Where Grapes Don’t Grow on Cactus and It’s No Longer Wine’s Wild West

You won’t be the first and certainly not the last to do a double take at a headline combining wine and Arizona. Images of grapes covering Saguaro cactus immediately come to mind. Perhaps you start doing the math about whether year-round 110 plus degree temperatures and a dry climate of an inch of precipitation a year are a possible habitat for grapes. And of course, there is the picture in your mind of vines growing from the Colorado River up the Grand Canyon walls, even steeper than some of the daunting terraced vines of the Wachau and the Mosel.

Well, none of that is true about Arizona wine. Not even the temperatures and rainfall for wine-growing regions. Not all of the state is a desert.

Page Springs Cellars' Estate. All Photos:  © 2014 Trevor Felch

Page Springs Cellars’ Estate. All Photos: © 2014 Trevor Felch

Arizona isn’t far from California but initially it doesn’t exactly strike drinkers as a wine growing region like it’s neighboring state to the west. Believe it or not, the two have more in common than you’d think. Arizona doesn’t have the luxury of coastal fog. It does have beautiful oak covered landscapes with roaring streams in temperate climates with mild afternoon and evening temperatures almost year round. Hello, Zinfandel.

The reality is Arizona grows real wine grapes. Arizona makes wine with those grapes. And more and more of that wine is impressive and worth taking notice of.

In 2012, The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné for the first time had an Arizona wine crash the Washington-Oregon-California party on his annual Top 100 Wines list with the 2009 Dos Cabezas “El Campo” Red from Sonoita’s Pronghorn Vineyard (Tempranillo, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, Grenache, the list goes on of grapes involved…). Last year the 2012 Malvasia Bianca from Sand-Reckoner in Cochise County made the list, also giving a broader audience a hint about Arizona’s particular strength with a grape better known in the Adriatic Peninsula.

Tempranillo? Malvasia? Grenache? Zinfandel? They’re all working here. Spanish varietals and Italian varietals have been very successful savoring the intense sunlight, high elevation, and much of the state’s limestone base. This isn’t Pinot Noir territory. This is a prime terroir for grapes that exude sharpness and spice over elegance.

Oak Creek at Page Springs Cellars

Oak Creek at Page Springs Cellars

Winemakers know, you adapt to the terroir. And adapt they have. Arizona’s premier wines are powerful expressions of their high altitude, sun-drenched terroir that also show careful wine-making nuance from some of the Western United States’ leading industry minds..

And no, these grapes aren’t grown on cactus or come from the Grand Canyon (for the latter, there is the Grand Canyon Brewing Co. in nearby Williams).

Some of the Cowboy, Wild West connotations with Arizona do carry over to the wine realm. In one of the first pieces touting Arizona’s wine potential, John Mariani for Bloomberg wrote an article entitled “Tombstone, Broken Glass Show You Can Make Wine Even in Arizona,” then quickly mentioning how winery names in the state include Tombstone, Broken Glass, and Bitter Creek. John Wayne meets Robert Parker.

The Sonoran Desert in Scottsdale

The Sonoran Desert in Scottsdale

Then there are winery names like Page Springs Cellars, Oak Creek Vineyards, and Passion Cellars that, well, sound like winery names in Sonoma or the Dundee Hills.

The state has three primary growing regions according to the Arizona Wine Growers Association. The only designated AVA (American Viticulture Area) is Sonoita in Santa Cruz County, not far from the Mexico border in the southeast of the state, an hour south of Tucson. Willcox has the highest quantity of grapes, located in Southeast Arizona as well in Cochise County (you’ll see how many of the upcoming mentioned wines might not be made in Cochise County but the grapes are grown there). Then there is the Verde Valley region that I recently visited, near Sedona between the Grand Canyon and Phoenix.

Caduceus Cellars in Jerome

Caduceus Cellars in Jerome

It’s not Italy or France when it comes to vineyard concentration. Appellation maps won’t be too exciting. Still, Arizona has a real and serious wine industry well worth knowing about. And with three distinct regions plus a major cosmopolitan wine-loving capital city, there is no doubt that wine tourism is about soar with the export of bottles out of state.

Arizona’s first vineyard was planted in 1973, so we’re not talking about a historic region full of old vines and heritage land plots. The state wine industry has grown to 63 wineries at last count, but that number is increasing rapidly, almost by the month.

Separate vineyards selling grapes are also scattered about. Then there are the tasting rooms and wine bars to support the entire system. It’s working. It’s definitely growing. You can feel the excitement when talking to industry personalities and previously skeptical tourists that thought this would be weak, amateur wine. No, no, this isn’t desert plonk.

The 2011 Dos Cabezas Red

The 2011 Dos Cabezas Red

Dos Cabezas Wineworks was arguably the winery to put Arizona on the wine map. The winery opened in 1995 on 80 acres near Willcox before moving to Sonoita in 2003. Now the winery produces over 3,000 cases a year and gets most of its fruit from the Cimarron Vineyard, owned by the legendary Oregon winemaker Dick Erath who was among the first to realize Arizona’s winegrowing promise.

It was Dos Cabezas’ rapport with the legendary Pizzeria Bianco in Downtown Phoenix that first put the concept of wine grown and made in Arizona in my Californian mind almost a decade ago. The Dos Cabezas “Red,” a Grenache heavy blend, has been the de-facto house wine for years to compliment the splendid pizzas of Chris Bianco like my personal favorite the “Rosa” coated with red onion, rosemary, pistachios, and razor sharp parmigiano reggiano.

Pizzeria Bianco's Rosa Pizza

Pizzeria Bianco’s Rosa Pizza

The pizzas and the wine match beautifully. After sampling this pairing, I had to think twice about declaring Primitivo still the perfect pizza wine. The Red is rustic and restrained but full of the distinct raspberry jam and peppery spice that only a desert can channel. The winery and the pizzeria’s connection aren’t just about food. Bianco’s father has even drawn some of Dos Cabeza’s labels.

Three baseball Spring Trainings ago (an annual retreat), I dined at Pavle Milic and Charleen Badman’s tiny Scottsdale restaurant FnB that quickly became a national headliner for two rather obscure reasons: Badman’s braised leek dish that blissfully brings together mozzarella, a fried egg, and the knockout punch of mustard bread crumbs (it’s seasonal so don’t book a plane ticket this moment) that even made headlines amongst food writers and editors coast to coast—and an all Arizona wine list. As in, no California. No France. No Marlborough. No problem.

Kazimierz Wine Bar in Scottsdale

Kazimierz Wine Bar in Scottsdale

Meanwhile, Milic continues his persistent push for Arizona wines. Recently he launched a shop and platform for wine multimedia called Arizona Wine Merchants, offering 24 local tines at a time (there are also non-Arizona wines in the shop). Nearby in Old Town Scottsdale,  the un-affiliated Kazimierz World Wine Bar has become the go-to spot for wines from around the world, including Arizona. With a cellar of over 2,000 wines, you get the idea how “Kaz” means business (even their phone number includes WINE as four digits). My recent flight included three continents—of Pinot Noir, hence no Arizona. The wine bar is owned by Cowboy Ciao, one of Old Town Scottsdale’s longtime favorites especially for its superb rendition of the classic cobb salad, the Stetson Salad. Cowboy Ciao’s comprehensive list is part educational, part wine geek humor. When introducing “Vino Blanco,” the restaurant asks, “Can A Vegetarian truly have a beef with you?” and “Or, as I like to call this page, a changing of the Kongsgaard.”) Oh, wine folks.

Alas, this is Phoenix and Scottsdale. Two cities (sort of connected, sort of not) that are Major League cities. Downtown Phoenix certainly is becoming more and more relevant by the month. Scottsdale’s Old Town and myriad resorts are certainly upping their food & wine game too. But what about in Arizona where the grapes are actually grown?

Sunset in Sedona

Sunset in Sedona

With the air conditioning on, but not full blast, I set off for one of Arizona’s marquee tourist destinations without the word “Grand” attached.

Sedona is a feel good retreat resort town best known for its red rocks and polar vortexes that supposedly will help you live longer. It’s not a tourist and even celebrity magnet for being part of the Verde Valley Wine Trail. I can safely say Sedona is the only town I’ve crossed an armadillo and a desert warthog on a morning run in a residential community. With its reputation for yoga, meditation, and hiking, Kombucha seems more like Sedona’s official beverage.

Sedona is in the northeast corner of the Verde Valley. It’s the perfect spot to stay overnight when tasting and also for a rest when journeying between the Grand Canyon and Phoenix. Winding Oak Creek goes straight through Sedona forcing visitors to look down at the water and up at the majestic red rocks. Highway 89A is the main road to know connecting Sedona with winery tasting rooms in towns like Cottonwood, Clarkdale, and Jerome.

Page Springs Cellars' Patio. Just Like Napa.

Page Springs Cellars’ Patio. Just Like Napa.

The fact that wine works here isn’t too far-fetched. OK, you do get highs in July averaging 97 but just think about Napa and Mendoza. They’re not very different. Lows in the Verde Valley in the heart of summer still are in the 60’s. Winters are mild averaging the yearly temperature high at a surprising 75 degrees. At 4,500 feet, it’s high altitude without being too extreme. Mendoza, Argentina by comparison is 2,500 feet and averages 105 degrees in the heart of the Southern Hemisphere summer. And Mendoza is often considered the most extreme high altitude major wine-growing region in the world.

It rains in Arizona also. Maybe not in Phoenix but it does in the wine growing areas. Both Sonoita and Sedona average roughly 19 inches a year with most of that rain falling in the summer, the inverse of traditional wine growing terroir weather. You don’t have to worry much about precipitation disturbing harvest picking.

Page Springs Cellars. Bocce, anyone?

Page Springs Cellars. Bocce, anyone?

Heading north from Phoenix, I had been tipped off by one of Phoenix’s restaurant critics that Page Springs Cellars’ “La Serrana” blend would be the best way for me to gain an introduction to what the Verde Valley offers. After turning off Highway 119 in Cornville onto Page Springs Road, the environment switches from desert tableau to a shaded, tree-filled region that immediately struck me as Paso Robles or Healdsburg. There is water in Oak Creek (which leads to the magnificent Oak Creek Canyon). This looked like real wine country.

At 52% Viognier, 31% Marsanne, and 17% Roussanne, the 2009 La Serrana proved that visual appearance of beautiful rows of vines to be true. The blend is a beautiful expression of minerality meeting ripe stone fruit. It’s a dense, sweet, and flinty example. It was forceful with a heady structure, yet refreshing at the finish. This could be a perfect grilled fish partner or companion on the porch savoring the afternoon sunshine, à la Rosé.

Page Springs Cellars' Vino de la Familia Blanca

Page Springs Cellars’ Vino de la Familia Blanca

More and more wine drinkers are not only learning about the Malvasia grape—but actually seeking out its distinct fresh, layered texture that can be exceptional when the acidity is controlled. Page Springs’ 2012 “Vino de la Familia” Blanca Malvasia held up beautifully with more of a woodsy bent than Malvasia’s usual salt. Oh, and by the way it retails for $21. If Page Springs had an Oakville address, the bottle could retail for double that price.

Like with much of Arizona, Rhône-style wines are Page Springs’ signature from winemaker Eric Glomski. The wine that grabs headlines is the plush “El Serrano,” a Mourvèdre and Syrah blend. The 2012 was full of rugged spice with no harsh signs of bitterness this type of blend might present. It’s a mellow wine overall with perky elements at the opening. If served now, it could easily be the house carafe at a small bistro in Valence.

Sure, quality can waver slightly. A 2011 Cochise County Chenin Blanc was challenging to get past unbalanced sweetness and the 2012 Bonita Springs Vineyard Zinfandel hit me as too brash and smoky, calling for a decade in the cellar to end adolescence and find its maturity. Fortunately, there are a lot more hits. And what really is surprising is how the highlights were the white wines. Wouldn’t you think Red Rocks country and being close to a harsh desert climate would be otherwise.

Vines at Page Springs Cellars.

Vines at Page Springs Cellars.

It’s just two hours north of Phoenix (really, an hour north of the never-ending metro sprawl) and you could be in the wilds of Montana here. Life slows down. Yet an hour at Page Springs Cellars felt like a bonafide Napa wine country visit with the combination of wine experts tasting, wine novices working on swirling and pronunciation, and older groups visiting for a leisurely lunch on the prime patio overlooking the creek and some of the Viognier grapes grown on the estate. Maybe my view became skewed immediately since this was my first stop. I think it just goes to show this region is ready for its moment.

Jerome, Arizona

Jerome, Arizona

Most Verde Valley wines are poured in tasting rooms without a vine in sight, making Page Springs Cellars the essential stop to get the complete experience. But the tourism trail has an excellent map to fill up a tasting day. Other emerging areas should learn from what the folks have done here.

And being near Sedona, you can get a massage or join a yoga class at Page Springs Cellars, too. No wonder someone tasting at the same time as me from Iowa seemed to be in an out of body bliss (it was snowing and in the teens at the time back home for her).

The recurring name you here in these parts is Arizona Stronghold. The somewhat corporate name isn’t a corporate enterprise at all but is one of the state’s original iconic labels.

It was formed in 2007 by Page Springs Cellars’ Glomski and the musician Maynard Keenan, singer for the band “Tool.” The combination of Glomski’s wine-making prowess at Page Springs Cellars and before that at David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains with Keenan’s unwavering dedication to making excellent wine in Arizona came together well. They acquired the old Dos Cabezas Vineyard in Willcox. Now the Arizona Stronghold label continues to produce wines from Willcox (Cochise County) and the Bonita Springs Vineyard, not far away in Graham County. Although, just last month, the duo split with Glomski keeping the label and Keenan keeping the Arizona Stronghold vineyard.

A Caduceus Cellars Tasting

A Caduceus Cellars Tasting

Meanwhile, go from the dusty plains to the towering mountain overlooking Sedona’s red rocks to find where Keenan is full-time nowadays. He is owner and winemaker for his Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards founded in 2002. Keenan might be a celebrity, but he makes the wine and Caduceus isn’t a trophy hobby for him.

Grapes grow around Keenan’s home near Jerome, along with Cochise County and New Mexico. The tasting room is in the heart of Jerome amidst other tasting rooms, bars, and antique shops. At sunset, Jerome’s view of the sun shining on the Sedona red rocks is spectacular. And with the sheer cliff the town sits on, it’s a dramatic view. Luckily my car didn’t fall in the cliffhanger parking lot—but all those cars come close to a tumble.

Jerome is a quirky spot with quite the up and down economic history. Caduceus Cellars’ Brian Sullivan explained to me how Jerome was an old copper mining town with a big boom in the late 19th century and early 20th century reaching its peak in the 1920’s, going from a population of 15 to 20,000. The mines closed in 1953 and soon the population crept to barely a hundred. Then the 1970’s brought the arrival of artisans and new residents leading to a more diverse economy and population around 500 since the 1980’s, with the new wine industry being a key player today. The days of Jerome as a ghost town are gone. It’s a Bohemian stronghold in an isolated place. Think a blend of the West Village and Key West translated into a Wild West town in a John Ford film.

Talking to loyal longtime residents, I got the feeling Jerome follows the legendary Ernest Hemingway belief that Key West residents have never conquered the world because they never resist the urge to go back home.  Just think of the old blue pea in tomato soup analogy. John McCain’s hometown Cottonwood is nearby and the area is heavily conservative. Jerome is a mining town version of Berkeley.

Caduceus Cellars' Sancha

Caduceus Cellars’ Sancha

The Caduceus tasting room fits snugly in the town being relaxed and a welcoming spot for passionate wine drinkers and those who shun tasting notes. It is not a Western saloon (the town has plenty of those for you afterwards). It is part Italian espresso bar though, so plan accordingly and visit for that portion before noon (one of the staff members was a barista for one of Seattle’s legendary espresso cafés).

Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards differ from Page Springs Cellars with its specialization in Spanish and Italian varietals, leading to a production of 4500 cases a year.

The 2011 Caduceus Sancha from Cochise County was the standout performer, showing the beautiful spice and fruit (distinct notes of Medjool dates and Bing cherries) of Tempranillo, full of good sturdy tannins that show strong aging is under way. This was a great Rioja evoking effort.

The 2011 Kitsuné Sangiovesé lacked the velvety heft I’d like but made up for its pale texture with ample sage and cardamom. I was less enthralled by the 2012 Lei Li Nebbiolo Rosé with cocktail-like sweetness and the too dry and soft 2011 Le Cortigiane Oneste that actually is a Barbera-Merlot hybrid from New Mexico, a state best known for sparkling wines (we’ll fully cover New Mexico in another story some day). The Oneste is described by the winery as very Old World but was too restrained and acidic per my tasting.

However, I was thrilled to see more white varietals succeed after Page Springs with the 2012 Dos Ladrones Chardonnay-Malvasia 50-50 blend that brings together the best oak and stone elements together. The grapes hail from Bonita Springs Vineyard in Graham County. Distinct floral notes makes Dos Ladrones scream of spring-time and asks to pair for a creamy goat cheese. This would be a regular weeknight wine for me if I could ship it to my house.

Caduceus' Dos Ladrones

Caduceus’ Dos Ladrones

In addition to Caduceus Cellars and Page Springs Cellars, other Verde Valley wineries worth seeking out include Pillsbury Wine Company (try the Diva Rhône blend from Cochise County), Javelina Leap Winery’s estate Zinfandels, and Bitter Creek Winery’s “Judgement” Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blend. Bitter Creek shares a communal tasting room in Jerome called Cellar 433 with other labels, a great choice for one stop tasting of a wide spectrum.

Back in Sedona, make sure to catch the sunset on the red rocks at the Enchantment Resort’s View 180 Bar (a decent wine list with no Arizona wines but you’re here for the view and atmosphere foremost).

Elote and a Margarita at Elote Cafe in Sedona

Elote and a Margarita at Elote Cafe in Sedona

Then, literally the entire town and every tourist in town seems to dine nightly at Elote for Jeff Smedstad’s cuisine inspired by the markets of Mexico. Verde Valley produce pop up everywhere in the tomato and Oaxaca cheese salad with apple cider vinaigrette or jicama orange salad. Scallops join tomato jam, roasted poblano peppers, and truffle crema. There are various moles, tamales, a beef barbacoa quesadilla, and grilled ahi tacos. As you’d assume, the “elote” a chutney-dip hybrid of fire roasted corn with spicy mayonnaise, lime, and cotija cheese is a must order. The other mandatory item is a show-stopping Colorado lamb shank adobo in a sweet and spicy ancho chile sauce, both for its gorgeously soft and smoky meat and the elephant size that could feed a family of four.

Elote's Lamb Shank

Elote’s Lamb Shank

Is it worth the constant two hour or more waits? Hey, Smedstad has turned down multiple overtures from New York to move there and open a restaurant. To me it is worth the wait, especially since you can sip a glass of the Page Springs Cellars Vino del Barrio red blend (their Barrio Blanco white blend is available only by the bottle… for $29). Or for a switch, the fresh Margaritas are right on pitch (get the Patron Plata) or try the Sedona brewed Oak Creek Brewing Company Nut Brown Ale. Whatever your game plan turns out to be, Elote isn’t exactly a traditional wine country restaurant, but it’s the perfect evening cap to a wine tasting day.

Harry's Hideaway in Cornville, Arizona

Harry’s Hideaway in Cornville, Arizona

A great lunch spot is Harry’s Hideaway in Cornville. It seems to fill the role of Bistro Don Giovanni for Napa where it’s a bit removed from the wine region center but exceedingly popular with locals and tourists alike. Desserts and breads are all made in-house, the burger and the Portobello mushroom are right on the mark, and the salads are fresh and bountiful (try the Sedona Vortex for both a refreshing starter…and a detox).

Husband and wife Harry and Adele Olson run Harry’s Hideaway (he cooks, she runs front of the house). The restaurant’s down home road house feel would be right at home in Bedford Falls, Iowa with Jimmy Stewart walking in for breakfast. And yes, there are several Verde Valley wines to enjoy on the back patio. While Crema Café should be your Cottonwood breakfast, lunch, and surprise, coffee spot. Heck, they make their own gelato, too.

We’re seeing wine everywhere in the world these days. A scathing hot climate like the Sonoran Desert would be one of the least likely locales for grapes to thrive. Except as we’ve learned, Arizona isn’t completely desert. Grapes enjoy the constant sun with heavy summer rainfall amidst some of the West’s most splendid natural backdrops.

Arizona isn’t pastoral rolling vineyards amidst farmland and lush valleys, nor is it vines amidst tumbleweeds. It follows the same recipe for success matching terroir with masterful winemakers. Combining both the fun side of a wine industry with the serious side are only beginning here. And mark an exciting new destination on the wine world map.

About Author

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Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Trevor is the chief content officer for the social neighborhood mapping program Urbane, a restaurants writer for SF Weekly and San Francisco Examiner. He’s doing his best to be a world traveling meets joie de vivre combination of Hemingway, Bourdain, and Cary Grant. If you really want to charm him, serve a full, earthy Oregon Pinot Noir or a slick Sauternes, and pair them with 80 % or above dark chocolate.

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