By Katherine Adomaitis
Arizona’s beverage options might bring to mind a shot of whiskey sliding down a saloon’s bar or a thirsty cartoon character lopping off the top of a cactus under a broiling sun.
These days, you’ll be hearing more about Arizona’s Cabernets than cactus juice. In the last few decades, the local wine scene has grown from a hit-or-miss operation to a well-respected industry, getting glowing reviews from noted wine writers, as well as garnering local and national awards.
Arizona’s romance with the vine pre-dates statehood, when Spanish padres planted wine grapes at missions. Later, Europeans working in the state’s copper mines brought with them their own wine-making traditions. In the 1970s, a retired University of Arizona soil scientist realized that the high grasslands of southern Arizona had great wine potential and planted the state’s first modern-day, commercial vineyard.
It turns out that Arizona’s high desert terroir means limestone soils, warm, sunny days and cool nights, ideal for growing Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Malvasia Bianca, Chardonnay and other varietals. Today, there are some 95 licensed farm wineries in the state, growing about 1,300 acres of grapes. Yavapai College in central Arizona recently began offering viticulture and enology certificates and degrees–the first in the state–guaranteeing a steady supply of locally trained winemakers.
All this means that you and your group can sample some great wine in Arizona. Many of the larger wineries now have urban tasting rooms in Phoenix and Tucson. But if you want great wine and memorable experiences, try exploring Arizona’s three distinct wine regions–the Verde Valley, Sonoita/Elgin and Willcox.
Bear in mind that many of these rural wineries and tasting rooms are family-run operations that can only accommodate small to mediumsized groups, but with advance notice, most can arrange everything from private tastings, catered box lunches and winemaker dinners in the vineyard to wine-themed kayaking, horseback treks and creekside massages.
About 90 minutes north of Phoenix and just outside Sedona, the Verde Valley has emerged as a major wine region, centered on the town of Cottonwood, where you’ll find tasting rooms, indie restaurants and antiques shops. Nearby, the Verde Canyon Railroad offers vintage train rides along the bucolic Verde River, while Tuzigoot National Monument provides a glimpse of life in an ancient Sinagua village. Up Cleopatra Hill, Jerome is a copper mining ghost town brought back to life with art galleries, eateries and saloons.
The river and its tributaries are also home to several wineries and acres of vineyards, so what better way to explore than by actually being on the river? Verde Adventures calls one of its guided kayaking trips the “Water To Wine Tour.” After an hour and a half of navigating the placid stream (plus just enough riffles to make things interesting), you beach your craft at Alcantara Vineyard, where you can spend a lazy afternoon sipping Syrah or Viognier and munching on a cheese platter.
Not far away, Javelina Leap Vineyard and Winery is an intimate place, founded by a former chef. It’s set below a mesa, with a tasting room that opens on to a mesquite-shaded lawn. Taste their Syrahs and Zinfandels, or, with advance notice, you can have a catered tapas-style meal on the lawn (perfect for lawn games) or inside a private event space.
Down the road, towering sycamores and cottonwoods shelter Page Springs Cellars on the banks of Oak Creek. The bucolic winery has a popular tasting room and deck, where you can sample Rhonecentric wines and order appetizers from an extensive menu. For groups, there are private tours and tastings, as well as an outdoor event deck smack-dab in the vineyards. Lingering is encouraged with a bocce ball court, outdoor yoga and hoop dancing (as in hula hooping) classes, as well as creekside massages.
Next to Cottonwood, in the historic town of Clarkdale, Four Eight WineWorks gives you an insider-y look at Arizona’s wine scene. The tasting room offers wines made by up-and-coming winemakers, courtesy of founder, winemaker and alt-rock star Maynard James Keenan, who has his own Caduceus Cellars tasting room in Jerome. Four Eight is housed in an old bank building, loaded with cushy leather seating. Bonus? They also serve craft beer. With notice, they can get your group a catered meal and bring in one of the young turk winemakers to talk about their craft.
Many of those young turks got their start at Yavapai College’s Southwest Wine Center, also in Clarkdale, where enology and viticulture students get hands-on experience running the vineyard, tasting room and the winery itself. Taste the student-made Merlot, enjoy the vineyard views from the expansive patio or tour the winemaking process. All the money goes back to the school’s wine programs.
Want more? Schedule a visit in May during the Verde Valley Wine Festival, also in Clarkdale, or check out other wineries listed on the Verde Valley Wine Trail (vvwinetrail.com).
About an hour southeast of Tucson, the neighboring communities of Sonoita and Elgin were once surrounded by vast cattle ranches. Today, the rolling grasslands—ringed by mountains—are dotted with vineyards, and the region is Arizona’s only official American Viticultural Area, designated in 1984, making it one of the oldest in the United States. This rural part of the state is also a bird-watching paradise, with spots such as the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia Sonoita Creek Preserve and the surrounding Coronado National Forest offering birding and hiking trails. The historic Empire Ranch, a cattle ranch dating to the 1870s, draws history buffs.
A great way to get to know the lay of the land is to make like a rancher and get on a horse. Arizona Horseback Experience takes small groups on a ride through the grasslands to neighboring Sonoita Vineyards, where you enjoy a wine tasting and lunch. To prevent tipsy trails, a van—not your steed—brings you back.
Sonoita Vineyards is Arizona’s oldest commercial vineyard and winery, founded when Dr. Gordon Dutt—that retired soil scientist— planted the surrounding vineyard in 1979. Family still runs the winery, where you can sample sparkling wine, Merlot, Cabernet, rosé, port and more, or shop for merch in the tasting room, which overlooks vineyards and mountains. Groups can arrange for a catered lunch and even live music to enhance the vino sampling.
Flying Leap Vineyards, known for its Petite Verdot, Mourvedre, Tempranillo and other wines, makes it easy to sample their flights with their main winery, estate vineyard and tasting room in Elgin, a rural vineyard in Willcox as well as tasting rooms in Willcox and other towns. The winery also supports local artists by displaying their work at the tasting rooms. The Elgin facility not only offers private tours and tastings, but is wired to accommodate meetings in its event space. You can also do outdoor tours and tastings at the Willcox vineyard, and get catered meals arranged at all locales.
Arizona Hops and Vines likes shenanigans with its Chenin Blanc. The irreverent Sonoita winery is known for hosting events like wine and cupcake pairings, as well as an annual wine-fueled “Bad Decisions” campout. In the tasting room, you’ll learn that Cheetos pair perfectly with their red blend and Ding Dongs are just dandy with the estate Cab. A“Sober Shack” serving sodas and a petting zoo cater to kiddies. The winery can also arrange private tastings, vineyard tours and catered meals.
Schedule a trek to Sonoita/Elgin in April, when Kief-Joshua Vineyards hosts the annual Southeast Arizona Wine Growers Festival, which includes some 20 Arizona wineries. For more details about this wine region, check out the Sonoita/Elgin Wine Trail (arizonawine.org).
A little more than an hour east of Tucson, rural Willcox is known for its surrounding farms and orchards. Most of Arizona’s vineyards are located here, often at the end of a dirt road in the shadow of the Dos Cabezas Mountains. Some wineries have opened up more accessible tasting rooms in Willcox’s small historic district, walking distance to other local attractions, such as museums dedicated to Arizona native sons Rex Allen and Marty Robbins. Visitors also often trek to nearby Fort Bowie National Historic Site or explore the otherworldly rock formations at Chiricahua National Monument.
Just outside beautiful downtown Willcox, film director and winemaker Sam Pillsbury grows and produces Rhone-centric blends through his Pillsbury Wine Company at his rural vineyard and tasting room, where you can sample wines inside or outside, under pine and pecan trees. With enough notice, he’s been known to host feasts in the vineyard, cook dinners for small groups and is always ready to talk about his love of Arizona wines. (There’s also a Pillsbury tasting room in Cottonwood, in the Verde Valley.)
Newer on the Willcox scene, Aridus Wine Company is known for its Chardonnay, Petite Syrah, Malbec, Malvasia Bianca and other wines, which you can sample at their downtown Willcox tasting room or, by appointment, at their custom crush facility, housed in a modernist steel and glass building. The winery has been known to do custom tastings, winemaker dinners and cater lunches for groups. There is also an Aridus tasting room in downtown Scottsdale.
Despite being small and rural, Willcox hosts two wine festivals, in May and October, where you can sample area wines and local food. Go to arizonawine.org or willcoxwinecountry.org to find winery and tasting room maps.