A generation ago, Arizona wines were a novelty, something you’d buy as a souvenir along with, say, cactus candy and plastic rattlesnakes.
Today, the state’s wine industry has blossomed and matured with age, boasting 48 licensed and bonded wineries in the Sonoita and Elgin area of Southern Arizona, in neighboring Willcox, and in the Verde Valley near Sedona – the three major growing areas.
Best of all, the wines from these Arizona vineyards are being recognized with awards and accolades from local, regional and national experts. Here are just a few to experience for yourself.
Award-Winning Wines of Sonoita and Elgin
In the rolling grasslands of southeastern Arizona, about a dozen wineries dot the roadways between the small towns of Elgin and Sonoita. The bucolic high desert locale also boasts Arizona’s oldest commercial vineyard.
It was Gordon Dutt, a University of Arizona soil scientist, who pioneered Arizona’s modern-day wine industry with the planting of that vineyard in 1979 and the subsequent launching of Sonoita Vineyards.
Since then, Sonoita Vineyards wines have been served at the White House and won numerous prestigious The Arizona Republic Wine Competition Awards, including the 2011 gold medal for its Sparkles Peach dessert wine.
Their most popular wine? The Cochise County Colombard, a bestseller for 20 years.
Sonoita Vineyards’ hilltop tasting room has views of the 30-acre vineyard planted with Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes. Sample dry or sweet wine flights, nibble on cheeses or shop for wine accessories.
Plan your visit to coincide with a Sonoita wine festival, such as the late-summer harvest festival held at the vineyard.
Not far away, Callaghan Vineyards is another pioneering Arizona winery, founded in 1990 by Karen and Harold Callaghan and their son, Kent Callaghan.
While the family set out to make Bordeaux-style wines, they found the hot days, cool nights and nearly 5,000-foot elevation to be better suited for Mediterranean and Spanish varietals.
Today, you can hang out in their rustic tasting room or on its front porch, which overlooks the 25-acre vineyards, and sample red or white offerings.
Callaghan Vineyards wines have also been served at the White House and garnered numerous accolades, including high Wine Advocate ratings, national Jefferson Cup gold and silver medals and a 2011 The Arizona Republic Wine Competition gold medal for the 2009 Wayne’s Grenache.
Award-Winning Wines of Willcox
More vineyards have sprouted in far southeastern Arizona, looping from the town of Willcox to just outside the rocky wonders of Chiricahua National Monument.
Husband and wife Rod Keeling and Jan Schaefer bought 21 acres of land here in 2000 as an “act two” after their careers in economic development. But they quickly proved they were not just hobbyists.
Their Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards wines have been favorably rated by Wine Spectator, and the 2006 Three Sisters Syrah was selected by Wall Street Journal as a top red wine in the publication’s 2008 Presidential Taste-Off.
As the vineyard is remote, you’ll want to sample Keeling-Schaefer wines at the tasting room in downtown Willcox. It’s housed in an historic 1917 bank building and shares space with an art gallery.
You’ll be tasting mostly Rhone-style reds and Chardonnay, plus a small sampling of wines from other area vineyards.
Close to downtown Willcox, Mark and Jacque Cook opened Coronado Vineyards in 2006 as its managing owners, intent on offering something for everyone, from sweet and fruity to full-bodied, sophisticated wines.
The 2011 The Arizona Republic Wine Competition named their Voodoux, a white blend, a Judge’s Favorite and awarded bronze medals for two of their dessert blends.
The Cooks transformed a former golf clubhouse into Coronado Vineyards’ 6,000-square-foot, Tuscan-style tasting room, gift shop and restaurant, which has vineyard and mountain views.
You can get cheeses or bruschetta to go with your wine tastings, or stay for dinner to sample menu items such as quail with raspberry-chipotle sauce.
Award-Winning Wines of the Verde Valley
Dubbed the Verde Valley Wine Trail, wineries here dot the banks of the Verde River and Oak Creek and find their ways into such communities as Cornville, Cottonwood and Jerome.
At Rhone-centric Page Springs Cellars, a gold medal from 2012 Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition for the 2010 El Serrano is among the most recent awards garnered by the winery that winemaker/ecologist Eric Glomski founded in 2004.
Last year, the winery was a Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition winner for its 2010 Colibri Vineyards Mourvedre and received a gold medal for its 2010 La Flor Rosa from the 2011 The Arizona Republic Wine Competition.
It’s easy to while away an afternoon at the laid-back vineyard and tasting room.
Sample wines and nibble on cheese platters, bruschetta or flatbread on a deck above the vineyards or under the trees along Oak Creek. Get a winery tour, play bocce ball, or for ultimate relaxation, get a creekside massage.
Up the road at Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery, winemakers Rod and Cynthia Snapp specialize in big red wines.
Their 2010 Syrah was named a Wine of Distinction by the 2011 The Arizona Republic Wine Competition, and in past The Arizona Republic competitions, their 2009 Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc wines respectively received gold and silver medals.
Vinny, a gentle English mastiff, will likely greet you when you visit Javelina Leap’s newly expanded tasting room in the midst of the 10-acre vineyard.
Sample a Zinfandel, Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc, order a cheese platter and enjoy a relaxing afternoon in the picnic area.