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.
SONOITA & ELGIN
Dos Cabezas Wineworks. Among the first to get national cred for the state’s labels, this 21-year-old winery has matured with the region’s vines. Winemaker Todd Bostock taps the family’s two Southern Arizona vineyards for standouts like El Norte, a wild-hearted Rhône-style blend. Tasting from $5; doscabezas.com.
Callaghan Vineyards. Kent Callaghan—pronounced with a hard “g”—gets wide credit for putting Arizona on the national wine map. Spanish-style wines from his Buena Suerte Vineyard, especially Grenaches and Tempranillos, continue to garner kudos. And the beamed and stuccoed Vineyard Tasting Room extends the theme beyond the wines. Tasting from $10; callaghanvineyards.com.
Vineyard Café Sonoita. Chef Jon Bollin brings classical Culinary Institute of America training to the traditions and ingredients he grew up with: Tiny chiltepin chiles stud the chicken salad, and burritos are stuffed with chorizo from locally raised pork. A bar in miniature serves Arizona-only bottles and brews. $; vineyardcafesonoita.com.
Arizona Hops and Vines. Serious wine meets irreverent women. Two sisters grow hops alongside grapes, pair their popular sparkling Moscato with Cheetos, and christen their creations with names like “Drag Queen,” a hopped wine debuting this spring (ahem, it’s dressed like beer). $10 tasting; azhopsandvines.com.
Rune. A wunderkind on the Sonoita block, James Callahan honed his skills in cellars around the world, from Sonoma to New Zealand. Rune wins raves for its “Wild Syrah,” fermented with wild yeast, and for the grassland vistas from its off-the-grid tasting space. $15 tasting; runewines.com.
Lightning Ridge Cellars. Ann Roncone does it all: planting, harvesting, making, pouring, and even creating cork art for her sunny red-tile-roof tasting room. A medium-bodied Montepulciano is the flagship sip, but lesser-known Italian varieties such as Aglianico and Nebbiolo thrive here too. $11 tasting; lightningridgecellars.com.
Big Tex Bar-B-Que. Channeling Willcox’s rail hub past, a 1929 Pullman car from the Atchison Topeka line dishes up barbecue smoked slowly on mesquite wood out back. Top sellers include the tender pulled-pork sandwich, ginormous brisket-stuffed baked potato, and freshly cut rib-eye. $$; (520) 384-4423.
Downtown sampler. Four tasting rooms have cropped up in Willcox’s historic center, where Apache chief Geronimo used to shop for sugar and a museum celebrates singing cowboy Rex Allen. Head to the converted 1917 bank, where Keeling Schaefer Vineyards pours Rhône varieties such as bold, dark-fruited “Three Sisters Syrah.” $7 tasting; keelingschaefervineyards.com.
Willcox Bench. Nearly three-quarters of Arizona’s grapes grow on this high-desert rise south of town, and three tasting rooms here welcome visitors. Rolling View Vineyard prides itself on its variety (20 grapes at last count)—and on winemaker Michael Pierce, director of enology at Yavapai College, home to Arizona’s Southwest Wine Center. His bright and pithy Viognier, under the boutique Saeculum label, is lovely. $10 tasting; bodegapierce.com.
Cochise. Glimpse the region’s farming roots at Golden Rule Vineyards on the western edge of the Sulphur Springs Valley, where, along with grapes, the Graham family grows pistachios. Their 2013 Cabernet-based “Black Diamond” garnered top Cab honors in the Arizona Grand Wine Festival last year. $9 tasting; goldenrulevineyards.com.