Head south for a mini vino vacation in Arizona wine country
When I was growing up, the grassy, cow-dotted landscape of Sonoita-Elgin meant a rest stop on the way to Patagonia, where my Granny’s Tucson church holds an annual summer camp in the woods of the Patagonia Mountains. We’d stop at one last gas station to get snacks, take restroom breaks and refuel the church vans and family cars in our southbound caravan, completely unaware of the vineyards growing all around us, and of the nascent wine industry fermenting along with the barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon at Sonoita Vineyards. Back then, I swore I’d never drink.
Times have changed, both for this wino and for the region. While there are still plenty of reminders of Sonoita-Elgin’s ranching and mining roots – farm folks in pickup trucks, cowboy boots worn un-ironically, horses and cows every which-a-way, to quote a Texan I know – the wine industry has firmly taken hold of the local economy and tourism trade. Sonoita was established as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1984 and now boasts 13 tasting rooms.
“We have the largest concentration of actual wineries and vineyards growing grapes and making wine in the state,” winemaker Kief Manning of Kief-Joshua Vineyards says. “More fruit is grown in Willcox, but fewer people are making wine there.”
I’ve extensively sipped and written about Verde Valley wine (for our Arizona Wine Country guide, September 2014), but I’d never ventured to our southern wine regions in Sonoita-Elgin and Willcox. When the Sonoita Inn offered to host me for its Sonoita Inclusive Wine Country Package, I rustled up my wine journal and my favorite designated driver and headed south.
Sonoita Inn (3243 SR 82, Sonoita, 520-455-5935, sonoitainn.com) is a rustic lodge with wood furniture, wood floors, wood ceiling beams and a commanding stone fireplace in a communal living room around which its rooms – each named after a local ranch, with histories of ranching families on placards outside each door – are situated. The inn staff pleasantly offers to connect guests to local activities, from horseback riding and scenic bicycling to birding and visiting an alpaca farm. They all sound fun, but let’s be honest: We’re here for the wine. The Sonoita Inclusive Wine Country Package includes one night at the inn, a bottle of Kief-Joshua Vineyards wine upon check-in, a $40 gift card for The Steak Out (just across the street from the inn), afternoon snacks, two wine glasses, wine tastings at Village of Elgin Winery, Sonoita Vineyards and Kief-Joshua Vineyards and a continental breakfast. At $268, based on double occupancy, it may be the best bang for your buck in Arizona wine country.
Swirl and Sip
We arrive in Sonoita about an hour after brunching with my Tucson family at Baja Café (2970 N. Campbell Ave., Tucson, 520-344-7369, bajacafetucson.com), ready for an afternoon of wine tasting. My fella graciously offers to abstain – save for a couple of negligible tastes here and there – so that I can imbibe freely. This is key: A designated driver is a must for these excursions, as even small tasters of wine add up when you’re sampling five or more wines at multiple wineries. If everyone in your group wants to indulge, inquire with the inn about hiring a driver so that you can do so safely. Uber hasn’t made it down to Sonoita-Elgin yet, but Ken’s Shuttle Service (520-604-6939) will squire wine-tasters around.
Our first stop is Village of Elgin Winery (471 Elgin Rd., Elgin, 520-455-9309, elginwines.com), where tasting room maven Susie Reed entertains us with her anthropomorphic flavor descriptions – the Playful Monkey Cabernet Sauvignon is “going to hang out in the raisin for its whole lifetime, instead of dropping down into the prune or the plum like any Cab usually does [as it ages]” – and assurances that wine is healthy for us. “Wine has 13 vitamins and minerals that are good for humans,” she says. “Antioxidants, resveratrol. It makes you sleep really well.” Indeed.
VEW’s wines tend toward the sweet, with sugary reds and whites holding court with moscatos and ports. I like things a bit drier, and the Bella Rosa pink wine, a Malvasia Bianca aged in unrinsed Syrah barrels, sparks with ruby red grapefruit acidity and the light spice of white pepper. I bring home a bottle of Tombstone Red (Cabernet Sauvignon and Colombard) for my sweet-wine-swilling sister.
Our next stop is Sonoita Vineyards (290 Elgin Canelo Rd., Elgin, 520-455-5893, sonoitavineyards.com), which lays claim to the title of oldest commercial vineyard and winery in Arizona. Third-generation winemaker Lori Reynolds is upholding the legacy of her grandparents, who planted vines in 1974. Reynolds is a tiny, sprightly blonde, visibily pregnant at the time of our visit this past summer and sporting a tank top emblazoned with a cartoon dinosaur and the warning, “Don’t be a C*#tasaurus.” That sassy, playful spirit imbues Reynolds’ wines, including the bright, lemony AZ Fumé Blanc; the dry, berry-forward Sonora Rossa rosé; the earthy, zesty Malbec; and the peppery, cherry-laced MeCaSah, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Reynolds got a degree in veterinary science at the University of Arizona before she realized she missed the family business, returned to Sonoita and was mentored in winemaking by local legend Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards. “‘I don’t know why you even did all of this, because you were born to make wine,’” she recalls her grandfather telling her. “I said, ‘You’re right. I love wine.’ It’s all I ever want to do is drink wine. Not in an alcoholic [way]… but I’m a wino.” She’s in good company in these parts.
Our final stop is Kief-Joshua Vineyards (370 Elgin Rd., Elgin, 520-455-5582, kj-vineyards.com), a luxe but laid-back winery with a tasting room housed on the bottom floor and patio of winemaker Kief Manning’s palatial home. Manning himself is beyond chill – he slouches on a stool behind a wooden bar on his patio, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a backward baseball cap.
Despite his bro-next-door exterior, Manning prefers lower-alcohol wines and can be quite cerebral. “I prefer something you can actually drink and [enjoy] with food,” he says. “A lot of those high-alcohol wines, after a glass or two, you’re wasted. They’re very hard to pair with food because of the really heavy tannin, because of that jammy characteristic you get from some varietals.”
His Old World-style wines play right to my palate: a fruity and peppery Merlot, a Barbera-Cabernet Franc blend (the Magdalena, named for his grandmother) tinged with the flavor and aroma of graphite, a 100-percent Cabernet Franc with notes of cedar. “It’s one of my favorite reds,” Manning says of the Cab Franc. “I like Cab Franc better than Cab Sauv.”
Even his sweet wine, a restrained Zinfandel, is balanced. “It’s really sweet up front, but then the tannins and acidity wash it out,” Manning says. “It’s not cloying, it’s not syrupy and it doesn’t linger. And it’s good with blue cheese. I don’t eat sweets, but I love blue cheese.”
We bypass the barbecue food truck parked near the vines (Manning brings out food trucks every weekend for guests to enjoy along with their tastings) and wind our way back to the inn on Sonoita-Elgin’s sloping roads. There are several more wineries we could visit, but with me tackling the lion’s share of the tastings all afternoon, I’m ready for a nap before dinner.
Supper and a Show
We tramp through scrub grass and pea gravel and cross the street to get to The Steak Out (3243 SR 83, Sonoita, 520-455-5205, azsteakout.com) a restaurant and saloon that has been serving ranchers and visitors since the 1950s. I’m still feeling the dull, tingling afterglow of my wine tastings, so I politely decline more wine to accompany my plate of meaty, smoky-sweet pork ribs and a baked potato with salty butter and sour cream. A sobering soda will do, thank you. My partner digs into his ribeye, vouching for the quality of the “Steak” part of The Steak Out.
As we eat, a three-piece band takes the small stage in the dining room and begins playing country hits I remember from my Tucson childhood. A lot has changed around here since then, but some things have stayed the same.
Sonoita-Elgin may be wine country, but it’s not a one-trick pony. Village of Elgin Winery owner Dr. Garrison Ellam and his partners have expanded into the spirits sector, opening up Elgin Distillery/Arizona Craft Beverage in a cottage adjacent to the VEW tasting room. Ellam’s Arizona Straight Bourbon Whiskey (100 proof) won gold medals at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the 2017 New York International Spirits Competition, among others. Take home a bottle of whiskey, rum, brandy, gin or vodka for $15-$65.
473 Elgin Rd., Elgin,
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