They all characterize the terroir as mineral-rich – “like licking wet slate,” says Marissa Gagliardi, a winemaker at Page Springs – with a balanced structure and acidity.

 

More on terroir. Grapes accustomed to long, warm seasons do well in Arizona high country. Three that especially thrive in the Verde Valley:

Cabernet:  Originally a Bordeaux varietal, grows well in the limestone-rich soil of France. The Verde Valley has similar soil.

Sangiovese: An Italian varietal that lends itself to a variety of styles, from dry rosés to rich, hearty and dark blends.

Rhône varietals: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and other varietals from this wine region in the south of France stand alone as individual varietals and make terrific blends.

Wine Passport. Arizona Stronghold, Page Springs Cellars and Burning Tree Cellars have collaborated on a “passport” program, launched this summer. Visit the three tasting rooms and buy a bottle of wine at each to get your passport stamped. After completing the wine-tasting troika, you get a limited-edition passport T-shirt.

Painted Barrels. Art and wine collide in Painted Barrels, the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce’s public art exhibit and charity fundraiser. Local winemakers donate empty barrels for local artists to paint and embellish – past barrels have included everything from pastoral, wine-centric landscapes to Native American history to a bedazzled barrel dripping with rhinestones. After being displayed throughout the Verde Valley, the barrels are auctioned off, with proceeds benefiting the viticulture program at Yavapai College. vvwinetrail.com/painted_barrels

Wine-ucation. For those who doubt Arizona’s ability to become a national wine destination, we present: the Southwest Wine Center. The SWC is an extension of Yavapai College’s viticulture and enology programs, in which students will put the theory and classic education of grape-growing and winemaking into practical application. They’ll grow, harvest, ferment, age, bottle and then serve and sell wine at the SWC’s state-of-the-art facility adjacent to the school’s vineyard, complete with crush pad, testing lab and kitchen for preparing tasting room treats. The coolest feature: the tasting room’s massive, industrial-chic wall made of staves sourced from barrels painstakingly deconstructed by the viticulture and enology staff and students. The SWC will debut its new facility with an opening gala on October 18.
601 Black Hills Dr., Clarkdale, 928-634-7501, viticulture.yc.edu


Tasting Rooms
Cornville
Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery
1565 Page Springs Rd., 928-649-2681, javelinaleapwinery.com
Est: 1999
Husband-and-wife team Rod and Cynthia Snapp are pioneers of Arizona wine. For them, wine is part of “the ever-evolving masterpiece of life,” Cynthia says. Their tasting room gleams with dark wood, with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell tracks providing a soundtrack for sipping. A selection of local jams, jellies and mustards (try the coffee- and sage-infused one) showcases partners for your wine souvenirs. Order a cheese plate, pizza and chocolate volcano cake to eat out on the shaded patio or picnic in the vineyard. Cabanas for group events are on the horizon, Snapp says.
Tasting room hours: Daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tastings: $8 for four; premium tastings $3 each.
Wines to try: 2013 Chenin blanc, smoothly citric and crisp; 2012 Merlot, fruity and full-bodied with a hint of spice.

oak creek vineyard

 

Oak Creek Vineyards
1555 Page Springs Rd., 928-649-0290, oakcreekvineyards.net
Est: 2002
Owner Deb Wahl was a wine broker for 30 years before she took the plunge and started her own vineyard. Oak Creek is perhaps the most accessible tasting room for newbies, with a rectangular bar staffed by casual, enthusiastic young servers. It’s the ideal winery for a girls’ trip – you can shop for blinged-out bottle openers, DIY cheese plates and sundry vino-centric tchotchkes while you sip the house-made sangria and do wine and chocolate pairings. “We want people to feel comfortable, have fun and drink what they like,” Wahl says. All her wines are aged in steel rather than oak.
Tasting room hours: Daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tastings: $10 for five.
Wines to try: 2013 Chardonnay, crisp pear notes with a hint of pineapple; 2012 Zinfandel, a reserve and Wahl’s “pet, my baby.”  
Page Springs Cellars
1500 Page Springs Rd., 928-639-3004, pagespringscellars.com
Est: 2003
Arizona wine icon Eric Glomski has created a Shangri-La anyone would be happy to get lost in for a day. The tranquil trickle of Oak Creek is the soundtrack for an experience at Page Springs, whether you tour the lush vineyards, drink in the swanky tasting room, or enjoy a yoga class or massage with Glomski’s wife Gayle in the vineyard. Glomski and his “tribe,” as winemaker Marissa Gagliardi describes the wine community at Page Springs and the Verde Valley at large, share a commitment to local that extends to the Arizona oak they use in their aging barrels.
Tasting room hours: M-W 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thu-Su 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tastings: $10 for five, plus a souvenir wine glass.
Wines to try: 2012 Ecips, a blend of Counoise, Syrah, Mourvédre and Grenache, with an elegant spiciness; 2013 Vino de la Familia Blanca, a Malvasia Bianca/Marsanne blend with fruity and floral notes.

 

CottonwoodAlcantara Vineyard & Winery

Alcantara Vineyard & Winery
3455 S. Grapevine Way, 928-649-8463, alcantaravineyard.com
Est: 2005
Barbara Predmore glows when she talks about wine and her vineyard, named in honor of her maternal grandmother Dolores “Lola” Alcantara. Family is first at Alcantara – Barbara owns the vineyard with her husband Bob, and their son Brian left a career in architecture to help run the place. “It’s all about family, faith, that the land you use can become sustainable, and that you can use the land and your efforts to benefit others,” Predmore says. The vineyard, situated on the confluence of the Verde River and Oak Creek, has a romantic European feel. In fact, there’s a chapel on the grounds used for weddings, and the Predmores have plans to expand the property to include a bed and breakfast. It’s also pet-friendly, and the Predmores’ Chesapeake Bay retriever rescue, Charlie Brown, greets guests most days.
Tasting room hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tastings: $10 for five; VIP: $15.
Wines to try: 2012 Pinot Grigio, bright, floral, acidic; 2011 Confluence V, medium-bodied red blend, with aromas of chocolate, currants, cranberries and cherries.

Arizona Stronghold
1023 N. Main St., 928-639-2789, azstronghold.com
Est: 2007
Arguably the winery that put Arizona wine on the map, Arizona Stronghold emerged from a collaboration between Maynard James Keenan and Eric Glomski. They dissolved their partnership in May, with Keenan walking away with Arizona Stronghold’s southern Arizona vineyard, which he renamed the Al Buhl Memorial Vineyard after the Arizona wine pioneer. Glomski kept the winery in Camp Verde and rights to the brand. Despite the “divorce,” the wines are still on-point.
Tasting room hours: Su-Th 12 p.m.-7 p.m., F-Sa 12 p.m.-9 p.m. Tastings: $9 for five.
Wines to try: 2011 ASV Mangus, Tuscan-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese, fruit-forward, rustic; 2011 ASV Tazi, flowery, aromatic and mineral-rich white blend.

phil brown, burning tree cellars

Burning Tree Cellars
1040 N. Main St., 928-649-8733, burningtreecellars.com
Est: 2007
Corey Turnbull and Mitch Levy’s boutique tasting room is exclusive without being pretentious. No, you won’t find their wines at your nearest Whole Foods – you have to come to them to taste it. The journey is worth it for the sense of place you get while drinking their wine in their sophisticated but not stuffy tasting room. We dig the labels depicting Turnbull, Levy and consigliere Phil Brown in old-fashioned portraits. “This is the first and last time you’ll see a Jewish monk!” Levy jokes of his immortalization on the label of 2012’s The Abbot, a “big, brooding Bordeaux.”
Tasting room hours: Su-Thu 12 p.m.-6 p.m.; F-Sa 12 p.m.-9 p.m. Tastings: $10 for five, including souvenir glass.
Wines to try: 2012 The Matriarch, tropical and nutty Chardonnay, with hints of roasted marshmallow. The titular matriarch is the elephant on the label – a framed print of her also overlooks the tasting room; 2012 The Archer, a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend with cherry, cranberry, tobacco and sandalwood flavors, and lilac tones.

 

Fire Mountain Wines
1010 N. Main St., 928-649-9135, firemountainwines.com
Est: 2011
Fire Mountain Wines has the distinction of being the only Native American majority-owned winery in the region, and one of few in the country. They proudly employ three members of the Yavapai-Apache nation and sell tribal member-made art and goods. “Fire Mountain” is a reference to the transition between day and night, when the sun sets on the mountains and sets the landscape on metaphorical fire. The symbolism extends to the grapes they grow, for in order to thrive, the grapes must struggle between the high temperatures of the day and the low temperatures of night. The fire represents their growth and rebirth amid struggle. Tasting room hours: Su-Th 12 p.m.-5 p.m.; F-Sa 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tastings: $3 for three; $9 for five; $12 for three with chocolate pairing.
Wines to try: 2012 Fire, a red blend with cherry, blackberry and tart red plum and pomegranate notes; 2010 Wind, a Viognier and Grenache blanc blend evoking the scents of wildflowers, freshly cut grass and white peaches.

Pillsbury Wine Company North
1012 N. Main St., 928-639-0646, pillsburywine.com
Est: 2010
The northern outpost of winemaker Sam Pillsbury’s Willcox-based vineyard and winery (see page 120).
Tasting room hours: Su-Th 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; F-Sa 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tastings: $10 for five; add $2.50 for souvenir glass.


Clarkdale
Four Eight Wineworks
907 Main St., 928-649-2007, four8wineworks.com
Est: 2013
Four Eight Wineworks, a reference to Arizona’s position as the 48th state to enter the union, is Arizona’s first and only winemakers’ co-operative. The co-op, housed in Clarkdale’s old National Bank building, is yet another brainchild of Maynard James Keenan and bills itself as “Incubator. Passion vortex. Metaphorical leg up.” Winemakers without the resources to purchase and run their own vineyard can grow, make and sell their wine through Four Eight’s Camp Verde vineyard with the support of an existing infrastructure. The result? Unfettered creativity and risk-taking, with deliciously drinkable and affordable rewards for tasting room visitors. They also have a selection of local beers on tap.
Tasting room hours: 12 p.m.-7 p.m.-“ish.” Tastings: $12 for five; choose from four themed flights.
Wines to try:
Chateau Tumbleweed – 2013 The Descendants, buttery, crisp, balanced Viognier and Verdelho blend.
Iniquus Cellars – 2010 Merum, mostly Syrah with a bit of Malbec, velvety with a hint of spice, enveloping.
Saeculum Cellars – 2012 Rosé, Zinfandel Sangiovese, light, refreshing, intriguing.
Four Eight Wineworks – 2012 Arizona Red Wine, perfectly balanced, fruit-forward and full.

four eight wineworks, david bairdcaduceus cellars

David Baird at Four Eight Wineworks; Caduceus Cellars


Jerome
Caduceus Cellars
158 Main St., 928-639-9463, caduceus.org
Est: 2004
The urban, industrial-chic décor of Maynard James Keenan’s tasting room for his Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards belies the genuine, small-town hospitality of his staff. A selection of Arizona food products and local merchandise, from Hayden Mills flour to Puscifer coffee, shows Keenan’s commitment to local on every level. Caduceus also supplies the most thorough, amusing and literary tasting notes of any winery we visited. The 2011 Sancha is “savory, confident and nervy.” The 2011 Kitsuné “opens up as if a cherry pie just came out of the oven.” Tasting room manager Brian Sullivan regaled us with more fanciful descriptions penned by a past staffer. Our favorite: A wine tasted like “how Brigitte Bardot would wear a bow.”
Tasting room hours: Su-Th 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; F-Sa 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Coffee and Italian espresso hours: 8 a.m.-12 p.m. daily. Tastings: $7-$13 for four.
Wines to try: 2012 Lei Li Nebbiolo Rosé, sweetly fruity and tropical, floral, named for Keenan’s wife; 2012 Anubis, aromatic, intense, spicy, smoky, cocoa and raspberry notes, a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and petite sirah.

Cellar 433
240 Hull Ave., 928-634-7033, cellar433.com
Est: 2006
John McLoughlin’s Dragoon Mountain Vineyard near Willcox supplies the wine for this bright, cheery tasting room. Head upstairs for spectacular views of the Verde Valley and the blazing russet rocks of Sedona.
Tasting room hours: M-W 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Th-Su 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tastings: $10 for four or $12 for six.
Wines to try: Sultry Cellars – 2011 Seductive, Riesling and Marsanne blend, sweet, crisp, honeyed apple; Dribble Creek – 2011 Sommelier, a red blend with a peppery fruitiness.

Passion Cellars
417 Hull Ave., 928-649-9800, passioncellars.com
Est: 2013
The northern outpost of the Willcox vineyard and winery.
Tasting room hours: Su-Th 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; F-Sa 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tastings: $9-$17, depending on type and inclusion of logo glass.
Wines to try: 2012 Black Hills Zin, spicy and jammy, with prominent cardamom, clove and fennel; 2012 Jerome White, a Chenin blanc-Malvasia Bianca blend, dry, subtly fruity, hint of mint and spice.

SNEAK PEEK: Revelation Wines
While it might be a stretch to compare Revelation Wines to Cream or the Highwaymen, there’s definitely a supergroup element to this new project, Old Town Cottonwood’s first in-town winery. The five owners – Tim White, Paula Woolsey, Lisa Rhodes, Tom Schumacher and Scott Havice – are legends in the Verde Valley and beyond. For example: White was the inaugural winemaker for Arizona Stronghold and earned Arizona’s first and only Double Gold at San Francisco’s International Wine Competition. Woolsey – current V.P. of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium and former business manager for Arizona Stronghold – assembled the dream team and is converting an old church to house their winery and tasting room, slated to open by the end of 2014. Previews of the wine labels reveal cheeky homage to their holy location: “Our Lady of Questionable Decisions” is one of their debut wines. 102 E. Pima St., Cottonwood, 928-593-9694, revelationwines.com

 

Verde Valley Travel Guide
Cottonwood
EAT: Old Town Cottonwood is a bonanza of delicious dining options – and you don’t even have to leave Main Street. Crema Café (917 N. Main St., 928-649-5785, cremacafe89a.com) serves breakfast, lunch, coffee and gelato that marry Southwestern flavors with European sophistication, like smoked turkey and green chile in a demi-baguette, red chile-glazed bacon and local fig gelato. Pizzeria Bocce (1060 N. Main St., 928-202-3597, pizzeriabocce.com) made PHOENIX magazine’s list of Arizona’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014, and for good reason: wood-fired pies, scrumptious salads, clever cocktails and gluttonous desserts make Bocce and its sleek outdoor patio the place to be. Another best restaurant nod went to SchoolHouse (202 N. Main St., 928-634-0700, vvschoolhouse.com), where chef Christopher Dobrowolski’s innovative takes on global comfort food are served with a side of charity: When a local restaurateur skipped town and left employees with bounced paychecks, Dobrowolski and wife Laura donated a portion of their sales to ensure the employees were compensated.
PLAY: Get in touch with Cottonwood’s agricultural roots with a tractor pull, ropin’ lessons, live music and cowboy poetry at Blazin’ M Ranch (1875 Mabery Ranch Rd., 928-634-0334, blazinm.com). If shopping is more your style, explore Old Town Cottonwood’s antique, secondhand and local goods shops. Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders (1002 N. Main St., 928-634-9900, vvoliveoil.com) offers free tastings of flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Local chefs host BYOB cooking demos in the store twice a month, so you can bring a bottle of local wine and enjoy a meal of four to five small plates for $15.
STAY: Originally built as a grocery store in 1925, The Tavern Hotel (904 N. Main St., 928-639-1669, thetavernhotel.com) now houses 10 guest rooms, a two-bedroom cottage and an adjacent bar and restaurant, The Tavern Grille. For a luxe B&B experience, Desert Rose (4190 E. Bridle Path Rd., 928-646-0236, desertrosebandb.com) offers mini-fridges in every room – all the better to tote home your leftovers from Cottonwood’s great restaurants. Both hotels offer wine tasting and Verde Valley Railroad packages, so inquire when you book for bonus savings.

Clarkdale
EAT: If you crave cocktails served in Mason jars and Southern favorites, Nate’s Cowboy Café (1481 W. Highway 89A, 928-639-3838, natescowboycafe.com) will wet your whistle and fry your chicken – not to mention some frog legs, the Friday night special. For comida mexicana, head to Su Casa (1000 Main St., 928-634-2771) for chiles rellenos and cactus fries.
PLAY: After tasting, touring and witnessing how wine is made today, travel back in time with the antique stills and harvesting equipment used to make wine, beer and spirits decades ago at the Copper Art Museum (849 Main St., 928-649-1858, copperartmuseum.com). The museum,  which is located in the old Clarkdale High School building, won the 2014 Arizona Governor’s Tourism Award. The company-planned town of Clarkdale is a destination in itself – walk its maze of sidewalks and marvel at the company-planned houses and quaint, small-town landmarks like the gazebo and town square.
STAY: Eco-savvy tourists flock to Candlewood at Mescal Canyon Retreat (1550 Abbey Rd. South, 928-634-2067, mescalcanyonretreat.com), a solar-powered B&B surrounded by National Forest and organic permaculture.

 

jerome

Jerome
EAT: If you’re not staying at a B&B, head to The Flatiron (416 Main St., 928-634-2733, theflatironjerome.com) for an organic, locally sourced breakfast and Firecreek Coffee Company’s Boxcar Espresso blend. Enjoy a haunting lunch or dinner at The Asylum (200 Hill St., 928-639-3197, theasylum.biz) or a casual family meal at the Haunted Hamburger (410 Clark St., 928-634-0554, thehauntedhamburger.com), which celebrates its 20th year in Jerome this year.
PLAY: A visit to Arizona’s most haunted town wouldn’t be complete without a ghost tour, and there’s no better guide than historian Ronne Roope and his Tours of Jerome (toursofjerome.com) guides. Choose from three haunted tours, three wine tours and three historic tours, or a custom tour. Keep it quirky on your own walking tour of Jerome by visiting two shops alike in weirdness but on opposite sides of the taste spectrum. Mooey Christmas and Udder Things (111 Jerome Ave., 928-634-2604, mooeychristmas.com) is a year-round Christmas shop that out-wholesomes the Cleavers. Just up the hill is Maynard James Keenan’s Puscifer (403 N. Clark St., 928-639-3516, puscifer.com) store, a brick-and-mortar expression of his musical side project and “creative subconscious” of the same name. The shop is like Spencer’s on acid, stocking everything from Puscifer LPs and posters to “Viva La Vulva” tees and a racy “Mile High Kit.”
STAY: Jerome has no shortage of historical, haunted hotels and shabby chic B&Bs. The Ghost City Inn (541 Main St./Hwy 89A, 928-634-4678, ghostcityinn.com) was an 1890s boarding house for copper miners in the “Ghost City.” Hillside House (687 Main St., 928-821-2412, hillsidehousejeromeaz.com) was built in 1904 by a former saloon keeper. But to experience the truly eccentric splendor of a Jerome B&B, we recommend a stay at The Surgeon’s House (100 Hill St., 928-639-1452, surgeonshouse.com), built in 1916 for Jerome’s chief surgeon. It’s now run by Andrea Prince, who has lovingly restored the rooms (including maid’s and chauffeur’s quarters), decks and gardens of the house to reflect their storied history, incorporating art, books and mementos she's collected. Her koi pond is filled with sassy celebrities – Emily Post and Frank Sinatra have aquatic namesakes – and she proudly displays guests' art. All this, plus she makes a mean breakfast: for our stay, it was poached salmon, roasted asparagus with sesame oil, corn and roasted tomato strata, aioli, three kinds of salsa, coconut scones, cornbread, fruit and more.

Whither Cornville?
Though sometimes dismissed as a drive-thru town good for its three wineries and little else, Cornville is coming around as a travel hub. Harry’s Hideaway (10990 E. Cornville Rd., 928-639-2222, harryshideaway.com) boasts a Cajun-flecked menu to rival any in the Valley. Moreover, Cornville recently witnessed the opening of its first B&B: The Vineyards, (928-300-4313, thevineyardsbandb.com) located next door to Page Springs Cellars. Give us a bottle of Eric Glomski's Chardonnay and a bed to crash on after drinking it on the banks of the creek, and we’re not sure there’s any reason to leave.

 

sonoita, callaghan vineyards

SONOITA
The proximity of Sonoita’s dozen wineries allows for a leisurely road trip from one end of the AZ-83 (Charron Vineyards in Vail) to another (Lightning Ridge Cellars in Elgin), a drive that takes about 40 minutes nonstop. But of course, you’ll want to stop – at least a dozen times.

Getting started. Sonoita’s vineyards benefit from water-retaining gravelly loam soil, summer monsoons and high-elevation plantings – 4,500 to 5,000 feet, some of the highest in the country. Purchase a 2014 Arizona Wine Travel Card (winetravelcard.com) for $20 and receive discounts at select Sonoita wineries, as well as at wineries throughout the state.

Top 3 Annual Wine-Centric Sonoita Events
Bad Decisions Campout: Pitch a tent at AZ Hops & Vines and watch the Perseids meteor shower while munching on bacon and chocolate and listening to live music. In addition to Hops & Vines’ wine tastings, Four Peaks Brewing Company will bring beer. In the morning, enjoy muffins and mimosas. $20 for souvenir wine glass and 10 tasting tickets; $50 for souvenir wine glass, ten tasting tickets and campout (food not included). Every August. Visit azhopsandvines.com.

HarvestFest: Sonoita Vineyards’ annual festival includes food from local resto The Steak Out, horse-drawn vineyard tours, tastes of wine grapes and a grape-stomping competition. Every August. $20. Visit sonoitavineyards.com.  

Wine Lovers Cruise: A seven-day Alaskan cruise with Sonoita winemakers Karyl and Kevin Wilhelm from Wilhelm Family Vineyards. The cruise departs from Seattle, Wash., on June 29, 2015, and returns June 28, and features a wine reception, two one-hour tasting sessions, a four-course wine-pairing luncheon and personal seminars with the Wilhelms. $1,199-$1,664. Visit wilhelmvineyards.com.

 

Regional Food & Wine Pairings
Lightning Ridge Montepulciano & The Cafe’s stuffed pork loin: Recommended by chef Adam Puckle of The Cafe, this pairing puts a complex Italian red (fruit-forward at the start, spicy at the finish) with a juicy, tender pork loin stuffed with local goat cheese and wrapped in bacon.

Callaghan Vineyards’ 2009 Claire’s & Overland Trout’s grilled beef flatiron: This Mourvèdre/Grenache blend helps cleanse the taste buds of fatty deposits from steak, thus making every bite of steak tastier. Sip Claire’s alongside Chef Greg LaPrad’s grilled beef, and you’ll feel the palate persuasion.

Dos Cabezas La Montana & The Cafe’s APE Burger: This Syrah has an intense black cherry nose matched only by its palate-punching fruit-forward flavor. The wine’s long finish fades nicely into a bite of a juicy APE Burger from The Cafe.   

Tombstone’s Justice & Velvet Elvis Pizza Co.’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”: This Barbera/Cabernet blend has a long, dry finish, but isn’t overly tannic, making it a great match for Velvet Elvis’ meat-loaded red sauce pizza.

 

Tasting Rooms
Charron Vineyards
18585 S. Sonoita Hwy., Vail; 520-762-8585, charronvineyards.com
Est: 1994
Located about 20 miles north of Sonoita, Charron Vineyards makes a great first stop on the way into town. Owners Milton and Susan Craig left Scottsdale, and their careers in IT, about five years ago to take over this prettily-perched vineyard, which sits at an elevation of 4,200 feet. They produce 1,500 cases of wine per year (and 13 different wines) and tend to about five acres of vines (which produce mostly Merlot). The tasting room is a glass-window-enclosed deck where classic rock from the Eagles to Santana wafts softly from the speakers, and it’s connected to a shaded patio adorned with live grapevines winding around the pillars and trellises, and stunning views of the surrounding mountain ranges (fun fact: all of Charron Vineyards’ blends are named after the mountain ranges). The tasting room is dog-friendly; the Craigs even offer free treats for visitors’ four-legged friends.
Tasting room hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. F-Su. Tastings: $7, includes souvenir glass. Wine Travel Card discount: 10 percent off your wine purchase and one free wine glass charm per paid wine tasting.
Wines to try: Rincon Red, a blend of non-vintage Merlot and Chancellor grapes. It’s the vineyards’ best-seller, and winner of a Whole Foods Peoples Choice Award. Empire White, a Sauvignon blanc and white Merlot blend made from 100 percent Arizona-grown grapes. It has a light effervescence and grapefruit taste.

Dos Cabezas Wineworks
3248 Arizona Hwy. 82, Sonoita; 520-455-5141, doscabezaswinery.com
Est: 1995
Originally located near Willcox, Dos Cabezas relocated to Sonoita in 2006, under the new ownership of Todd and Kelly Bostock. The Bostocks planted Pronghorn Vineyard in the area, and developed a working relationship with Oregon wine kingpin Dick Erath, who provides some of Dos Cabezas’ grapes through Cimarron Vineyards, which he planted in Kansas Settlement (near Willcox) in 2006. “I think the fruit grown here is really distinctive, and could be great,” Kelly Bostock says. Visitors to the Bostocks’ industrial, beatnik-chic tasting room can choose from more than eight wines, and enjoy them at the long, copper-topped bar facing large photos of the vineyards during harvest season. Soft alternative rock (think: Mazzy Star) and two black cats meandering around add to the tasting room’s mellow, “what-world-out-there?” vibe.  
Tasting room hours: 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Th-Su. Tastings: $15, includes a souvenir wine glass.
Wines to try: 2010 Cimarron Rojo Del Sol, a red blend of Tempranillo, Grenache and Mourvèdre, with a slightly smoky nose and a mild, black fruit finish. 2013 Dos Cabezas Meskeoli, a blend of all the white grapes grown at Cimarron Vineyards (Viognier, Roussanne, Picpoul, Riesling, Malvasia, Muscat and Albarino). Light and crisp, with a silky nose.

Rancho Rossa Vineyards
201 Cattle Ranch Lane, Elgin; 520-455-0700, ranchorossa.com
Est: 1999
Chris Hamilton is a full-time commercial airline pilot, and a full-time winemaker, to boot. And he might tell you that flying a 747 is cake compared to growing grapes in Arizona. “It’s farming,” he says. “It’s hard to grow grapes out here. It’s not California. It’s not Washington.” But Hamilton’s hard work – and his insistence on using only Arizona-grown grapes (Rancho Rossa is the only winery in Sonoita to use 100 percent estate fruit) – pays off in bottles of award-winning vinos like the Rancho Rossa 2013 Syrah, awarded a gold medal for best varietal from the Arizona Wine Growers’ Association. Fans of classic rock and dogs will dig the tasting room, which is decked with posters of the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, and occasionally visited by the Hamiltons’ two basset hounds and lab mix.  
Tasting room hours: 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sa-Su. Tastings: $8. Rancho Rossa glasses only.
Wines to try: 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a delicious mix of Cab Sav with 18 percent Merlot. Aged in American and European oak for two years, the wine is rich and dark, and imparts hints of black cherry and chocolate. 2008 Casa Cuvée, a white blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Chardonnay, aged in American oak for 12 months. Super smooth and light-bodied, with flavors of ripe pear and tropical fruit.

Flying Leap Vineyards
342 Elgin Rd., Elgin; 520-455-5499, flyingleapvineyards.com
Est: 2013
Located on the site of the storied former Canelo Hills Winery, Flying Leap still sells a handful of CHW wines, but their own products are equally impressive. Though they have multiple tasting rooms (including one in Willcox, where winemakers Mark Beres and Marc Moeller started growing their grapes in 2010), the Elgin location boasts tasting room director Rolf-Peter Sasse, a veritable encyclopedia of vino. In his perfect English with a Bavarian accent, he’s happy to talk grapes, especially obscure-to-Americans varietals like Graciano (a Spanish red grown primarily in Rioja). “The fun thing about Graciano is, most people in the U.S. do not know it,” Sasse says. “It’s a cousin of Tempranillo.”
Tasting room hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. W-Su. Tastings: $6 with your own glass; $10, includes a souvenir glass. Wine Travel Club discount: Receive 15 percent off a purchase of three or more bottles of wine.
Wines to try: 2011 Head Over Heels, a lush red blend that’s majority Tempranillo (40 percent) with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mourvèdre and Petit verdot. Very velvety, with a long finish. 2013 Grenache Rosé, a refreshing wine perfect for a hot summer day. Features flavors of apple and watermelon.

callaghan vineyards, kent callaghan

Callaghan Vineyards
336 Elgin Rd., Elgin; 520-455-5322, callaghanvineyards.com
Est: 1990
Winemaker Kent Callaghan planted his original vineyard with his father, Harold, and Kent’s daughter Claire helps carry on the family winemaking tradition. But Callaghan Vineyards has blossomed beyond a small business – their wines have been served at the White House on three occasions (including Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement dinner in 2006) and have consistently received high scores from Wine Spectator. The tasting room, while stark (it’s Callaghan at a counter with an army of wine barrels behind him), is dog-friendly.  
Tasting room hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Th-Su. Tastings: $10, includes a souvenir glass. Wine Travel Card discount: Receive case pricing on all wine bottle purchases.
Wines to try: 2009 Padres, a red blend (Graciano, Tempranillo, Mourvèdre and Cabernet) that Callaghan aptly calls a “big, round sexy thing.” 2012 Lisa’s, a white blend of Coda di volpe (an Italian varietal) and Falanghina (an ancient grape also cultivated in Campania).

Kief-Joshua Vineyards
370 Elgin Rd., Elgin; 520-455-5582, kiefjoshuavineyards.com
Est: 2005
“We sell out of everything every year,” winemaker Kief Manning says, explaining why the menu at his mansion’s tasting room constantly changes. Manning studied viticulture in Australia, and applies the earth-friendly practices so big in Oz to his own vineyards (20 acres in Elgin, and 40 acres in Willcox): no herbicides or pesticides (Baby Doll sheep eat his weeds), reusing organic matter to enrich the nutrients in his oil and recycling wine barrels. The well-heeled-hippie vibe is enchanced by a summer concert series that’s featured such acts as Grateful Dead tribute band Top Dead Center and folk artist Jeordie.
Tasting room hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Tastings: $8, includes a souvenir wine glass, or $5 with your own glass. Wine Travel Card discount: 15 percent off a purchase of three bottles of wine.
Wines to try: 2012 Cabernet Franc, a complex, fruit-forward wine with a marshmallow nose. Aged in Hungarian oak, this varietal offers a different finish every time, speckled with hints of spice, leather and tobacco. 2012 Cephus, a white blend of Viognier and Chardonnay. A light, slightly buttery summer wine.

wine, wine makingwine, wine making

 harvesting grapes; stemming, seeding and pressing the fruit at Wilhelm Family Vineyards

Village of Elgin/Four Monkey
471 Elgin Rd., Elgin; 520-455-9309, elginwines.com
Est: 1982
Just so you know, the grapes for Village of Elgin’s Tombstone wines are not grown in the mine-spoiled soil of Tombstone, but in Willcox wine country. And also just so you know, asking tasting room host Jim Reed if you can “try the Playful Monkey” Cab Sav will probably net a winky retort of, “Sure, and you can try the wine, too.” Classic rock like The Doors and AC/DC usher guests into the spartan tasting room, and bathrooms are (surprisingly pristine) outhouses. Suffice to say, Village of Elgin/Four Monkey is all generous pours, with no pretention.
Tasting room hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Tastings: $10, includes a souvenir glass; or $8 with your own glass. Wine Travel Card discount: Receive case pricing on all wine bottle purchases.
Wines to try: Tombstone Red, a semi-sweet red wine that Jim Reed says is “the best-selling wine in the state.” Full-bodied with a rich cherry flavor.  Bella, a light rosé with a peachy nose and lightly peachy flavor.

Wilhelm Family Vineyards
21 Mountain Ranch Dr., Elgin; 520-455-9291, wilhelmvineyards.com
Est: 2007
“If you don’t like the food... have more wine.” And “If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance.” These are just a couple of the clever, vino-themed signs (most are for sale) hanging around the diminutive but dashing tasting room at Wilhelm Family Vineyards. The counter seats about four people comfortably, and all seats are within view of the nearby mini-fridge, which is fully stocked with chocolate and artisanal goat cheese. Winemaker Karyl Wilhelm (who received her Winemaking Certification from U.C. Davis in 2009) and her husband Kevin grow mostly red grapes (Cab Sav, Counoise, Mourvèdre, Tannat, Cinsault and Tempranillo) on their five-acre vineyard, the one exception being Albariño, their personal favorite white wine of choice – and one of ours, too (see “Wines to try” below).
Tasting room hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Tastings: $10 with Wilhelm Vineyards glass or $5 with your own glass. Wine Travel Card discount: Free tasting for one (glass not included) and 15 percent off a purchase of three bottles of wine.
Wines to try: Rendezvous, a Rhone blend of Syrah and Petite Syrah (40 percent each) and Grenache (20 percent). The tasting flight menu captures the essence of Rendezvous: “Smooth, spicy, smoky and sexy.” Pour it through a wine aerator (pictured) so you don’t have to let it sit for an hour. 2012 Albariño, a dry white aged in stainless steel. Clean and crisp, with notes of mango and apricot.

az hops & vines, megan haller, shannon zouzoulas

AZ Hops & Vines
3450 Arizona Hwy. 82, Sonoita; 888-569-1642, azhopsandvines.com
Est: 2011
Sisters Shannon Zouzoulas and Megan Haller are originally from California, and always figured that’s where they’d open their winery, but Haller’s husband’s job as a U.S. Border Patrol officer put them in Sonoita, where Haller honed her winemaking chops as a volunteer at Sonoita Vineyards (see page 114). Now with a space of their own, the sisters operate their tasting room like a big party in their living room – guests can lounge on pillows piled in two big bay windows in the spacious, sunny room, while perusing stacks of cheeky books with titles like Rude Hand Gestures of the World and playing politically incorrect party games like Cards Against Humanity. There’s even a mini-petting zoo outside. “We have a donkey that bites people, named Clint Eastwood,” Zouzoulas says. “We have a pig named Kevin Bacon. We have chickens.” The sisters’ colorful personalities come through on AZ Hops & Vines’ winky wine labels, including their “Fluffer” Muscato (with a label depicting a hand firmly gripping the base of the bottle) and their 2012 Temptress (Tempranillo) with a steampunk-looking gypsy on the label and a quote from seminal sex symbol Mae West.
Tasting room hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Th; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. F-Su. Tastings: $10 with AZ Hops & Vines’ glass, or $5 with your own glass. Wine Travel Card discount: Receive case pricing on all wine bottle purchases.
Wines to try: 2012 Gracias, a full-bodied Petite Syrah with a big, bold taste. Aged in American oak.  2013 Mother Love, a medium-bodied, buttery Chardonnay. The label depicts the sisters’ mother when she was a young girl, wearing a hula skirt and lei.

Sonoita Vineyards
290 Elgin Canelo Rd., Elgin; 520-455-5893, sonoitavineyards.com
Est: 1983
The oldest continually operating vineyard in Sonoita now includes more than 30 acres of vines. Founded by University of Arizona soil scientist Dr. Gordon Dutt – who made the pioneering discovery in 1973 that Sonoita’s soil was nearly identical to that of Burgundy, France – Sonoita Vineyards remains in family hands; Dutt’s granddaughter Lori Reynolds currently serves as winemaker and vineyard manager. She’s so affable and knowledgeable that she can talk even a purist into letting her drop a big ol’ blood red, spiny hibiscus flower into the winery’s Sparkles Brut (the flower is edible, and lends a fruity sweetness to the effervescent Colombard wine).   
Tasting room hours: Daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tastings: $10, includes a souvenir glass. Wine Travel Card discount: 10 percent off a purchase of three bottles of wine.
Wines to try: Arizona Cabernet Sauvignon, an unusually light-bodied red with an oaky nose and tart cherry finish. Sonora Rossa, a dry rosè-style blend of Colombard and Cab Sav (or Syrah and Malbec, in the 2010 vint). Made with grapes grown in Bowie, Ariz.

Lightning Ridge Cellars
2368 Arizona Hwy. 83, Elgin; 520-455-5383, lightningridgecellars.com
Est: 2005
Winemaker Ann Roncone’s come a long way from what she calls “making garage wine” in her native Bay Area. The retired mechanical engineer (“It’s come in handy, because everything breaks,” she says) grows all Italian grapes on her 10-acre vineyard. “When I started the vineyard, I decided, ‘I’m going to plant what I like to drink,’” she explains. Some of her thriving vines this year are bearing Aglianico, Primitivo and Montepulciano grapes. The tasting room, which boasts striking medieval-looking doors and big windows with views of the surrounding grassy hills, is currently the only place to buy Lightning Ridge wines.
Tasting room hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. F-Su. Tastings: $9, includes a custom-etched wine glass; or $5 with your own wine glass. Wine Travel Card discount: 15 percent off a purchase of three bottles of wine.
Wines to try: 2011 Montepulciano, the winery’s best-seller, made with 100 percent estate grapes. Fruit-forward with a short and spicy finish. 2011 Zinfandel, made with fruit from Paso Robles, Calif. and aged in new American oak. This very potent Zin packs a big blackberry jam flavor.

Off the beaten path:
Hannah’s Hil Vineyard & Winery
Established in 2004, this winery makes mostly mourvèdre and Roussanne estate wines and is open by appointment only. Call 602-495-1519 or visit hannahshill.com.

 

Sonoita Travel Guide
Eat
Overland Trout
Helmed by former Quiessence chef Greg LaPrad, Overland Trout (cowboy slang for bacon) has a farm-to-table focus, and serves dishes made with indigenous ingredients, from Arizona-raised beef to garden-grown herbs. The menu changes with the seasons, but has featured everything from a shareable trout platter (smoked trout mousse with roe on cucumber) and veal scallopine (pan-fried and served with tomatoes, garlic, capers, manchego cheese and parsley whipped potatoes) to tortas and “Sonoran Oysters” on the half shell with bacon, chorizo, red chile cream and breadcrumbs. Several Arizona wines, including vints from Sonoita’s Kief-Joshua Vineyards and Callaghan Vineyards, dot the drink menu. 3266 Arizona Hwy. 82, Sonoita; 520-455-9316, overlandtrout.com

The Cafe
The house wines here come from nearby Rancho Rossa Vineyards, and every month, Chef Adam Puckle brings in a different local winemaker to discuss their wines and pair them with Puckle’s food – which has a decidely locavore focus, to the point where the menu changes every shift depending on what’s available. Salads and herbs are sourced from the bulging green garden on the back patio, burgers are pretty much pasture-to-plate, and there’s no shortage of local eggs and cheese. Puckle hand-picks his local wine selections and is hands-on in the kitchen, too. All the sauces and condiments are housemade. Wine dinners take place the last Sunday of the month (typical cost: $50-$70 per dinner); the dinner on September 28th will pair Puckle’s food with vino from Wilhelm Family Vineyards. 3280 Arizona Hwy. 82, Sonoita; 520-455-5044,
cafesonoita.com

Cunningham’s Ranch House Restaurant
Local flavor is important, but local color is fun, too – and the Ranch House has it in rainbows. It’s the kind of place where it looks like nothing’s changed since the ‘70s – especially not the carpet – and the waitresses call everybody “honey.” And you can call the waitresses – both named Debbie – by their nickname: “We go by Double D,” Debbie one says. “That’s not our bra size anymore; that’s just a memory.” If you can get past the eatery’s “greasy spoon” aesthetic, you could be rewarded with an unbelievably good burger, which Double D emphasizes is so tasty because it’s made with Arizona beef. “That’s why there’s only one cow in the pasture over there,” Debbie two says. “We served the rest today.” 3250 Arizona Hwy. 82, Sonoita; 520-455-5371

Stay
Xanadu Ranch Getaway
One of the oldest homesteads in Sonoita (the main house was constructed in 1912), Xanadu Ranch Getaway offers every modern amenity in its five rooms (free wireless Internet, satellite TV with DVD player, refrigerator, microwave) combined with quaint country touches like horse stables (you bring your own steed, and ranch owners Bernie and Karen Kauk will provide trail maps), a huge hammock, a koi pond and unparalleled views of Wrightson Peak. Guests receive an Arizona Wine Travel card to use with their room keys, and if you’d rather imbibe than drive, the Kauks will be happy to help you book a shuttle through Arizona Sunshine Tours (arizonasunshinetours.com) to deliver you from one winery to the next. Rates: $79-$137 per night, depending on length of stay. 92 S. Los Encinos Rd., Sonoita; 520-455-0050, xanaduranchgetaway.com   

Rancho Milagro
A favorite of bird-watchers and wildlife enthusiasts, this cozy B&B offers three rooms, each equipped with a “spa-type bath.” Rates: $129/night. 11 Camindo del Corral, Elgin; 520-455-0380, ranchomilagroaz.biz  

La Hacienda de Sonoita
The four rooms here each have custom iron fixtures made by a local artist, and views of the surrounding landscape, which frequently feature grazing deer and antelope. Rates: $125-$145/night. 34 Swanson Rd., Sonoita; 520-455-5308, haciendasonoita.com

Sonoita Inn
Sonoita Inn’s lodgings are simple and the office hours are scarce (2-5 p.m.), but they have 18 rooms and are located right across the street from Dos Cabezas Wineworks and within a stone’s throw of The Steak Out restaurant. Rates: $109-$129/night Su-Th and $129-$149/night F-Sa. 3243 Arizona Hwy. 82, Sonoita; 520-455-5935.

Play
Outdoor Recreation:
Nature enthusiasts fawn over the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve (150 Blue Heaven Rd., 520-394-2400, nature.org), home to some of the best bird-watching in the state (especially March through September) and rare flora like 130-year-old Fremont cottonwood trees and the Santa Cruz beehive cactus. Patagonia Lake State Park (400 Patagonia Lake Rd., Nogales; 520-287-6965, azstateparks.com/Parks.PALA) offers fishing for catches like crappie, catfish, bluegill and bass on a 265-acre man-made lake, and hikers love the trails around Parker Canyon Lake (Sierra Vista Ranger District: 520-378-0311, parkercanyonlake.com), especially the main trail, a 4.5 mile moderate meandering called the Parker Canyon Lake Shore Trail.

Arts & Activities:
Patagonia, located 12 miles west of Sonoita, has a thriving local arts scene to satisfy everyone from pop art enthusiasts to fine art connoisseurs. Metamorphosis Art Gallery (316 Naugle Ave., 520-394-2105, metamorphosisaz.com) showcases local artists’ works in media ranging from paintings to photographs to decorative gourds, while Mesquite Grove Gallery (371 McKeown Ave., 520-394-2356, reginamedley.com) has presented local work including pottery and jewelry for the past 21 years. The Patagonia Museum (thepatagoniamuseum.org) features displays on the history of the area – including photos from the Jail Cave, where criminal offenders were detained – alongside merchandise like T-shirts depicting the historical Lochiel Schoolhouse. It’s housed inside the Creative Spirit Artists Gallery (317 McKeown Ave., 520-394-2100, azcreativespirit.com), along with modern art by local artists.

 

willcox

WILLCOX
Straddling the I-10 about an hour east of Tucson, Willcox is a former farming mecca with a rickety main drag populated by antique shops and boarded-up motels. It’s also home to four excellent tasting rooms, making it the ideal launching pad to explore the growing constellation of wineries and vineyards in the surrounding Sulphur Springs Valley.

In Development
Kovac Winery:
Owner Bernie Kovac planted his first vines two years ago and expects to bottle his first vintage in 2016. Located in the Chiricahua Foothills near Lawrence Dunham.

Asmundson/Deep Sky:
Scott Dahmer at Aridus is making the wine for this family-owned vineyard. Due: 2015.

Rune Wines
James Callahan - no relation to Kent Callaghan – is a seasoned winemaker who pressed juice for both Aridus and Pillsbury. He's looking to bottle his personal label this fall.

Getting started. Flanked by the towering Dos Cabezas Mountains to the east and the dramatic boulder piles of the Dragoon Mountains to the west, the massive Willcox wine valley encompasses roughly 400 square miles of loamy farmland. The wine trail itself is roughly divided into three subregions:

Old Willcox: If you’re doing a day trip, this is your best bet. Along with its four excellent tasting rooms, the town of Willcox sports the bulk of the region’s limited dining options, several intriguing antique stores and a patina of quaint decay that practically screams “future art colony.”

The Willcox Bench: Winemaker Sam Pillsbury and his neighbors coined the name for this bike-able cluster of tasting rooms and vineyards located about 15 minutes southeast of town. Services are few, but the delicious juice and windswept scenery are both worth braving the bumpy access road.  

Chiricahua Foothills: Another 20 miles southeast, outside the town of Pearce, an emerging colony of wineries led by Keeling- Schaefer Vineyards and Lawrence Dunham Vineyards is taking shape. Minuses: Tastings are by appointment only. Plusses: Awesome views and some nice B&Bs.

Willcox Wines. The high desert region supports upwards of 30 different wine styles, but select varietals are identified especially strongly with Willcox.

Malvasia bianca: A once-obscure Mediterranean white varietal with strong floral notes, Malvasia has proved exceptionally well-suited to Willcox’s high desert climate. “It’s going to become Arizona’s signature wine,” owner Dan Pierce of Bodega Pierce says. “[The vine] produces a lot of fruit, but also makes a fine wine.”

Syrah: With its arid summer heat and comparatively cool nights, Willcox does a fair impersonation of France’s celebrated Rhône wine region. So it makes sense that Rhône’s workhorse red – with its sturdy notes of blackberry and pepper – thrives in Cochise County.

Viognier: Another Rhône varietal, Viognier requires a long, warm growing season for its stone-fruit aromatics and bracing minerality to evolve fully. The crispness and fruit-forward nature of the wine make it pair well with Thai food and other spicy cuisines.

First on the scene. The unofficial patriarch of the Willcox wine industry is the late Al Buhl, a former U.S. Army personnel manager who purchased a dormant 40-acre vineyard in 1990 and turned it into one of the state’s first award-winning wineries, Dos Cabezas.

 

Tasting Rooms
Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards
10277 E. Rock Creek Lane, Pearce, keelingschaefervineyards.com
Currently bottling his 10th commercial vintage, Rod Keeling is one of the grand old deans of the Willcox wine scene, with 21 acres of grapevines in the Chiricahua foothills that he annually converts into some of Arizona's most quaffable vino. The winery's well-appointed satellite tasting room is across from Railroad Park in Willcox (159 Railroad Ave.), but naturalists can also arrange winery tastings by appointment. A former home vintner, Keeling even promises to sell or donate grapes to tyro winemakers who ask for them. Just don't whine about it. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wine to try: Keeling calls his flagship Three Sisters Syrah “the best-selling, most consistent 100 percent varietal Arizona wine ever produced.”

Aridus Wine Company
145 N. Railview Ave., Willcox, 520-766-9463, ariduswineco.com
Like many tyro winemakers, Scott Dahmer had a dream – so he got in the dream-facilitating business. Recognizing that fledgling wineries in Willcox were wasting valuable capital costs shipping their grapes north in refrigerated trucks to crush and bottle their wines – adding vastly to their overhead – the Phoenix resident endeavored to open his own custom crush facility, the first in Southern Arizona. Now he and his wife and business partner, Joan, lease their turnkey winemaking operation to up-and-coming vintners like Golden Rule, Sand-Reckoner and Deep Sky, while expanding their own repertoire of Aridus estate wines. Win-win. The Dahmers also run Willcox's choicest tasting room, a standalone historic building near Railroad Park featuring a small-plates menu designed by Bisbee's Cafe Roka. Weekdays by appointment; weekends 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wines to try: While Aridus gets its proprietary 40-acre vineyard up to speed, most of its vintages are sourced out-of-state; one delicious exception: the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc.

Flying Leap Vineyards
100 N. Railroad Ave., Willcox, 520-384-6030, flyingleapvineyards.com
Described by one AZ wine insider as “an extremely ambitious group” which “actually goes out and gets things done,” this Elgin-based winery operates four tasting rooms in Arizona, including this primo street corner location across from Railroad Park. Allegedly, Flying Leap will be distilling vodka and absinthe soon. Stay tuned.  Open Thursday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m.
Wine to try: Try the much-admired 2012 Graciano, a not-so-common Spanish red varietal that presents muted licorice aromas.

john carlson, carlson creek vineyard

Carlson Creek Vineyard
115 Railview Ave., Willcox, 520-766-3000, carlsoncreek.com
Oenophiles often seek “complexity” in their wines, and the Carlson clan seems eager to oblige. After all, one of their white table wines is called Sweet Adeline – named, presumably, after the song by the late suicidal musician Elliot Smith. Complex, no? Run by former U.S. Marines fighter pilot Bob Carlson and his two sons, the winery first started planting in 2009 and now has 45 acres under vine at its vineyard and winery on the Willcox Bench, making it one of the area's largest producers. Alas, the vineyard is off-limits to the public. The tasting room itself is located in the Railroad Park area of downtown Willcox. Open Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wine to try: The winery's flagship Rule of Three, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-inspired Grenache blend with hints of pomegranate and roasted eggplant, makes for a nice Rhone-style tipple.

Coronado Vineyards
2909 E. Country Club Dr., Willcox, 520-384-2993, coronadovineyards.com
Located slightly uptown from the cluster of Railroad Park tasting rooms, Coronado operates a scenic hacienda-style tasting facility within eyeshot of its 8-acre vineyard. Vintners Mark and Jacque Cook have done well since opening the winery in 2006, winning numerous Arizona Wine Growers Association awards and drawing accolades for their impressive repertoire of Chardonnays, Rieslings, dessert wines and other light-bodied styles. Added bonus: A dining menu to rival many a big-city gastropub. Open Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 a.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Wines to try: Two 2012 vintages – the Chardonnay and Sangiovese – each took silver medals at the 2013 Arizona Wine Growers Association awards.

Pillsbury Wine Company
6450 S. Bennett Place, Willcox, 520-384-3964, pillsburywine.com
An early champion of Willcox wine, Sam Pillsbury runs a freewheeling operation at his 80-acre vineyard in the Willcox Bench. Visitors are welcome to pitch tents and camp out on the property, and come morning, the on-site tasting room is often littered with crashed-out dinner guests, sleeping off multiple bottles of WildChild red. It's part winery, part hippie ashram. But don't be fooled – the former Hollywood movie director (Free Willy 3, The Quiet Earth) is one of Arizona's most disciplined winemakers and businessmen. He originally purchased the adjacent Al Buhl Memorial vineyards in the early 2000s when land went for $400 an acre (it now sells for 10 times that), later flipping the vineyard to the Arizona Stronghold boys and acquiring his current digs. This season, he'll begin pressing and bottling his own wine with fire-sale equipment he's patiently assembled over the past two years. “Eventually, I'd like to build this place out with solar-powered guest casitas,” he says, surveying the valley as a summer monsoon whips his vines into a frenzy. Sounds like a blockbuster to us. Open Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wine to try: Pillsbury is a patient man; he ages his estate-grown Diva for 11 months in neutral French and American oak, imbuing the Syrah-dominant blend with exciting notes of blackcurrant.

Zarpara Vineyard
6777 S. Zarpara Ln., Willcox, 602-885-8903, zarpara.com
Empty nesters Mark Jorve and Rhona MacMillan bought their 20-acre Willcox Bench vineyard in 2009, assured by the seller that winemaking was a low-labor affair that involved “waking up early in the morning, tending the vineyards for a couple of hours and spending the rest of the day to yourself.” That assessment proved awesomely off-target the very next year, when a disastrous winter frost killed all the couple's new plantings to the ground. Four years and many long days of vine-tending later, Zarpara has recovered nicely, reaping a 14-ton harvest in 2013 (about 840 cases). Jorve and MacMillan are currently pouring eight wines at their vineyard tasting room. Open Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wine to try: the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, an estate-grown sipper with notes of lemongrass and green herbs.

sand-reckoner vineyards

Sand-Reckoner Vineyards
130 S. Haskell Ave., Willcox, 303-931-8472, sand-reckoner.com
Possibly the most photogenic winemaking family in Arizona – who can resist Levi, the rose-cheeked wine-baby? – Rob and Sarah Hammelman also craft some of the state's best juice on their 4-acre micro-vineyard in the Willcox Bench. Trained at Chateau de St. Cosme in Gigondas, France, Rob learned winemaking by tending century-old Grenache vines, experience that translates well to Willcox's Rhône-like terroir. (He's also the head winemaker at Aridus Wine Company.) The Hammelmans don't operate a tasting room per se, but if you call ahead, they'll pour for you right there at the farm. Tastings by appointment.
Wine to try: If you can get your hands on the 2013 Malvasia Bianca, inhale its high notes of elderflower and orange blossom gratefully. The San Francisco Chronicle awarded the 2012 vintage a perfect 100 score.

Passion Cellars
3502 N. Fort Grant Rd., Willcox, passioncellars.com
Likening Willcox to the sun-chapped flats of Mendoza, Argentina, winemaker-owner Jason Domanico specializes in austere Old World styles commonly associated with great South American wines: Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Super Tuscan blends. This fall, Domanico – who bottled his first vintage in 2010 – will unveil a new selection of semi-exotic varietals, including Verdelho, a white Portuguese grape admired for its honeysuckle aromas. Passion sits west of the I-10, along historic Fort Grant Road en route to Apple Annie's orchards. Open Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Wine to try: Passion's 2012 Ghost City Viognier, made exclusively with Arizona grapes and subtly kissed with French Oak.

Bodega Pierce/ Saeculum
4511 E. Robbs Rd., Willcox, 602-320-1722, bodegapierce.com
Former ad man Dan Pierce was coaxed into a “dark hole” by the modern grind; ultimately, he pulled himself out with the help of a grapevine. That, and four years of midlife viticulture schooling. Ultimately, his son Michael followed him into the business, leading to one of Arizona wine's most fruitful family partnerships: Dan handles the marketing and vineyard management, while Michael – who also serves as director of enology at Yavapai College's Verde Valley campus – makes the wine. “Michael is really our secret weapon in this venture,” the father says. “He has an unbelievable nose. He smells things through walls.” Set at the former headquarters of Crop Circle Vineyards in the Willcox Bench, the 80-acre operation now grows some 17 grape styles. It also boasts one of the region's tidiest tasting rooms – a cozy bar not 10 footsteps from the vines themselves. Open Thursday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Wines to try: 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp, melon-y number that completely sources from the family vineyard; and 2012 Saeculum Cabernet Sauvignon, a mid-palate stunner from Michael Pierce's private label.

Lawrence Dunham Vineyards
13922 S. Kuykendall Cutoff Rd., Pearce, 520-824-7273, lawrencedunhamvineyards.com
Former community planners Curt Dunham and Peggy Fiandaca picked up their 40-acre parcel straddling Ash Creek in the Chiricahua Foothills back in 2007, betting that their relatively remote pocket of the Sulphur Springs Valley would support a vineyard and emerge as one of the region's premier growing regions. Bingo on both counts. The duo has planted Rhône mainstays Grenache, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Viognier and hopes to produce 2,500 cases annually by the end of the decade. Tastings by appointment.
Wine to try: The 2010 “Signature” Petite Syrah scored an impressive 88 from Wine Spectator, as did the LDV 2010 Grenache.   

Bike Willcox? Unless you have a taste for long-distance, multi-hour rides, probably not. However, if you truck your bikes to the Willcox Bench, a leisurely circuit of the four constituent wineries is highly doable. Note: Willcox doesn’t have a bike-rental shop.

 

Willcox Travel Guide
Eat
Logically, the farm-to-table dining philosophy should be highly practicable in a town that’s surrounded by 300,000 acres of farmland. Not really the case in Willcox. Though  local dining has yet to mature apace with its wines, a good meal can be had.

La Unica: Located downtown just around the corner from the Flying Leap tasting room, this pseudo-Yucatan taqueria is the go-to local Mexican joint for Willcoxians. Try the camarones al mojo de ajo ($12.95) or stick-to-your-ribs pollo asado ($11.95). 142 N. Haskell Ave., Willcox, 520-384-0010

Big Tex BBQ Restaurant: Passable, prole-pleasing barbecue served in a converted locomotive car across from the town’s railroad park. Pair your brisket with one of several Willcox wines on the menu. 130 E. Maley St., Willcox, 520-384-4423

Coronado Vineyards: Boasts the most comprehensive menu of the local tasting rooms, with entrees like center-cut rib-eye ($22). 2909 E. Country Club Dr., Willcox, 520-384-2993

Stay
Visitors will find the usual pod of Holiday Inns and Super 8s off the freeway, but serious wine-country explorers will have to plunge a bit deeper into the Sulphur Springs Valley to find their ideal overnighter.

Sunglow Guest Ranch: The Ritz of the local sleepover scene. Features a swimming pool overlooking the valley from the Chiricahua foothills – great for a post-tasting cool-off. 14066 S. Sunglow Rd., Pearce, 520-824-3334, sunglowranch.com

Dreamcatcher: Like Sunglow, this rustic B&B is located in the southern extreme of the valley near the Keeling-Schaefer and Lawrence Dunham wineries. Lunch and dinner upon request. 13097 S. Highway 181, Pearce, 520-824-3127, dreamcatcherbnb.com

Cochise Stronghold: More of a group nature retreat than a classic B&B, but the owners will gladly accept short-term boarders. Nestled against the wild Dragoon Mountains on the west side of the valley. 520-826-4141, cochisestrongholdbb.com

Play
Had your fill of wine-tasting? There’s lots more to do in Willcox besides quaffing syrahs.

Hooker Hot Springs: Sounds salacious, right? Not really, but it is hot. Formerly an 18th century frontier spa run by homesteader Glendy King, this natural hot spring about 30 miles northwest of Willcox now sits on a preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy. Anyone is free to explore the miles of hiking trails and pine forests in the preserve, but the springs themselves are reserved for overnight guests of Muleshoe Ranch and its five rustic casitas. Giddy up.
520-212-4295, nature.org/arizona

Sunizona Family Farms: Run by a clan of Canadian transplants, this organic farm is agritourism at its finest, with year-round heirloom tomatoes, micro-greens and herbs, along with seasonal crops like pumpkins and summer squash. The farm’s subscription FarmBox service will even ship you a monthly assortment at one of several Valley pick-up locations ($22-$30). 5655 E. Gaskill Rd., Willcox, 520-824-3160, sunizonafamilyfarms.com

Willcox Flyer Bike Ride: Honoring late local bicyclist Matt Peterson, this yearly two-wheel event invites pedal-heads to tackle 33- and 66-mile courses in the Dos Cabezas Mountains, or an 8-mile fun run. A good way to burn off the previous day’s bottle of Malvasia, no? Saturday, August 30. Visit azrocamotion.com for more information.

Fort Bowie Ruins: Established in 1862 by U.S. Army volunteers to suppress Chiricahua Apache attacks, this long-abandoned wartime artifact sits in Chiricahua Mountains east of Willcox, a reminder of the community’s turbulent beginnings. It’s now a National Historic Site. 3327 Old Fort Bowie Rd., Bowie, 520-847-2500, willcoxwines.com

WILD CARD
Have no particular need for a hotel room? Winemaker Sam Pillsbury invites you to pitch a tent at his 80-acre Pillsbury Wine Company vineyard and stay as long as you want. He might even whip up his famed Argentine chicken for dinner if you’re nice. That’s just how this groovy Kiwi rolls.

WILD CARD
Rodney’s: Don’t be discouraged by the upturned local noses or admittedly grotty kitchen – this dude can cook. Typically found devouring a book outside his Railroad Ave. storefront, the eponymous owner specializes in Southern-Americana classics like fried catfish ($7.95) and chopped barbecue and beans ($4.25). If the pepper rib-eye ($6.95) is fresh, get it. Rodney will also serve up a side of good cheer and a story or two about Willcox, free of charge. 118 N. Railroad Ave., Willcox, 520-507-1516

Best Weekend to Visit. October 19 and 20. Those are the dates of the Willcox Wine Country Festival, an annual gathering of more than two dozen wineries from across the state, held at historic Railroad Park. For more information, visit willcoxwines.com

 

Love at First Site

sam pillsbury

Winemaker Sam Pillsbury reflects on seeing willcox wine country for the first time.
It felt like I was appearing in a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. I pulled up to the Kansas Settlement Store at the crossroads 10 minutes early at 10:50 a.m., 200 miles southeast of Phoenix, at fairly high speed. It was hot, dusty, dry – a dead, flat, red-powder valley scattered with cotton tufts, bean silos, Mexicans with wicker baskets and the odd harvester.

Lots of pickups, no water, and not much money.

The tan pickup pulled up and a crusty farmer strode to the store, door banging behind him. I took off my sunglasses (my shorts, Honda CR-V, no cowboy hat and general demeanor already damning me) and headed in that direction.

“Eddie!” I called out. He broke his stride and came over. And we shook hands.

“Where’re the others?” he asked. Eddie was my contact in Willcox. My man on the ground. A mutual friend put us touch.

“They couldn’t make it. They had stuff to do in Phoenix.”

“How you know EZ?” He looked at me sideways the way country people do with city people. He was at least in his 60s, sunburnt red with scorched lips, fit, smart, and seemingly Texan.

“Dee? She’s in real estate with my mother-in-law. They’re friends.” Eddie looked off into the distance, his eyes glazing slightly.

“EZDZ.” He smiled faintly. He turned and looked at me. “That what she had on her license plate. EZDZ.” He looked away again.

“Yeah. She told me about that.” There was a story here.

He smiled at me. “She said you want to see some grapevines. There’s some up the road. I’ll take you there.” He was talking about Al Buhl's vineyard. Buhl was something of a mad visionary in the still-nascent world of Arizona wine. I'd met him, and mentioned as much. Eddie seemed surprised.

A battered blue pickup with a throaty V-8 and 4-wheel drive pulling a long stock trailer with galvanized pipe rails paused near us on the dusty turnout.Eddie and the driver exchanged pleasantries. We stood there watching another pickup disgorge about six field workers who sauntered into the store. I asked Eddie about his nearby spread: “What you running?”

“Nothin’,” he spit.

It had occurred to me that if this shitty land really was good for grapes it might represent some future for a farmer who couldn’t make a go of anything else, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to suggest that.

“So what do you DO around here?” I asked.

“Got a cabbage patch over there.” He gestured northwest across the road I’d arrived on. “Waiting for a truck to come load the cabbages, but they don’t bring a forklift. We got no forklift, can’t load the pallets without a forklift. Come all this way for nothin’. Gotta make a call.”

He strode over to a payphone and talked for a long time, gesticulating a lot. I leaned against my totally-out-of-place shiny yuppie car. A semi loaded with large wooden cases tore past, whirling hundreds of roadside cotton puffs into the dry air. I guessed it was for chilies.
Eddie hung up and strode over. Looked me up and down for a bit. “You need money to do stuff around here. Banks won’t lend you nothin.’ You gotta have money or you’ll get in trouble like everyone else around here.”

pillsbury vineyard

“Yeah. I know.”

“And you need water. Water’s expensive. You can’t grow nothin’ without water. It costs money. And you gotta bring everything in. Can’t fix your car here, no place to fix it. Nothin’ here.” It occurred to me that I hadn’t come to Sulfur Springs Valley assuming everyone from this place was stupid. I kind of wished the reverse were true.

“Listen. I’ve done a few things,” I said. “I know about this stuff. My parents had farms in New Zealand, miles from nowhere; you have to fix your own car, your own tractor. I understand that.”

Another pickup pulled up and a younger farmer strode over, picking his teeth and looking off to his left a lot. Eddie introduced us. “Goose-necked trailer turned over down the road, cattle everywhere,” he reported. A couple more pickups pulled up. “That’s why there’s so many cowboys around.”

“How’s the new machine, Ben?” Eddie asked.

“Had her runnin’, two guys up on the back.” The young man grinned. He waved his arms to mime sorting. “Man, get rid of a dozen Mexicans with this thing.”  Grinning broader.

“What is it?” I asked. He told me it was a chili harvester. An expensive machine. Worth $400,000. “But I ain’t paid for it.” He winked at me conspiratorially. “It’s kinda on loan.” I figured this might be connected with current regional lending attitudes.

“You’ll rent a machine like that out.” I assumed. Both men shook their heads. Clearly Ben had enough chilies to keep the mother busy.

Eddie nodded at me: “This guy thinkin’ of growin’ grapes like up at Al Buhl’s place.” Ben looked straight at me. “You need some money to do that. And water. Water’s expensive.” “Well, grapes don’t take that much water,” I said. “Callaghan in Elgin has water at 170 feet, uses 1,000 gallons of diesel a year. It’s not that bad.”

Now they both looked at me. “Drip system,” Eddie said. I agreed and told them about the similar soil in Australia, kicking at the reddish powder under our feet. “Grapes, eh?” Ben grunted.  “They make shit-awful wine around here. I had some once.” I smiled. Buhl was actually making some very fine wine. He just wasn't marketing it. I told Eddie and Ben as  much. They just looked at me.

“You know, you can plant big, do shitty bulk wine, sell it cheap, make some money,” I said. “Or you can plant a smaller vineyard, 20 to 40 acres, be careful how you grow, be careful how you make the wine.”

“You should buy some land over there,” Ben gestured to the hills on the west, “Get the morning sun.”

“Yeah. Slopes can be good,” I agreed. “Drainage is important. Rich soil isn’t good: too much growth in the leaves. Grapes like shitty soil. Lotsa calcium.”

Ben drove off. Another cloud of cotton puffs. Eddie offered to show me where the vineyard was. I followed him about six miles to a place quite different from where the map indicated. A flat spot in the middle of nowhere with a yellow tin shed, a trailer, a tractor and rows of old vines. Across the road was a sumptuous pumping setup, huge pale blue tank, electrical supply. Eddie waved towards this contraption. “That’s what you need. Submersible pump. Plenty of water, drip system.”

“Yeah. It looks good. Thanks a lot.”

“Well, I’ll be going.” Eddie waved ahead. “If you get lost, that’s north. Next time you see DZ, you say hi for me, OK?”

We were both grinning when he drove off.

Two years later I was in a bar 10 miles up the road in Willcox with my New Zealand friend Cyril, for the first and only time, and Eddie bowled in, drunk as a skunk, with a fellow inebriate. Eddie recognized me, and introduced me to his buddy, an airline pilot, who flew for an airline I didn’t patronize. I asked him how he was doing.

“Got cancer.” He replied cheerfully, and proceeded to describe to his pilot buddy how I was now a grape grower.

Eddie died last year. I’m told there were hundreds at his funeral.

pillsbury vineyard, Chiricahua Mountainscottonwood tasting

Pillsbury's vineyard, nestled below the Chiricahua Mountains; Cottonwood tasting room

And E.V. – as his friends called him – had the last laugh. He’d been living off bank refinances from his acres. His estate was worth zero.

I planted vines and went into partnership with Al Buhl, then started my own label. John McLoughlin bought the E.V. estate and has his own vines there now. Monsanto pulled the chili contract, and the Kansas Settlement store burned down.

The Pillsbury winery is at the end of Robbs Road. Alan Robbs and his family have been farming there for decades. Alan told me a story about how he and his dad were cruising up this unpaved road in the ‘80s, and stopped to help some people with a flat tire. There was an old man off in the field waving his arms and shouting in a foreign language, and Alan asked the driver what was going on.

“Oh, that’s my dad,” the man replied, “He’s Italian.”

“What’s he shouting about?” Alan asked.

“Oh,” the man replied, “He’s saying this land is just like the land around his home in Sicily. He’s saying one day all this land will be grapevines.”
Since I first visited that 40-acre vineyard in 1999, there are now 500 acres of vines planted in the valley, with new tasting rooms springing up everywhere. Including our own.