“Wine is an expression of landscape,” says master grower Eric Glomski, a vegetation and landscape ecologist. “A winemaker re-creates the places where the grapes are grown, expressing their unique environments in a liquid medium.”
Defying desert and canyon stereotypes, Arizona’s two prime grape-growing landscapes are as lovely as they are unexpected. And the award-winning wines they produce are, as Glomski might put it, wonderfully expressive.
Southern Arizona’s vineyards
The first wave of Arizona winemakers used as their palette the mile-high rolling grasslands of southeastern Arizona. The region is so much of a landscape anomaly that parts of Oklahoma were filmed here.
Anchored by the small towns of Patagonia and Sonoita, the region was primarily known as horse country until Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist, discovered that its red clay soil was nearly identical to that of the Cote D’Or in Burgundy, France. He planted the first experimental vineyard in 1973 and debuted his Sonoita Vineyards a decade later.
Since then, about a dozen other wineries have cropped up in the area, which earned its own appellation (federal designation of a unique wine-producing area): Sonoita.
Once you’re in Sonoita, about an hour south of Tucson, you don’t have to drive far to visit several wineries on or around Elgin Road. The best known of the group, Callaghan Vineyards represents the state’s first wine dynasty. Mom and pop Harold and Karen Callaghan planted the Buena Suerte vineyard in 1990, and their vintner son, Kent, has garnered numerous national kudos and awards in the last decade; his particular strength is Spanish-style reds.
Dr. Dutt may have retired, but the expanded Sonoita Vineyards remains a popular wine country stop, and not only for its wide range of acclaimed bottles. Paying tribute to the area’s equestrian roots, the winery paired up with the Arizona Horseback Experience to offer a scenic ride followed by lunch and a wine tasting.
The only tasting room in the town of Sonoita itself, Dos Cabezas WineWorks was opened in 2006 by vintner Todd Bostock and his family. On a breezy patio overlooking an herb garden, you might sample a crisp Viognier or the rich red El Norte blend – both won Arizona Governor’s Awards.
The winery’s name, Dos Cabezas, alludes to the vineyard near Willcox, Arizona, that was the Bostocks’ winemaking domain before they moved to Sonoita. That original vineyard, in turn, is now among several providing grapes to Eric Glomski and Maynard James Keenan (yes, the frontman for the band Tool), whose Arizona Stonghold Vineyards belongs to the latest group of Arizona wineries determined to put the state on every wine lover’s tasting route.
North Central Arizona’s wineries
Glomski and Keenan also have winemaking ventures in Arizona’s newest vineyard region. Glomski is the owner and director of winemaking at Page Springs Cellars and Keenan owns Caduceus Cellars – both of which are on the newly designated Verde Valley Wine Trail.
As with its southern counterpart, this Arizona wine region – some two hours northwest of metropolitan Phoenix – provides ideal conditions for grape cultivation, including abundant sunshine, dramatic nighttime cool downs and rich volcanic soil. It’s been compared to the Southern Rhone and, indeed, the lush banks of the Verde River and Oak Creek, the waterways that ribbon through the Verde Valley, wouldn’t look out of place in the French countryside. But the area is steeped in Arizona history, including such Native American sites as Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle national monuments, the military fort of Camp Verde and the historic mining town of Jerome.
Much of the landscape is unique to Arizona, including the red rocks surrounding Sedona. It’s just a few miles from Sedona to the largest cluster of vineyards on the Verde Valley Wine Trail.
Along Page Springs Road and straddling Oak Creek are Glomski’s Page Springs Cellars, balancing European styles with a locavore philosophy; Oak Creek Vineyards & Winery, known for small batches of full-bodied reds and lean whites; and Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery, where you can sip award-winning wines – including the Whole Foods Consumers Choice for 2009 – in a saloon-style tasting room.
One way to reach master grower Barbara Predmore’s Alcantara Vineyards, with its beautiful Tuscan-style farmhouse, is to take the fun kayak trip down the Verde River that Sedona Adventure Tours created.
But that’s just a sampler – a few regional wine flights, as it were. For more details, as well as for information about other vineyards and winemakers throughout the state, see the Arizona Vines & Wines and the Arizona Wine Growers Association websites."