Wine-Tasting Weekend in Arizona
Head to the high desert to discover the best new thing in the Grand Canyon State
It’s high time to explore the state’s burgeoning wine scene. Artsy Verde Valley is just north of Phoenix. Sonoita/Elgin and Willcox are nearer to Tucson. Winemakers here are producing everything from vibrant Malvasia Biancas to elegant, moody red blends. The varieties may be (mostly) familiar, but their character is a unique result of this place.
“We’re overcoming the perception that Arizona couldn’t possibly produce great wines,” says Rob Hammelman, who in 2010 launched Sand-Reckoner Vineyards in Willcox with his wife, Sarah. A pioneering spirit and sense of unfettered experimentation drew Hammelman to Arizona after a multicontinent wine journey. “I could have gone to a more established region,” says Hammelman, whose wines have made top-picks lists in major publications, “but that didn’t appeal to me. We’re developing a whole new wine style here.”
The industry growth is striking. From a handful of winemakers with a few acres of vineyards in the 1990s, production has surged to 90 licensed wineries statewide, cultivating more than 1,000 acres of vineyards. That “new style”? A result of the high-desert terroir of the state’s three wine regions: limestone soils and warm, sunny days, cooling dramatically at night—terrific for ripening grapes while retaining acidity.
“We make world-class wines in Arizona,” says Hammelman. “And people are just discovering us.” Tasting here has evolved in a few short years from folding chairs in tank rooms to lounge settings designed for lingering—with food and live music. Head out for a day (or two) to dispel the notion that saguaros and Syrah can’t coexist.
Verde Valley Wine Trail. Plot a northern trek on the Verde Valley Wine Trail—nearly every winery, tasting room, restaurant, and wine-related attraction in the area is detailed online. Two must-stops: Chateau Tumbleweed, where a two-couple team is getting raves for their small-batch wines, like the spicy 2013 “Dr. Ron Bot” Syrah blend. At winemaker Eric Glomski’s bucolic Page Springs Cellars on the banks of Oak Creek, you can sample Rhône-centric wines, get a massage, and even join a yoga class. verdevalleywinetrail.com; chateautumbleweed.com; pagespringscellars.com.
Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room. Alt-rock icon Maynard James Keenan (Tool, Puscifer, A Perfect Circle) has become a highly respected winemaker and champion of the Arizona wine industry. At his Jerome tasting room, housed in a 1901 hotel, try the 2013 Caduceus “Nagual del Marzo,” an Italian-leaning Sangiovese-based blend; if you’re a hardcore fan, nab an autographed bottle of 2013 “Kitsuné,” 100 percent Sangiovese. (The grape is doing particularly well in the state.) The tasting room also offers espresso drinks, local honey, salsas, and bags of Puscifer coffee beans. Tasting from $8.75; caduceus.org.
Four Eight Wineworks. Explore fledgling wines at this co-op/incubator for up-and-coming winemakers (founded by the aforementioned Keenan). Located in a historic Clarkdale bank building, the tasting room has comfy leather chairs where you can relax with a bottle of Kindred, a pedigreed red blend made by Keenan and three other heavy-hitters: Todd Bostock, Kent Callaghan, and Tim White. Not a wine fan? More than 40 craft beers are available on tap or by the bottle. Tasting from $10; four8wineworks.com.
Southwest Wine Center. When you sip at the newly opened tasting room here—or buy a bottle—you’re supporting a future winemaker. The architecturally modern center is part of adjacent Yavapai College’s enology and viticulture programs (the first in Arizona, launched in 2009), where students get hands-on experience growing, making, and selling wine. $10 tasting; yc.edu/swc.
Abbie’s Kitchen. Former private chef and caterer (she cooked for the likes of Prince Charles and Oprah) Abbie Ashford opened Abbie’s Kitchen in 2011 in a cozy 1920s cottage, serving a simple, seasonal dinner menu. Faves include mushroom crêpes, earthy duck confit with fig sauce, and cucumber-caper-topped salmon. And she’s an Arizona wine fan, offering 20 choices from around the state. $$$; abbieskitchen.com.