Cowboy vintners

Wine grapes thrive in the high country southeast of Tucson

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Arizona wine country

In Arizona high country, maturing vines glow at dusk.

Edward McCain

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One melancholy cow peers over the fence as a knot of wine connoisseurs gaze at the oak-dotted hills and luxuriously swirl their Zinfandels on the porch of Callaghan Vineyards. Inside, vintners Kent and Lisa Callaghan uncork bottles, while their two young daughters race on their scooters and the family dog snoozes next to a case of Back Lot Cuvée.

Welcome to wine country, Arizona style. Only an hour's drive southeast of Tucson, this land of corrals, sweeping valleys, and emerald vineyards ― the Old West's answer to Napa Valley ― is centered on the tiny towns of Sonoita and Elgin. On a leisurely drive through the area, you'll find that ranching still sets the tone here: Bucolic windmills are de rigueur, horses roam in huge fenced pastures, and the old railroad tracks still course through town.

But the area's cattle now graze alongside ripening grapes, a pastoral mélange dating to 1973, when University of Arizona soil scientist Gordon Dutt (now owner of Sonoita Vineyards) discovered that growing conditions here are nearly identical to those in Burgundy, France."Cooler temperatures and high elevation make this good wine country," says Kent Callaghan. "It's taken some time, but we're starting to grow true quality wines here." Callaghan's label has garnered several international awards, and his Buena Suerte Cuvée was served at the White House.

A 10-mile drive southeast of Sonoita is blink-and-you'll-miss-it Elgin, where a rustic onetime brothel is now home to the Village of Elgin Winery. Here, the past is playfully noted ― try the Tombstone Red, touted on the label as a fine accompaniment to "scorpion, tarantula, and rattlesnake meat." Visit the tiny Santa Maria chapel next door; adorned by a simple cross and folk art, it buzzes on the last weekend of September during the annual Harvesting of the Vine Festival.

Up a bouncy dirt driveway south of Elgin, you'll find Sonoita Vineyards. Gordon Dutt's Sonoita Fumé is crisp with a hint of oak, and his Cochise County Colombard is a zesty, backcountry take on the French classic. Relax with a glass on the second-story terrace, with exquisite vistas of high-desert hills, and toast the cow country that makes wine lovers feel at home.

Wine escape

From Tucson, drive east on I-10 to exit 281, then head south on State 83 for 26 miles to Sonoita. In Elgin, the Santa Maria chapel's Harvesting of the Vine Festival is Sep 25-26. Call 520/455-9309 for information.

WINERIES

Callaghan Vineyards. 11-3 Fri-Sun; tasting fee $3. 336 Elgin Rd.; www.callaghanvineyards.com or 520/455-5322.

Village of Elgin Winery. 10-5 daily; tasting fee $1. 471 Elgin Rd.; www.elginwines.com or 520/455-9309.

Sonoita Vineyards. 10-4 daily; tasting fee $3-$5. 290 Elgin-Canelo Rd.; www.sonoitavineyards.com or 520/455-5893.

DINING

Sonoita Wine Country Caffé. Try a Callaghan Zinfandel and the grilled chicken on focaccia. Ask for a window table for unbeatable, wildflower-laced views. $$; Tue-Sun. 3266 State 82, Sonoita, 1/2 mile east of State 83; 520/455-5282.

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