Published September/October 2013

Arizona's Grape Expectations

If you think California is the closest wine country, it’s time to swirl, sip, and savor Sonoita’s selections

BYStephanie R. Conner
Napa Valley. Tuscany. Bordeaux. Hunter Valley. Sonoita. Surprised by that last one? Southern Arizona’s wineries admittedly have a ways to go before achieving the recognition of the world’s finest vintages. In the meantime, these 11 area vineyards continue to strengthen the area’s collective reputation as a worthy destination for enthusiasts who know a good grape when they taste one.
 
Upon arrival in Sonoita, less than 50 miles southeast of Tucson, you’ll quickly realize that you’re in a unique part of Arizona. Ranching once dominated these grasslands, which have since given way, at least in part, to vintners. Welcome to the state’s only wine grape-growing region with American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation, where you’ll find the sights as delicious as the sips.
 
From the Ground Up
Sonoita Vineyards opened in 1983 as the area’s first established winery, just four years after the vineyard was planted. Winery founder Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist, is largely responsible for the region’s AVA designation, which helps define the origin, quality, and characteristics of the region. As more growers make their way into the area, they make the same discovery Dutt did: The Santa Cruz Valley offers both ideal soil for growing grapes, and, at an elevation of 4,800 feet, the warm days and cool evenings are also ideal conditions for these crops.
 
Today Dutt’s granddaughter, Lori Reynolds, is the winemaker and winery manager at Sonoita Vineyards. She strives to continue her grandfather’s legacy of great wine and is pleased with the industry’s boom in recent years. “Everyone has a different winemaking style,” she says. “You can see what other people’s ideas are.” And with a wide variety of area vineyards and wineries to explore, that seems like a perfect idea.
 
More Than Just Vines
For a balanced and earthy visit to the region, fill your mornings with sightseeing and exploring before the wineries open — operating hours vary, but most open by 11 a.m. Just 30 minutes northeast of wine country, for example, you’ll find Kartchner Caverns State Park. With advance ticket purchase, you’ll be able to enjoy a guided tour of its beautifully colored rock formations.
 
Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains, is another choice destination. This road trip, less than an hour each way, takes you through Sierra Vista and into The Nature Conservancy’s beautiful 380-acre preserve. Wild turkeys, deer (which are not easily spooked), squirrels, and birds abound. Additionally, Sierra Vista is known as the hummingbird capital of the U.S., and a wide variety of hummingbirds, songbirds, and butterflies fill the preserve.
 
If you’d rather stay in town, you can always plan a horseback-riding adventure or take a nature hike. Then, grab lunch at The Cafe, a local favorite that serves sandwiches, salads, and pastas, before starting your tour of the wineries.
 
The Elgin Road Quartet
Elgin Road is home to four wineries, and is something of a jackpot for wine enthusiasts. Start the afternoon at one of the largest family-owned wineries in Sonoita, Rancho Rossa Vineyards. With its first wines dating back to 2004, Rancho Rossa offers a full range of varietals, including sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, rose, grenache, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon. And the winery boasts it doesn’t purchase any fruit or supplemental wine.

Farther east, you’ll hit Callaghan Vineyards, one of the veteran wineries in the Sonoita AVA. Winemaker Kent Callaghan planted the first vineyard with his parents in 1990, and since that time his wines have earned a number of awards and have even been served at White House dinners

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Callaghan Vineyards
Callaghan Vineyards
Sonoita Vineyards
Sonoita Vineyards
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