Escape to Sun-Drenched Sonoita for a Unique Wine Experience

Arizona. Everyone knows this is the mecca for sun-drenched deserts, towering saguaro cacti, and ranges of majestic mountains. But rolling vineyards? Absolutely. In fact, Arizona may very well be one of the next up-and-coming wine regions in the country.

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes have been growing in Arizona since the days of the Spanish missions in the 16th century. The elevation and climate of the Sonoita basin, which is located  in southeastern Arizona—about 60 miles south of Tucson—is actually conducive to grape growing. At about 5,000 feet, Sonoita is the recipient of hot, dry days, but cool nights that slow down the ripening process. Unlike the blistering 100+ degree days you hear about in Phoenix, summer temperatures in Sonoita only get into the 80s during the day, and evenings can cool down by 20 degrees.

Sonoita shares a similar Mediterranean climate and latitude to some of its European counterparts, such as the Rioja region in Spain and the southern Rhone region in France. It’s not surprising, then, that the native Spanish grape, Tempranillo, and Rhone-style varieties, such as Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah, thrive in Arizona.

The Sonoita AVA was the first in the state and was founded in 1985. It is home to the wine region called Elgin, which has about 15 wineries and has been recognized as one of the top ten wine trails in the country by USA Today. Sonoita/Elgin wineries also source fruit from neighboring Willcox (just east of Elgin), which produces about 75% of the grapes grown in the state. Willcox received AVA designation this past year, which was a significant achievement for this area. To date, only Sonoita and Willcox have received AVA designation in Arizona, though the state also has a third acclaimed wine region—the Verde Valley—in the Northern part of the state.

The Wine Lowdown

sonoitaBeing born and raised in Arizona, I am particularly interested in the growing wine scene so last October I decided to do some recon with my parents and start with the Sonoita/Elgin area for a short trip. We opted to make the approximate two-hour drive southbound from the Phoenix area to Sonoita/Elgin, and cap off the day at one of the many beautiful resorts in Tucson. (With this first experience under our belts, we now now what we would do next time, and I put together some tips at the end of this post for how to best visit this area.)

With only one day – or really one afternoon – to spend in the area, we unfortunately were limited to only three wineries. We chose Callaghan, Flying Leap, and Dos Cabezas, based on reviews and what I read from other bloggers and journalists. We kept Rune in our back pocket in case we had time, but given its further location, we were doubtful it would make the list given our time constraints.

Callaghan

wp-1484765211573.jpgOur first stop on the tour was Callaghan. Upon arriving, we were greeted by Kiva, an adorable soft-coated Wheaton Terrier. Having just assisted with harvest duties, Kiva barely had enough energy to welcome us before retreating to her bed where she napped for the rest of our visit.

A family-owned winery, Callaghan was established in 1990 with Kent and his father Harold planting the original vineyard. Callaghan wines have received many awards and accolades, and they have been served at the White House on three occasions. Lisa, Kent’s wife, took us through the tasting that included an expansive portfolio of whites, a rose, and single varietal reds as well as red blends.

My favorite white at Callaghan was Ann’s 2015, made of 100% Malvasia Bianca from Willcox. It had floral aromas and minerality similar to that of a Riesling, and it won the third-place medal in the 2016 Arizona wine competition. My favorite reds were the 2013 Tempranillo and the 2013 Claire’s, a blend of estate-grown Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon. Other notable mentions are the 2013 Mourvèdre (which tied for the third-place medal in the 2016 Arizona Wine Competition) and the 2014 Buena Suerte, a Cab-heavy blend that also incorporates estate-grown Petit Verdot, Tannat and Cab Franc.

Spoiler alert: At the end of the day, my parents and I agreed that Callaghan was our favorite winery of the day and that Claire’s received the Vino Voyager gold medal for the day!

Flying Leap

wp-1484765012199.jpgNext, we drove a few yards down to Flying Leap. The name and logo of the winery has important meaning. A variation of the Celtic knot, the logo has multiple representations: three partners, three vine leaves, and an airplane propeller, which is a nod to the three founders’ alma mater, the Air Force Academy. The knot itself represents friendship and tradition and the copper color represents Arizona.

When we arrived, the team was knee-deep in harvest activities so it was clear this is truly a working winery! We tasted a Viognier blend, Sangiovese, Tannat, and a blend called Spanish Fly made of 50% Graciano, which is a native grape in Spain, and 50% Grenache. Spanish Fly was my favorite wine from Flying Leap. I felt it had the best balance of fruit, acidity, and tannins of all the reds.

Vineyard Cafe and Rune

By now, our hunger pains kicked in, and Kelley, the tasting room ambassador at Flying Leap, broke the news that we have to go back into downtown Elgin to get food. We looked at our watches and realized we simply wouldn’t have time to grab a late lunch and hit Rune as well. Kelley recommended we eat at the Vineyard Cafe, then walk a couple of doors down to Dos Cabezas, which was already on our list anyway. Done deal. A tasting at Rune will have to be a next-time visit.

runeHowever, we got lucky. The Cafe had the Rune Grenache on the wine list, with just one bottle of it left. So, we took this opportunity to experience what winemaker James Callahan is producing. The Grenache was the exact style I love with light fruit on the palate and nice pepper notes on the end, making a great match for a BLT with crispy bacon. For a winery whose name means a mark or letter of mysterious or magic significance, it was no surprise that the black-and-white sketch on the label was intriguing and inspired me to check the web site to learn more about Rune. Callahan states that “Wine is the most ancient and influential beverage ever known to mankind. Through its craft, a story of time and place is bottled and consumed. For this reason, every wine has a story……” That it does indeed!

Dos Cabezas

wp-1484764935874.jpgWith bellies full, we meandered down the rustic, southwestern shopping strip to Dos Cabezas, whose inside also evokes feelings of the wild west. You can taste either inside or relax outside on the patio behind the tasting bar. Because the winery would soon be closing down for the day, we opted to settle in at the tasting bar.

Owned and operated by the Bostock family, winemakers Todd and Kelly Bostock make a varied portfolio, and the wines we tasted were made mostly from Rhone-style grapes to include Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah. They also grow Tempranillo, making several blends inspired by the wines of Spain. One of our favorites was the 2010 Rojo del Sol, a Tempranillo, Grenache and Mourvèdre blend. What makes this wine particularly interesting is that it’s a collaboration between the Bostocks and Dick Erath, the Oregon wine pioneer. In 2011, the Bostocks purchased Erath’s Cimarron vineyards near Willcox, which is where the grapes for the Rojo del Sol were sourced. It has a streak of spice reminiscent of the desert heat, but is balanced by juicy fruit inspired by cool-climate Oregon berries.

Our top pick from the line up was the 2012 El Norte, made mostly of bold Syrah and accented with a bit of Grenache and Mourvèdre, also from the Cimarron vineyard. As if the 2012 wasn’t good enough, the 2013 vintage of El Norte recently won the Growers Cup Best Red in the 2016 Arizona Wine Competition. And, their Rosé called Pink, won the Growers Cup Best Rosé. Way to go Dos Cabezas!

Read the full list of winners from the 2016 Arizona Wine Competition!

Tips when visiting Elgin

Want to know what to expect and how to maximize your time in the area? Review these tips based on lessons learned from my first visit!

cactus

Getting There

  • To get to the Sonoita area from Phoenix, take Interstate 10 southbound. You can expect about a 1.5 hour drive to Tucson, then pick up State Route 83 for about another 45 minutes or so to Elgin. I-10 can have a lot of police traps so watch your speed, and if miles of flat, dry desert is your thing, you’re in for a treat. State Route 83 is more picturesque and winding, with pretty vistas and small rolling hills.
  • To break up the boring drive to Tucson, make a pit stop at the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch alongside I-10. Believe it or not, this is one of the largest African Black Ostrich ranches in the U.S.! These South African long-necked natives love desert heat and are right at home in Arizona.

Building the Itinerary

  • The biggest take away I had from my first visit to Sonoita is that you need more than one day in the area, particularly if you want to include Willcox, which I believe would be well worth it.
  • To visit both Elgin and Willcox wineries, make Benton City your base. The two towns are about 80 miles apart, and Benton City is the midway point between the two locations, allowing for easy access to both areas.
  • Don’t expect resort style accommodations in this area. Elgin lodging options are quite limited, but Dos Cabezas has a casita next door that is a good consideration. In Benton City and Willcox, you will find clean 3-star hotels like the Comfort Inn.
  • If, like us, you plan to drive from Phoenix to Elgin for a day of tasting, plan to pack a picnic or stop and get sandwiches at the Vineyard Cafe in the small downtown area before continuing eastbound to the wineries, where food is non-existent. Dos Cabezas is located in the same center as the Cafe so plan to make them your first winery before continuing east on 83 to the other wineries.
  • If you want to add a bit of luxury to your getaway, add an extra night’s stay in Tucson either before or after your wine adventure. This beautiful city, which is home to the University of Arizona, offers many beautiful full-service resorts with native desert botanical gardens, world-class spas, and captivating sunset views.

Tasting Room Facts

  • Most of the wineries are open Thursday-Sunday, so avoid coming during midweek.
  • BYOG. Bring your own glass. Wineries we visited discount the tasting to an average of about $5-8 if you use your own glass. Otherwise, you will pay about $10 but get to keep the glass. And, don’t expect to get your tasting fee back when you make a purchase.
  • If you are active duty military or a veteran, make sure to bring your military ID as the wineries we visited offered a military discount since several military bases are nearby.

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