I must admit that in the onset of this sojourn, I knew very little about Arizona wine. What I did know is that Dick Erath, an early pioneer of Oregon Pinot Noir, sold his renowned winery to the mega Estates of Chateau Ste. Michelle and bought a 40 acre vineyard in Southeastern Arizona. Feeling there has to be a story to that, I headed out to explore the wine trails of Arizona. In preparation for what was to follow, I learned that each October an Arizona Republic Wine Competition is held in Phoenix. Over 220 wines were evaluated in 2015. The event is held in high esteem and medals are displayed proudly in tasting rooms. I will point out winning wines along the way.
The drive from Tuscan to Willcox was a pleasant 75 minute ascent to an elevation of 4,200’ at an altitude of 32°N. Willcox owes its existence to the Southern Pacific Railroad which chugged into the town in 1880. The renovated historic train depot is among the list of tourist attractions in the revitalized downtown district Let’s head out to meet some winemakers and sample the fruits of their toil.
Keeling-Schaeffer Vineyards: As an act two, this couple relocated from Tempe, Arizona purchasing 21 acres at Rock Creek in the remote eastern foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains, 40 miles southeast of Willcox. They planted in 2004 and began selling estate grown and bottled wine in 2007, primarily ENTAV certified French grapevines. Their trendy tasting room is housed in an historic 1917 bank building shared with an art gallery in downtown Willcox. The Wine Spectator praises Keeling-Schaeffer efforts and my tasting included four medal winning wines. The 2012 Three Sisters Syrah pleased with dark fruit and a smoke tinged finish. A 2013 Puzzle Vine PicPoul Blanc had flavors of piña colada and popping acidity.
Zarpara Vineyard – The inception of Mark and Rhona’s story plays out similarly with the Keeling-Schaeffer proprietors. Longing for a lifestyle that didn’t include Phoenix rush hour commutes and climbing the corporate ladder, they purchased a 20 acre plot in 2010. Zarpara translates to “Set Sail” in Spanish and that is just what they did. Their estate today comprises the vineyards, winery and tasting room all in one location. They grow an array of Mediterranean varietals. My favorites, hand poured by Mark, included their 100% Viognier 2014 and Origen 2013, a GSM. Both wines are award winning, produced entirely with estate grapes and inspired bottle purchases for future enjoyment. Along with family and friends, the couple tends to the entire operation. Farming in Arizona desert in any given year may include a winter freeze, late frost, water scarcity, heatwave, rattlesnakes and foraging fowl and fauna. Yet, deterred they are not and I’m wondering at this point if all Arizona winemakers will show such passion to their craft.
Willcox is a closed-basin surrounded by six mountains and experiences a long, hot growing season with an abundance of sunshine. Fortuitously the mountains bring cool night air down to the valley floor. July and August are monsoon months and receive ¾ of the 9″ average annual rainfall. During the remainder of the year vintners rely entirely on wells tapped into the aquifer. Preserving water is a way of life.
Sonoita / Elgin, the second region visited along the wine trail is located in Santa Cruz County just 75 minutes southwest of Willcox. In route you pass the turn off and short detour to the notorious ghost town of Tombstone, scene of the legendary Gunfight at OK Corral between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys.
The rustic Mercantile Country Store greets visitors at the town entrance. Having grown up in the mountains I felt an immediate sense of nostalgia in this bucolic setting. The Sonoita Basin is surrounded by three breathtakingly beautiful mountain ranges with peaks reaching 9,500’. Sonoita / Elgin is high dessert grassland lush with Arizona ash and oak trees. Colorful wildflowers line the rolling hills. Regional history centers on mining and ranching; grape growing is a more recent venture. Vineyards are planted at cooling elevations of 4,500’ – 5,000’, some of the highest in North America. Annual rainfall is 20” and average temperature range is 46°F to 79°F yet it snows most winters. It was stated by local vineyard owners that Sonoita / Elgin vines produce a mere 2 tons of fruit per acre so most also own vineyards in the higher production area of Cochise County or elsewhere.
Callaghan Vineyards – Their 2014 100% Malvasia Bianca won “Best in Show” and a gold medal. In fact, this wine won in five categories. Wine experts agree that this grape has found a home in Arizona. Four other Callaghan wines had won awards and their tasting room was buzzing. Proprietors Kent and Lisa Callaghan were busy pouring the 14 wines available that day while conversing with their patrons in downhome Arizona style. Planted in 1990 to Bordeaux varietals, they were one of the earliest vintners. That summer witnessed a heatwave upwards of 105°F and they lost thousands of vines. After further research the Callaghan’s replanted with more suitable Rhone, Italian and Spanish varietals, a trend followed by vintners throughout Arizona though Bordeaux grapes are still grown and thrive – where they seem to want to be. Callaghan Vineyards is highly respected and a darling to the local and national press with ratings from the most prestigious wine writers and publications. Their wines have been served at three White House Dinners.
Dos Cabeza WineWorks – Finally I catch up with the latest on Dick Erath. Winemaker and proprietor Todd Bostock’s rise in the wine world has the makings of a fairytale. He began assisting Dos Cabeza’s winemaker in 2002. Within the year the winemaker left and Todd assumed the role of chief winemaker. Then in 2006 he purchased the winery and Pronghorn, a 15 acre vineyard in Sonoita. The same year Erath bought Cimarron Vineyard in Willcox. Erath chose Todd to make the wine from his grapes. This partnership continued until 2011 when Erath sold Cimarron to Todd; he continues to consult with Bostock from his winter home in Tuscan. It is a general consensus amongst local vintners that Mr. Erath’s interest in the Arizona wine scene has brought immense credibility.
Dos Cabeza’s 2013 El Campo Blanco was an extremely interestingly complex yet crisp wine. It comprised all of the white grapes grown in Pronghorn Vineyard, primarily roussanne, viognier, picpoul and malvasia aged 6 months in new French oak followed by 12 months in a concrete egg and subsequently awarded a gold medal at the wine competition. The 2013 Cimarron Vineyard Red, a blend of 11 French, Spanish and Italian red grapes (from Grenache to Touriga National) plucked from all three vineyards was ruby red in the glass with craisins and plum, alive with prickly tannin, citrus and another gold medal.
My trip concludes with a 265 mile drive north to the wine region of Verde Valley in Yavapai County and home to the world’s largest Kokopelli, the fertility deity. As you leave Phoenix on route 17 you notice a stark high desert environment. Yavapai County sits at 3,155’ elevation, latitude 35°N. A visit to Page Springs Cellars, a 23 acre sanctuary in Cornville was a major treat.
Page Spring Vineyards and Cellar (PSC) – In 25 years of wine trails, this is the first winery encounter where you can get a creek-side massage, play bocce ball, attend a yoga class, enjoy a small plate on a deck overlooking the creek and vineyards, tour Shangri-La, mellow to acoustic live music and, oh my, sample some wine! PSC lives and breathes sustainability and was one of the first wineries to install solar panels. They produce 85% of the estates energy needs and double as a protective carport for visitors.
Winemaker / Proprietor Eric Glomski also farms Colibri, the only vineyard on the remote eastern slope of the Chiricahua Mountains in Cochise Country. The decomposed granite soil combined with the overall distinctive terroir gives Eric the determination to continue despite its inherent ruggedness. It was all worth it when the Wine Spectator honored the ‘10 Colibri Syrah Clone 174 with a 90 point rating, the highest score to date for an Arizona wine. My flight included 2014 100% Roussanne from Colibri which showed superbly. The 2013 Grenache AZ White Oak was unique having been aged on staves made from Arizona oak trees and it garnered 4 medals (one gold) at the Republic Wine Competition. Spicy red fruit and a silky texture made this a great accompaniment to the Smoked Salmon Bruschetta.
No trip to the northern wine region would be complete without stretching it just 20 miles further west to the idyllic mountain community of Jerome complete with a visit to Caduceus tasting room owned by musician/actor/winemaker Maynard J. Keener, lead vocalist of Tool, The Perfect Circle and Puscifer. Jerome rises to an elevation of 5,066’ overlooking the Verde Valley. Exhilaration was my overwhelming emotion while making the ascent.
One notable presence is the Jerome Grand Hotel, constructed in 1926 as the United Verde Hospital. It closed in 1956 and remained so until 1994 when it was purchased, renamed and restored as a hotel. Considered a masterpiece of architecture, the Grand Hotel was built on a solid slab of bedrock up against the slope of Mingus Mountain, contains no wood in its structure, is fire and earthquake proof. As an added side note, 9,000 deaths were recorded in the hospital logs and volumes of on-going hauntings have lead up to the hotel being featured in 2011 on “Ghost Adventures”. Residents have revived the town and are attracting tourists with trendy cafes, art & craft galleries, wine tasting and a thriving music scene.
Caduceus Cellars – Caduceus Cellars grows French, Spanish and Italian varietals and has 40 acres of vineyards in Verde Valley, 1½ acres of terraced vines at Keenan’s home Estate and 80 acres in southeastern Arizona. The tasting was a varietal red and white flight of Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo Rosado, Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Caduceus won 5 metals, including a gold, in the 2015 Republic competition. To my joy, all wines were extremely satiating as this would be the last tasting concluding this trip.
Even though Spanish missionaries produced wine in Arizona in the 1700’s, modern viticulture only began three decades ago in Sonoita. The wine rarely crosses the state border in part a result of its boutique nature, as well, the locals love their wine and many restaurateurs support the industry by packing their wine lists with regional products. In addition, an absolutely top notch magazine, AZWine, is widely distributed statewide. Arizona wines are worthy of serious wine drinkers consideration, made by passionate winemakers with a cooperative, supportive spirit. “Kindred”, a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Tempranillo is a collaborative effort from the cellars of top tier winemakers Tim White, Maynard Keener, Todd Bostock and Kent Callaghan as a tangible display of their camaraderie. As quoted by Jon Bonné, San Francisco Chronicle, “the Arizona market is poised to blossom beyond regional status – to become part of the national conversation”.