Drinking Local, Drinking Favorites in Arizona

Robert has been busy putting the finishing touches on our Vidal Blanc. I’ve been busy visiting Sedona, with a stop in the Grand Canyon.

It's Really Great

Really, Really Great

I didn’t have a lot of hope in my heart for my wine experience in Arizona until two weeks ago. I was doing research for our drinking green guide and discovered that a winemaker outside of Tucson, Kief-Joshua, uses Baby Doll sheep to graze on the green grass and weeds in their vineyard.

This forward-thinking approach enhances biodiversity and nutrient recycling while decreasing the use of pesticides. Everyone wins, including the sheep, which I imagine love living in a vineyard. I also imagine that they have adorable, wine-related names like Baa Baa Burgundy. Why isn’t there a TV show about this?

Sedona is too far away from Tucson to make a visit to Kief-Joshua practical in the short time I visited, but I was optimistic that I would find a bottle at my hotel and/or the surrounding restaurants. I trusted I would also be able to learn about other winemakers in the state who are innovating.

In preparation for my trip, I wrote an e-mail to the Arizona Grape Growers Association, inquiring as to what varietals do best. I also wanted to know whether, in their expert opinion, Arizona has a signature red and/or white. I asked because I suspected that, like me, most of the nation doesn’t have a working knowledge of the current state of the Arizona wine industry. I was keen to get their thoughts, planning to share them, and the knowledge I gained on my trip, with you.

No one wrote me back. This is still surprising to me.

Not one to be deterred, I discovered through my own research that the Arizona wine region is one of the oldest in the country. Historians believe it was first settled by Spaniards in the 16th century, when missionary Jesuit priests began to plant grape vines and make wine for use in religious ceremonies. Like many states, Prohibition wreaked havoc on wine production in Arizona. Unlike many states, Arizona had gone so far as to ban the production of wine grapes several years prior to Prohibition. The local wine industry lied dormant until the early 1970’s, awakened thanks to the diligent efforts of local university professor Gordon Dutt.

Today, Arizona has 48 licensed and bonded wineries. The southeastern part of the state is promising. Elevation ranges from between 3,800 to almost 6,000 feet, allowing for hot days and cool nights during the growing season. Vinifera thrives in this climate. The soils in the region are acidic, with iron at the surface and limestone beneath.

Most of Arizona’s vineyards are located near Tucson, which is also the location of the state’s only designated American Viticultural Area (AVA), the Sonoita AVA. Technically, there are two other winemaking areas, the Wilcox area in Cochise County, and Verde Valley, which is the wine producing region closest to Sedona and the focus of my trip.

While I was disappointed by the Arizona Grape Growers Association, the sommelier at our resort, Enchantment Resort (and Mii amo Spa), was really fantastic. Some sommeliers are knowledgeable about wine. Some sommeliers are knowledgeable about wine but also clearly love drinking it. This sommelier was my kind of people: a wine drinker.

He informed me that the Verde Valley has its own grape growers association, the Verde Valley Wine Consortium. While it was too late to connect with them for this trip, I look forward to speaking with them in the future.

Enchantment is located in Boynton Canyon. No one knows when the first humans arrived, but the area is an integral part of the creation story told by the elders of various Arizona tribes. Miners, ranchers, and Native Americans settled the area in subsequent years. I enjoyed exploring the hiking trails and ancient ruins, as well as the resort’s world-class dining and destination spa.

The Verde Valley is on the same latitude as Lebanon, Syria, and Armenia, places where grapes were first domesticated and wine first made. The Verde Valley Wine Trail has four wineries and six tasting rooms nestled in the red rock canyons surrounding Cottonwood, Jerome, Sedona, Clarkdale, and Cornville. Our sommelier recommended Arizona Stronghold*, Pillsbury Wine Company, Page Springs Cellars, and Javelina Leap Vineyard. When I had the opportunity to speak with the resort’s Food and Beverage Director, he underscored that Page Springs Cellars is a local gem.

Drought-tolerant, heat-loving grapes succeed in Arizona. As it is for growers in our own state, Maryland, for Arizona growers, the first major obstacle has been finding which grapes thrive. I like Spanish varietals that have done well in South America for Arizona. South American grape growing conditions compare favorably. In South America, most grape growing regions fall in a band between 15 and 40 degrees south latitude, with vineyards in warmer climes generally planted at an elevation.

In Argentina, the majority of the country’s grapes are grown along the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. Grape growers and winemakers concentrate on Malbec, with lesser acreage of Tempranillo. Vineyards in Mendoza are at altitudes ranging from 2,800 to 5,000 feet. In Chile, grape growing regions are located along the high Andes foothills and in the valleys created by major rivers. All of the regions in Chile are impacted by the Pacific Humboldt Current and blessed with a wide diurnal temperature variation. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

As aforementioned, I was very eager to drink a Kief-Joshua. The vineyard’s first planting was in 2005. There are currently around 15 acres under vine, including Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Riesling, Semillion, and Viognier. Enchantment had two on the list – a Malvasia Bianca and a Tempranillo.

Due to my aforementioned bias for Spanish varietals when seeking a good Arizona wine, I selected the Tempranillo, only to find out when I returned home that 50 exclusive cases of the Malvasia Bianca were made and it is impossible to find. I also learned, much to my eternal chagrin, that Malvasia Bianca is predicted to be the signature grape for Arizona.

Pouring salt into my already aching wound, I have now discovered that while Tempranillo is Kief-Joshua’s best seller, it is currently being made with California grapes. The next vintage will be all Arizona grapes, but that’s a small (read: no) consolation to me. My head hurts from banging it into my laptop with shame and regret. That isn’t to say that the Tempranillo wasn’t delicious. It had an almost effervescent quality, with notes of plum, oak, and vanilla.

A Delicious Mistake

While I did not get the opportunity to taste any of his wines while I was visiting Sedona, I would be remiss in penning an article about Arizona and not mentioning Kent Callaghan. Highly favorable Wine Advocate reviews have brought national attention to his vineyard’s wines. Callaghan Vineyards’ 1993 Chardonnay is the highest rated Arizona wine of all time, earning 94 points from Robert Parker, who called the vineyards “one of the best kept wine secrets in America.”

In 2010, Arizona wines were poured at three James Beard House dinners. Iconic Pinot Noir vintner Dick Erath recently resettled in the Green Valley, bringing more than 40 years of vineyard and cellar management experience to the region.

Unfortunately, a good portion of the Arizona winemaking industry was devastated in 2010. An untimely freeze in April significantly impacted anticipated production. A freak August hailstorm ripped through the Sonoita AVA, stripping ripening grapes and foliage from the vines. Growers have struggled to salvage even a fraction of their planned vintage, but I feel confident, given the influence of innovators like Callaghan Vineyard and Kief-Joshua, that the future is very bright for Arizona wines.

Enough about Arizona wine, now back on to excellent Arizona hotels. Enchantment offers more Arizona-produced wine than any other resort or restaurant in the state. It also boasts a wine list that earned Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence. You know how I feel about Wine Spectator, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless, and typically guarantees that you’ll find some unique selections. While I was interested in trying the local favorites, I’m also a sucker for a good library selection, and the resort did not disappoint.

I was on this glorious trip with my mother and sister, both wine enthusiasts and spectacular drinking partners. The running joke between our party and the sommelier became, “you’re drinking my last bottle of that”. He said it so many times, we became very suspicious, but didn’t delight any less in the thought that we were drinking the only remaining bottle of some very special wines.

My favorite non-Arizona bottles of the trip were a 2007 Ramey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a Turley Zinfandel (Dusi Vineyard), a Neyen, and a Conn Creek Anthology. I didn’t write down the vintages of any of the last three – although all were appropriately aged. The only complaint I have now is that the resort doesn’t publish its wine list online. Hoteliers take note: publishing your wine list online is very helpful for lazy wine drinkers and writers. If that isn’t a good reason, and I see you shaking you head that no, it isn’t, consider that for diners like me, viewing your wine list ahead of time helps me decide whether to dine with you. Give me something to look forward to, please!

I certainly look forward to returning to Sedona.

All Delicious

*I must admit that Arizona Stronghold was the wine provided in our rooms, and I didn’t care for it. To me, it didn’t taste like a wine that was fully expressed. It tasted stunted. That isn’t to say that future vintages won’t show better.

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