In Vino VeritAZ

Craig OuthierSeptember 2019
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Arizona wine is never a tough editorial sell for us at PHOENIX. Pretty countryside, dynamic craftspeople, copious pours of mankind’s classiest intoxicant? Sure, we’ll take that bullet. Any day.

The wine industry in Arizona has long been a personal source of fascination for me, as well, going back at least 15 years, when I first learned that a small but dedicated clutch of farmers and vintners was fermenting grape juice in the Arizona high desert. Initially, like many people, I was just delighted by the paradox. Wine? I thought. In Arizona? That’s improbable!

It was, unfortunately, a bias that took a long, long time for the award-winning winemakers in this state to shrug off. I remember interviewing Sam Pillsbury, the New Zealand filmmaker turned Willcox winemaker, in 2008 – the first journalist from the Valley to do so, I’m proud to say – and laughing at an anecdote he shared. Evidently, about a week after purchasing a 40-acre vineyard in Cochise County, and sinking a large part of his personal savings into Pillsbury Wine Company, Sam caught an episode of Late Night with David Letterman in which “Buy an Arizona winery” was a punchline in one of the comedian’s famed Top 10 Lists. The topic: surest-fire ways to lose your shirt.

Photo by Diana Elizabeth
Photo by Diana Elizabeth

“Fast-forward 11 years: Where once there were a dozen wineries, you’ll now find more than 70, plenty of fodder for…our exhaustive, actionable guide to the state’s choicest clusters of tasting rooms, and a perfect companion for your fall road trip plans.”

Sam didn’t care. He was one of the “tough pioneers,” in the words of fellow wine trailblazer Eric Glomski, who dared to envision a viticultural future in Arizona. Where many saw only saguaros and sun-bleached steer skulls, they saw good, loamy soil, favorable diurnal shifts and a Rhône-like terroir.

Fast-forward 11 years: Where once there were a dozen wineries, you’ll now find more than 70, plenty of fodder for Arizona Wine Trails, our exhaustive, actionable guide to the state’s choicest clusters of tasting rooms, and a perfect companion for your fall road trip plans. Our editors fanned out to Arizona’s three primary wine regions – and some surprising off-the-grid regions, too, like Tombstone – to not only sip, eat and curate, but also meet the pioneers themselves. And they’re a colorful bunch, including a quartet of ex-Air Force pilots, an international rock icon, two Cheetos-pairing sisters and our own monthly wine columnist. Uncork the whole package here.

It’s very possible that “Arizona” and “wine” will always have a faintly odd, paradoxical ring, and that’s OK. As any vineyard manager will tell you, struggle is a good thing – it makes wine more interesting. And I think it can co-exist in a world where Arizona makes people think of Sangiovese, in addition to those saguaros and steer skulls.

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