Wines Of The Desert: Southern AZ Road Trip!

I realize that Christmas is only days away, but this here post is sort of like my book report (or maybe wine report) on How I Spent My Thanksgiving Vacation. …and I think it may make some of you a bit jealous.

Instead of overloading on turkey and stuffing over Thanksgiving weekend, the Karate Kid and I opted to overload on wine! We took a little road trip down to Southern Arizona’s wineries to taste and taste til our hearts were content.

It’s been a while since I posted about AZ wine, so for those of you who are new to W2WK, and not from the fine state of Arizona, then I’d like to answer the question that is likely lingering in your mind. YES! Yes, Arizona DOES have wineries! Quite a few of them, actually!

Road Trip Goals

We set out with modest goals for this wine tasting road trip:

Goal #1: Visit all 14 of the Sonoita/Elgin area wineries.
Keep in mind that Southern AZ has two major wine regions – one is in Willcox and the other is Sonoita/Elgin. Both are south of Tucson off of Interstate 10. We only had time for one region and opted for Sonoita/Elgin.

az wine regions-sonoita emphasis

Goal #2: Commemorate trip with a few bottles to take home.
Buy a few bottles to commemorate the trip – particularly those that are hard to come by in the Phoenix area (where this Wino lives). We didn’t have a strict budget on bottle purchases… but perhaps we should have.

Goal #3: Support some local Sonoita/Elgin business.
Most everything in this area is “local” business – not much corporate presence in Sonoita – population of 818 – or Elgin – population of 162 – as of 2010.

Yes, yes we are.

Yes, yes we are.


How Well Did We Do?

Goal Number #1: Visit all 14 of the Sonoita / Elgin area wineries.
We didn’t quite achieve this goal, but we came close. We visited 8 of 14. On Day 1 of tasting, we hit up 5 wineries. Thanks to a driving service, we were both able to taste and consume each pour. Now, I’d like to think I can consume a fair amount of wine – as can the Karate Kid. But we were back at the hotel by 3:30p, and barely got up to eat dinner. Southern AZ, thanks for your generous tasting pours.

Below is a list of the wineries we visited. Each winery was unique in its wine as well as the general tasting experience. I must note that I did not expect the tasting rooms to be very busy. But for the most part, they were packed full. We never had to wait in line for a tasting, but we certainly rubbed shoulders with wine tasters (not a bad crowd to rub shoulders with, if I do say so myself!). Here’s the list of where we went and the order of our tasting experience.

Wineries circled in red are the ones we visited.

Wineries circled in red are the ones we visited.

(Day 1 Tasting)

Lighting Ridge Cellars: At Lighting Ridge, we met one of the owners of the winery who was conducting the tasting. This was the first stop of the first day and we were the only people in the tasting room. We really enjoyed talking with the owner and learning about the wines and his and his wife’s decision to open a winery in AZ. They also have beautiful cellar with a gorgeous dining table for private events. Their wines are made in the style of Italian wine, and we both enjoyed all those available to taste. We ended up 4 bottles from Lightning Ridge.

God I love these wide open spaces of Arizona.  This is from Lightning Ridge Cellars.

God I love these wide open spaces of Arizona. This is from Lightning Ridge Cellars.

Rancho Rossa Vineyards: I enjoyed openness of Rancho Rossa’s tasting room. They also had a big old fish tank behind the tasting bar and a few friendly dogs wandering around. Although it was quite busy while we were there, the staff remained friendly and personable and was able to share a good deal of information about their wines. Rancho Rossa’s red wines stood out most for me – we ended up with a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wilhelm Family Vineyards: This winery had a very small but cozy tasting room with a friendly staff. Here you could choose 5 (or maybe 6?) wines to taste from their extensive wine list. Much of their wine list included dessert wines and Ports, which neither the Karate Kid nor I opted for at first. But as we finished our last pour, the staff insisted we taste a Port before leaving… who are we to say no to such requests!? But sheesh, we were we glad we did so! Wilhelm’s dessert wines and Ports are definitely worth trying – they offer really interesting flavors that could be compared to drinking cake or dessert (in the tastiest possible way). We left with 1 red and 2 Ports.

AZ Hops & Vines: This place was like the cool kids club. It had a very youthful feel to it (albeit with people of all ages) and a friendly crowd. Wine was tasted with cheese puffs and potato chips instead of the more typical salty crackers. (And since this was our 4th tasting of the day, you know that I was chowing down on those cheese puffs.) Their wines have some pretty untraditional names – one is called “The Fluffer”.  Someone had to explain to me what that was. If you don’t know what it means, I don’t recommend you Google it. Anyway, they were out of tasting glasses while we were there, and instead offered glasses with lovely handpainted designs by the owner’s grandmother. (The irony of having “grandmother” in a sentence just after “fluffier” is not lost on me.) All in all, we really enjoyed the reds of AZ Hops & Wine. We ended up with two bottles from here.

Wine and cheese puffs.

Wine and cheese puffs.

Dos Cabezas Wineworks: I gotta admit, I think by the time we got to this tasting room, my taste buds (and speech) were no longer in working order. The tasting room is pretty much in “downtown Sonoita” – I’m not sure they actually call it that. The town consists of a gas station, feed store, general market, and I think 3 restaurants. So anyway, it was a beautiful and busy tasting room. I really enjoyed the large variety of red wines at Dos Cabezas – all having their own flavor. We walked away with two bottles (and a wine poster), but will have to retaste these with fresh senses to really recall its delight.

Day 1 of tastings ended here… and Day 2 began at Sonoita Vineyards.

Sonoita Vineyards: Sonoita is among the first of AZ’s wineries, and has a very sizeable tasting room and fantastic outdoor patio seating. That said, the tasting room was packed – bachelorette parties and other parties were present. While the staff was friendly, we seemed to be there at the peak hour so we learned less about their wines than at most other wineries. However, they didn’t have a set tasting list – instead, we were guided through the options based on whether we leaned towards sweeter or drier wines and/or lighter or fuller bodied wines.

Flying Leap Vineyards: Flying Leap wins the award for enthusiasm. Mark, one of the owners, was in the tasting room and wanted to share pretty much everything he could about his winery and the winery’s philosophies with us tasters. His enthusiasm was contagious and made you want to stick around and taste even more. We really enjoyed their wines – particularly the reds. And walked away with a bottle of their 2011 Grenache as well as their Zinfandel.

Kief-Joshua: And lastly, we stopped at Kief-Joshua Vineyards, which is located next door to Flying Leap. This one is open later than most wineries in the area, which is why it was last on our list. But it was, apparently, last on many people’s list – the tasting room was packed. We really enjoyed their wines – particularly the reds. But I think because it was so busy, we didn’t get a chance to learn much about them.

Our Wine Trip Booty

Our Wine Trip Booty

There were two primary measures by which we judged our experiences – and both the Karate Kid and I had the same “favorites” for both of these measures:

1 – The Wine Tasted – this is based on our preferences for flavor and taste, as well as any unique characteristics we found in the wine. Note that we did enjoy the wine from all wineries – and bought at least one bottle from each! Our favorites, in no particular order, included:

  • Lightning Ridge Cellars
  • Wilhelm Family Vineyards
  • Flying Leap Vineyards
  • Kief-Joshua Vineyards

2 – Tasting Experience – this is based on the friendliness of staff, information offered about the wine/vineyard/winery, and how enjoyable it was to spend some time in the tasting room. These wineries made it even more fun to taste wine…

  • Lightning Ridge Cellars
  • AZ Hops & Vines
  • Wilhelm Family Vineyards
  • Flying Leap Vineyards

Now – the question is – does friendly service make wine taste better? Based on our very informal assessment above, and my gut feeling – YES!! Wine, in my humble opinion, is always better in good company – especially the company of people who can tell you about the work that went into making that wine.

Goal #3: Support some local Sonoita/Elgin business.
Upon return to the Valley of the Sun, we tallied up our spending and confirmed that we did a fine job of supporting the local Sonoita/Elgin economy. Some favorite experiences:

Sonoita Limo: This was a local limo service that drove us from tasting room to tasting room. Dirk was our driver and he was as nice as could be – big, ol’ cowboy hat and all. Every tasting room greeted him warmly as he entered and proceeded to watch us get increasingly tipsy. (Note: In checking their website, looks like they’re going out of business… boo.)

AZ Horseback Experience: We went on a 3-Hour guided trail ride on horseback that ended at Sonoita Vineyards. The horseback experience included not only the horse to ride, the fantastic and informative guide (Val), but it also included lunch and a bottle of wine from Sonoita Vineyards! This was a beautiful way to see the countryside.

Trail riding to wine!

Trail riding to wine!

The Stage Stop Inn:A quaint hotel in the town of Patagonia – about 20 minutes from Sonoita. Pleasant rooms and lots of “common area” lounges.

The Wagon Wheel Saloon: A great little bar that seemed to be a stop for many locals. I especially enjoyed their karaoke on Saturday night, which included a fine mix of country songs and latin music.

• We also enjoyed a fine breakfast at a charming local coffee shop called Common Grounds in Patagonia.

• Finally, I will also be sending Patagonia Magistrate Court a little money for the pretty little speeding ticket they offered me. Keep your eye on the speed limit out there, Winos! What seems like regular old highway driving may actually be a 35 mph zone. (And of course, no wining and driving.)

Perhaps a more complete picture of our booty.

Perhaps a more complete picture of our booty.

If you are considering a Southern AZ road trip, I definitely recommend some winery visits! Let me know if you’ve visited any of these wineries and what your thoughts are! Also, as we consume these bottles, you can bet there will be some Divine Wine posts about them!

Divine Wine of the Desert: Zarpara Sauvignon Blanc

Today’s post on a “Divine Wine of the Desert” is a twofer…. Since it is an Arizona wine that I consider “divine”, it gets categorized as both a “Wines of the Desert” post and a “Divine Wine Sunday” post. (Yes, I know it’s Monday. I’m running behind.)

I was introduced to this lovely bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at the Willcox Wine Festival. After taking a bottle home and finding that I was savoring every sip, I felt the need to highlight it here on W2WK.

Zarpara Sauvignon Blanc

Zarpara Sauvignon Blanc

Divine Wine of the Desert: Zarpara Sauvignon Blanc

Price Range: $26 from Zarpara Vineyard

Wino Assessment: I am typically “wowed” by red wines more often then white wines. But when I first tasted this one, I had to take that mental pause before enjoying the  second and third sips to make sure I wasn’t just thinking that I liked it as much as I did. But it was confirmed by the time I had a full glass. I really loved this Sauvignon Blanc. The winemaker’s describe it as “crisp and bright”. I definitely agree – but I think that’s an understatement. To me, it was more complex than many Sauvignon Blancs I’ve tried. While it was easy to drink, the bottle seemed to developed with each glass. (In fact, I mentally marked it as a red wine drinker’s white wine for this reason.) It was very aromatic and I tasted honeysuckle-like flavors in addition to crisp pear flavors. I really enjoyed it immensely…

Winemaker’s Tasting Notes: I’m a sucker for great life change stories… So I must share. As explained on their website, the Zarpara Vineyard owners retired from the “daily grind” to start their own vineyard in Cochise County (southern Arizona) where they planted vines and started making wine. And this Sauvignon Blanc is their first wine from grapes harvested solely from their vineyard.  To that I say, Bravo!

Ok, back to the wine.  Zarpara describe it as:

“Crisp, bright, and bursting with citrus and pear on the nose and palate.”

They also note that there were only 37 cases of this wine produced, so it might be tough to find.

UPDATE: For you Phoenicians, Zarpara Vineyard commented below that their Sauvignon Blanc is available at Wedge and Bottle in Ahwatukee.

Divine Bite: Sauvignon Blanc is a very “food-friendly” wine. It is a dry white and can accompany spicy foods and other dishes with strong flavors. Because the wine is low in acidity, it is enjoyable with foods that have high acidity, like goat cheese or tomatoes. Try this with a salad that includes an acidic cheese. It also pairs very well with most seafood dishes. I enjoyed this bottle with grilled Mahi seasoned with Chesapeake Bay seasoning and some steamed vegetables. The winery recommends having their wine with garlic marinated shrimp or with feta cheese and some olives. Enjoy!

Wines of the Desert: Willcox Wine Festival Favorites!

Arizona Winos gathered together this past week at the spring 2013 Willcox Wine Festival! This little wine gathering made for a great weekend trip and served as an opportunity to taste lots of AZ wine…

Willcox is a tiny little “old west” style town in southern Arizona. And when I say, “tiny”, I mean it. It’s 6.1 square miles in size. So, along with my fellow festival-going Winos, we walked about 1/6 of the city!  Well, stumbled through 1/6 of the city, really. But close enough. Willcox is about a 3-hour drive from Phoenix, or an hour east of Tucson. Which means it is pretty much in the middle of nowhere…. In the middle of nowhere surrounded by vineyards…. It’s like my dream nowhere. As discussed here on W2WK before, Willcox and Sonoita are together Arizona’s largest wine growing region. So twice a year, the local winemakers pop a tent in Willcox’s Historic Railroad Park and start pouring wine!

Willcox Wine Festival

Willcox Wine Festival

There were 16 Arizona wineries participating in the festival. I wish that I had been able to try all the wines or at least one from each of the wineries. But alas, I have neither the tolerance to consume that much in one afternoon, nor the discipline to taste and spit. So, I ended up trying some wines from about half the wineries represented.  The following were my favorites from that sampling. And yes, I am aware that this is probably some sort of breach in proper surveying when using terms like “some” and “about half” for my survey pool.  But whatever.  I know you Winos are just looking for fun wines to try either way.

Zarpara Vineyards – Sauvignon Blanc

This Sauvignon Blanc is 100% Arizona grown grapes and is the first year that this wine is available. Which means, it will likely be tough to come across. If you see one somewhere, snag it… even if you don’t fancy yourself a white wine drinker. And be on the lookout for more from Zarpara in the coming years! I’ll write more about this wine in a future post, but note that it was my favorite white of the day.

Page Springs Cellars Central Coast Pinot Noir

The Pinot Noir from Page Springs Cellars is made from grapes imported from California. It has that perfect level of earthiness for a Pinot with some nice fruit flavors as well. I can’t wait to pop open a bottle of this one and enjoy more than just the little taste!

Carlson Creek – Sweet Adeline Riesling 

This Riesling might turn me into a regular Riesling drinker. It was sweet but in such a soft, velvety way and finished with a sort of crisp appley flavor. I really enjoyed it.

Arizona Stronghold – Lozen

The 2011 Lozen is the newest release from Arizona Stronghold and is a fantastic big, dry red. Definitely pick up a bottle of this when you see it in the stores!

Willcox Wine Festival

Willcox Wine Festival

Two more things that I’d like to highlight from the festival that are non-wine related:

  1. “Real” cowboys were wandering around everywhere. It was awesome. Cowboys and wine… there’s a country song in there somewhere.
  2. The band that played while I was at the festival was pretty fantastic. Check them out – 13 to the Gallows.

Let me know if you get a chance to try any of these wines, or if you were in Willcox last weekend and tasted something else that you’d classify as your “festival favorite”!

Wines of the Desert: The Pillsbury Wineboy

Pillsbury Doughboy

We all know about the Pillsbury associated with the Macy’s parade and canned dough (how is it that bread from a can can be so tasty?!). But who is familiar with Arizona’s Pillsbury Wine Company?

The first thing to love about this Arizona vineyard and winery is that the first sentence in the “About Us” section of their website states: “Pillsbury Wine Company is the evolution of a Dream-Come-True project by New Zealand by Film Director and Winemaker Sam Pillsbury.” Who doesn’t love a Kiwi and a Dream-Come-True project?! So what about Mr. Pillsbury’s wines…

Pillsbury Logo

Pillsbury Wine Company’s vineyards are located in southern Arizona’s high desert, just north of the Mexican border. This area has summer temperatures averaging in the mid-90s by day, but drops by 30 degrees at night. To compare this to other wine-growing regions of the world, the temperatures are similar to that of France’s Rhone region and the altitude similar to some of Argentina’s growing regions. Kinda makes this Wino wonder why no one had thought of growing grapes in AZ before Mr. Pillsbury and his fellow AZ wine countrymen. (But we’re glad they’re here now.)

So what do I find especially cool about Pillsbury, besides the fact that it’s a Dream-Come-True project, of course? Well, all of their wines are produced with 100% Arizona grapes. I must note that I haven’t yet done the research to determine how many other wineries produce wines solely from AZ grapes, but it is common practice to purchase grapes from other regions and “mix-and-match” the imported grapes with local grapes to make wine. But Pillsbury is proving that AZ can grow grapes worth drinking. And it seems that Ms. Jancis Robinson has discovered this as well. Ms. Robinson, who authored the Oxford Companion to Wine (a regular resource here on W2WK), has just come out with a new book called, American Wine, and featured Pillsbury’s wines in the book. It’s happening, fellow Zonies… the wine industry really is here!

Pillsbury Wine Company

Pillsbury Wine Company

This winery has a great mix of red and white wines, accompanied by great wine names. A few examples include:

  • WildChild Red – a Merlot/Zinfandel blend
  • Diva – a Syrah blended with a touch of Petite Syrah
  • Rose ‘One Night Stand’ – mostly Zinfandel with a little Riesling
  • Symphony – a cross between Grenache Gris and Muscat

Pillsbury has several other wines as well, and you can read about all of them here. Give them a try! For W2WK readers in Arizona, check out Pillsbury’s tasting room in Cottonwood, AZ (about 90 minutes north of Phoenix). Or check out this link for shops that sell bottles and restaurants/bars that sell glasses. Who knows… a few sips of Pillsbury wines may make you as happy as the dougboy always appears to be!

Wines of the Desert: Arizona’s Wine Regions

This is officially W2WK’s inaugural post on Wines of the Desert!  I’m (sort of) a native of Arizona… and a few years ago when I heard there were wineries scattered around the high deserts of Arizona, I was just as shocked as anyone!  Of course, my shock was a shock of delight.  (That said… as noted in an earlier W2WK post called “Fifty Wine-ifty United States“, we learned that every state in the country actually produces wine!) Anyway, as wine-loving citizen of this state, who happens to have a blog, I feel it is my duty to learn more about it and share it with you, Interweb World.

Since this is the first post on Arizona Wines on W2WK – and, quite frankly, the first time I myself have looked into the Arizona wine industry – I figured a good place to start is at the beginning. Where does Arizona actually grow these grapes to produce its wine?!

Arizona currently has three main wine growing regions: (1) Sonoita, (2) Willcox, and (3) Verde Valley.  Why are the wineries located in these regions? Well, primarily because it isn’t blistering hot like it is in the center of the state (around Phoenix). These three areas are “high desert” areas, which means the temperature is cooler (relative to other parts of the desert), but the air is still dry. This causes the vines to struggle more than they would in a climate with more moisture. I’m sure you’re asking or thinking, “Why do viticulturists stand by and allow vines to struggle?” It’s not because they’re mean. It’s because at heart, they’re just a bunch of Winos and want the best grapes to make the best wines. A vine in its natural habitat would grow and grow, as vines do, spreading out and growing new roots and leaves, but producing  fewer bunches of small, tart grapes. (Not ideal for wine making.)  Struggling vines, however, receive a steady, but restricted, supply of water. This keeps the vine from spreading out and growing big leafy stems, and forces it to focus on making juicy little vine babies. And to do this, it must give more of its nutrients to its vine baby device – grapes.

AZ Wine Regions (from

AZ Wine Regions (from

So… back to Arizona and its wine regions. They are located in areas where the vines will naturally struggle due to the dry, warm air at elevations that range from 3,800-6,000 ft. (Note: “Warm” here is relative to other wine-growing regions of the world… we Phoenicians flock to areas like AZ wine country in the summer, because 95 degrees is a relief compared to the 115 degrees in Phoenix). So let’s see what each of these regions has to offer…

Sonoita: Sonoita is located south of Tucson in the southern region of Arizona. It is Arizona’s only designated American Viticulture Area (AVA) (W2WK post to follow on this topic!). Sonoita has approximately 12 wineries and tasting rooms in the region. Click here to see a map of Sonoita wineries.


Willcox: Willcox is also south of Tucson, but further east from Sonoita. This area also has about 12 wineries and tasting rooms. Click here to see a map of Willcox wineries (aka Southeastern AZ).

Verde Valley: This area is north of Phoenix but south of Flagstaff and has approximately 10 wineries and tasting rooms.  Just slightly further north of Verde Valley, in and around Sedona, there are additional wineries.  In general, Northern Arizona has approximately 24 wineries and tasting rooms! Click here for a map of Verde Valley wineries.

So there you have it. The AZ Wine Regions… they are few and far between, but they exist and are growing quickly. Looking at all these wine maps makes me want to go on a wine tour around the state! And I plan to do just that and report back here on this blog under “Wines of the Desert”.

Sources for this Arizona Wine Know: Arizona Wine Growers, Arizona Wines and Vines Magazine