Originally published in A Taste of AZ Magazine
Ten years ago a mention of Arizona wine was often met with a bemused look or a skeptical “grapes grow in the desert?” While there are still many surprised to learn that the terroir of our vineyards draw comparisons to lauded regions in Spain, France and Italy, it’s no longer a secret. In 1990, only five licensed wineries were operating. Today, that number is over 100 and growing exponentially as new vintners build on the experience of mentors who have paved the way. Consistently winning awards at prestigious competitions, winemakers are producing remarkable wine that is finding its way to more homes, wine shops and restaurant menus. In fact, exploring our state as a rapidly growing wine region brought in $56.2 million in wine tourism in 2017, according to a study by the Arizona Office of Tourism.
North and south of Phoenix lie three major growing areas – Sonoita-Elgin, Willcox and Verde Valley. Here, vineyards are planted in mineral-rich soil from sandy loam to volcanic Rhyolite in high elevations that bring the diurnal shifts (the drop between daytime highs and nighttime lows) that contribute to ideal grape growing conditions.
In 1984, Sonoita, roughly an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson, was the first region in the state to be established as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). While in Sonoita and nearby Elgin, you’ll be treated to panoramas of rolling grass-covered hills and plateaus with over 15 tasting rooms to visit. Stop by Rune Wines housed in a unique Quonset Hut with striking views, Lightning Ridge Cellars ensconced in an Italian-style villa surrounded by olive trees, or Sonoita Vineyards, founded by soil scientist Dr. Gordon Dutt who launched our modern-day industry.
East of Tucson at an elevation of 4,500 feet, Willcox was designated as Arizona’s second AVA in 2016 and now produces approximately 75% of the state’s grapes. The fertile Willcox bench turns out some of Arizona’s most awarded wines, with tasting rooms such as Pillsbury Wine Company, Carlson Creek and Golden Rule dotting the landscape.
Head 90 miles north of Phoenix to the Verde Valley, whose petition is under review to become Arizona’s third AVA. Encompassing communities such as Cottonwood, Clarkdale, Jerome, and Cornville, the Verde Valley is one of the state’s most scenic areas. Pick up a map of the Verde Valley Wine Trail to visit tasting rooms such as Caduceus Cellars perched on Cleopatra Hill in Jerome, Page Springs Cellars with its idyllic creekside setting or DA Ranch situated in a grand lodge.
In recent years, tasting rooms have also popped up in Phoenix and Tucson, bringing the wine tasting experience to urban centers. In 2017, Sand Reckoner Vineyards of Willcox opened Tucson’s first tasting room in the Warehouse Arts District. In Old Town Scottsdale, wine lovers can stroll along the Scottsdale Wine Trail to visit Merkin Vineyards and the tasting rooms of Aridus Wine Company, Carlson Creek, Salvatore Vineyards and LDV Winery.
Because the Arizona wine industry is still maturing, there’s a unique opportunity for discovery and experimentation in grape-growing. While familiar varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet are being produced, vintners are also finding success with lesser-known varieties such as Tannat, Malvasia Bianca, Aglianico and Graciano. Taking the time to explore what these pioneering winemakers are creating is both exciting and educational.
New to Arizona wine? Make note of restaurants hosting Arizona wine dinners or attend a meet-the-winemaker event. Visit tasting rooms, join their wine club or spend a weekend in wine country. Ask for Arizona wine at your favorite restaurant and support those who support the winemakers. At Southern Rail restaurant in Phoenix, all bottles of Arizona wine are half off on Sundays – a perfect opportunity for some wine reconnaissance. If you already make it a mission to support independent businesses and source locally, it’s time to give the same attention to the wine you drink. Let’s raise a glass to Arizona!