Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Desert Reflections: Wine and Wilderness in Arizona

I recently spent nearly two weeks gallivanting around the Arizona desert. It was a much needed respite from DC — these days it feels like living in the middle of a slow-moving, 20-car pileup. And, while I love this town, I need to flee it most frequently, for the ocean, for the mountains, for the desert, for winelands.

Views like these are why I hit the trails in Arizona.
While I was hiking down the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the Colorado River, in between gasping at the incredible views and pounding lots of water, my mind fired off plenty of questions. One popped up, and I thought about it for a while: Why do I write about wine? With so many pressing topics I could spend my writing time on, why fermented grape juice?

I came up with a pretty straightforward answer: I write about that which I love to discover. And I love discovering intense physical experiences within natural surroundings. I thrive off the sensory input. Riding waves in the ocean, swimming in rivers, hiking into canyons, searching for wildlife in the desert, tasting wine. That last one may not seem like it belongs with the others, but when you immerse yourself in the process, wine appreciation can be every bit as exhilarating as a hike or a wave. And wine from a specific place can tell you so much about what makes that place distinct.

Arizona is home to more than 80 wineries, according to the
Arizona Wine Growers Association. According to the TTB, Arizona produced almost 200,000 gallons of wine in 2012 (roughly one-fifth the quantity of wine from Virginia). So there’s not a lot of it to go around, and you’re not likely to find much AZ juice shipped out of the state. But the state’s wine industry is growing and living up to its potential. I’ve been traveling to Arizona and tasting wine for about six years now, and the quality these days is superb.

Like wine from every state, there is plenty of uninspiring juice. You can find plenty of weird-tasting pinks and sweet sangria-style bottles sold for $10 or so. But unlike wine from every state, Arizona boasts exceptionally good wine in the $15-$25 range.

What makes Arizona wine so good? Here are four factors to consider.

High elevation

I love Napa Cabernet from mountain vineyards. But you’ll see the term mountain thrown around when the vineyard sits at around 1,000 feet in elevation. In Arizona, most vineyard are planted around 3,500 to 5,500 feet in elevation. This is how wineries in Arizona are able to produce wines that show a striking sense of freshness and balance, because the temperature is moderated by the increased elevation. Vineyards planted on a valley floor would be scorched. But there are vast slopes and high plateaus that provide the all sorts of enticing places for vines to thrive. 

Page Springs Vineyard, located in Arizona's Verde Valley appellation, is home to some of the state's most dynamic wines.

The best Arizona vineyards are planted in areas that achieve plenty of sunshine and heat during the day, but cool down quite a bit at night, providing the vines with needed rest and the resulting wines with more balance and freshness. News flash: It gets hot as hell in parts of Arizona. The first time I visited Verde Valley to taste wine, it was more than 100 degrees outside and this winter-lover thought he was going to suffocate. But cooling winds and the diurnal temperature swings (much of this related to the high elevation), really help moderate this brutal climate.

Arizona gets only about 13 inches of rain a year, in two distinct wet seasons. Winter storms that make their way inland from the Pacific Ocean provide winter rains. But Arizona also gets what locals call monsoons — fast moving heavy bouts of rain pulled inland from Mexico. These storms usually occur between June and August, when grapes are in the midst of key ripening stages, providing much needed water. Rot and mildew are less of a worry here than in far more humid climates, because the desert terrain usually sops up heavy rains very quickly. Much of the rain gets flushed out through mountain washes and streams that can go from bone dry to rushing overnight. 

It's a dynamic and harsh landscape, but the plants that eke out a living are incredible species.


There's limestone in them thar hills.
Vines planted in limestone soils soak up so much verve, minerality and vibrancy, which can be tasted in the finished wines. (If that sounds crazy, well, we should taste 10 wines from limestone vineyards... it will be a delicious and enlightening experience.) Limestone soils contribute to the pristine nature of many wines from Burgundy. Arizona has limestone soils all over the damned place. Driving north from Phoenix into the Verde Valley appellation, I saw sheer cliffs of crumbly limestone peppered with saguaro cacti and palo verde trees. I climbed a limestone-encrusted peak in Tonto National Forest, and came back with boots coated in white limestone dust and dusty red earth. 

Cochise County, located in the southeastern part of the state and home to many of the state’s best vineyards, is loaded with limestone as well. Limestone Mountain, a 7,000-foot peak, is one example of the area’s stunning landscape.

But the soils are incredibly diverse. Think of Arizona as arbitrary political lines drawn around a giant insanity of rock formations. Sandstone, granite, red clay, sandy loam, and all sorts of rocks and minerals that I have never heard of before. Winegrowers have plenty of options to plant all sorts of wine grape varieties. And Arizona growers have been working hard to match rootstock, grape variety and soil in order to grow high-quality fruit. In the right hands, these grapes can be made into delicious wines that express their specific vineyard sites in a strong way.


Arizona has a long wine history — Jesuits planted the first grapevines here in the 1500s. Pioneers in the 1800s and early 1900s also planted vineyards for wine near Sedona’s Oak Creek. The Arizona Wine Grower’s Association (formed in 1983) traces the history of the modern Arizona wine industry to the early 1980s, “following the development of experimental vineyards by the University of Arizona. Led by
Dr. Gordon Dutt, studies were completed demonstrating the feasibility of various wine growing regions. In 1982, a collection of new laws enabled the Arizona Farm Winery Act. The first licensed wineries in Arizona were formed shortly after the enactment of the new law. Dr. Dutt himself formed Sonoita Vineyards, the first winery of this modern era.”

Arizona rocker and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan gets a lot of credit for bringing larger attention to Arizona wines. He’s behind the successful and delicious wines of Caduceus (located in Jerome) and Merkin Vineyards, and has partnered with several other key figures in the Arizona wine industry. More and more wineries are popping up, and many of them aren’t taking the tourist trap tasting room route, but applying modern vineyard and winemaking techniques to produce exciting and tasty Arizona wines, usually in small quantities. The blending prowess of many Arizona vintners is impressive. It’s not uncommon to find delicious red or white blends made from 10 or more grape varieties. Your average GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) might include a handful of lesser known Rhone grapes (like Counoise), some Spanish grapes (like Graciano), even some Italian grapes (like Barbera).

I bought almost as much Arizona wine as I could find while exploring this gorgeous state. That love of discovery paid off, as I found some very tasty bottles. Out of the few dozen wines I tasted in all, only one was bad (and it was flawed by very high volatile acidity). Here are some of the Arizona wines I liked from my recent trip. (Detailed tasting notes on a Page Springs tasting coming soon.)

2015 Page Springs Cellars Vino del Barrio Blanca - Arizona
Light yellow color. Smells like peaches, green melon, nectarine, a tropical burst with some sea salt, lilies, new tennis ball stuff going on. Plump but fresh on the palate with bright acid and a pleasantly honeyed texture. Peaches, green melon rind, wax candles, a pungent white flower note, some sea salt, honeyed green tea. Complex but so gluggable, a great combination of richness and freshness. 47% French Colombard, 23% Grenache Blanc, 17% Malvasia, 11% Roussanne, 2% Vermentino. A great example of the Arizona blending and experimental ethos, with delicious results. (88 points)

2015 Page Springs Cellars Mule’s Mistake - Arizona, Cochise County
What a fun and delicious red blend. Light strawberry color with aromas of strawberries, raspberries, pepper, spice rub, rhubarb and leather. Medium-bodied with zesty acidity and smooth, silky tannins. Bright red fruit and mixes with tobacco, pepper, cherry cordial, red licorice – a cool combo of fresh flavors. Drinks like a Beaujolais-Villages, has spice like a Rhone blend, but it is pure juicy Arizona fruit. So good for the money. A kitchen sink blend of Sangiovese, Grenache, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Couoise, Malvasia, Merlot and Mourvedre. (87 points)

2013 Page Springs Cellars Grenache Neutral Oak Page Springs Estate Vineyard - Arizona, Yavapai County
Medium ruby color. Smells like strawberries, pomegranate and red apple peel along with sagebrush, dusty earth and warm mulling spices. Fresh and crisp with medium/light tannins and a pure setting of crunchy red fruit (strawberry, cranberry, pomegranate). Notes of warm clay, tobacco, dusty earth, pot smoke, rose petal and rocky minerals add all sorts of complexity. Wow, this is phenomenal stuff. (91 points)

2012 Dos Cabezas Wine Works El Norte - Arizona, Cochise County
A peppery, beefy, smoky nose with plenty of black cherries and blackberries. Full, dark and saucy but has a bright streak as well. Blackberries and roasted plum fruit topped with pepper, anise and leather. A bit light on the tannin for the weight, but very good, plenty of rich fruit but complex non-fruit elements as well. A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. (89 points)

2014 Dos Cabezas Wine Works Red - Arizona, Cochise County
Medium ruby color. Smells like violets, sage and roasted earth on top of sweet red berries. Full but smooth, light tannins, medium acidity, a bit of candied fruit but the overall feel isn’t sweet. Plums, currants, loaded with violets, green herbs and smoke. I need to seek out more wines from this producer for sure. A blend of all sorts of kitchen sink red grapes, a good intro to the red blends of high elevation vineyards in Cochise County. (87 points)

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise - Arizona, Cochise County
Vibrant ruby color. Juicy aromas of cherries, raspberries, red plums, red clay earth, creosote, oregano and pine – these descriptors may sound quixotic, but this wine seriously smells like hiking in the Arizona high desert (something I did plenty of on this trip). Plummy, juicy cherries, sweet raspberry fruit on the palate with medium/light tannins and moderate acidity that keeps it fresh, light, but not unstructured. Complex elements of clay, sage, dusty red earth and pepper. So good for the money, but this is a near-term drinking wine. 46% Syrah, 26% Grenache, 13% Petite Sirah, 10% Mourvedre and 5% Counoise. (89 points)

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Dala - Arizona
Light purple. Aromas of plums, black cherry ice cream, coffee, vanilla, roasted earth and red clay. Full and juicy on the palate, chewy style with moderate acidity. Juicy black cherries and plum fruit mixed with violets, cola, roasted coffee and clove. An easy-sipping style, vibrant but packed with juicy fruit. A solid buy for my palate over many other American Cabs in this price range. (87 points)

2015 Caduceus Cellars Merkin Vineyards Chupacabra - Arizona, Cochise County
Medium ruby color. Smells of juicy red and black cherries, with roasted earth, clay, sage and pepper. Silky on the palate, but does have a bit of grip. I love those Cochise County notes of warm clay, roasted earth and desert herbs. Juicy plums and red currants offer plenty of deliciousness, while non-fruit complexity offers much to contemplate and lots of food pairing options. A blend of 45% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre. (90 points)

2012 Callaghan Vineyards Graciano - Arizona, Sonoita
$ - Unsure, maybe $20-range?
A cool find by my father-in-law, who visited this winery. It’s high on my list to visit on my next trip back, but I was excited to try a Graciano from Sonoita, and I started thinking about comparisons between this area of Arizona and northern Spain. Anyway, this smelled like roasted plums, dark cherries, violet petals, white pepper, gravel and a note that reminded me of a pottery kiln. Full on the palate but very smooth with medium acidity. Plums, cherry pie, cranberry sauce, at 15% this fruit is full-throttle and serious, but I also get complex elements of dusty earth, roasted herbs, anise, black licorice ropes. Rich but nuanced, this has held up well and I bet it could continue to improve for a few more years. Unique and delicious stuff, I don’t think I’ve come across a 100% Graciano from anywhere in the US, let alone Arizona. (89 points)

The Superstition Mountains offer incredible hikes - summiting this was equal parts challenging and rewarding.

Sedona, Arizona is one of my favorite places to explore. Lots of great hikes, lots of great wines within an hour or two's drive.


  1. Love this! I am going to bookmark it for future reference!

  2. Thanks Elizabeth - let me know if you ever need recommendations. I've become a full-on Arizona evangelist.

  3. Man -- I can't wait to get out to Sedona in June. Already in touch with the folks at Page Springs and Arizona Stronghold, but will check into the others you reco.