Devil's Tale

VINO IN THE VALLEY

A sip of homegrown success in Arizona wine country

By Carrie Houghton

The heavenly drink floated over my tongue, leaving behind a soft trail of fruit and sugary bliss.

 

We felt like explorers on an Arizona safari. The yucca-lined road to Elgin transported us from the familiar cactus-filled desert to rolling hills of sand-colored grasses speckled with dark green shrubs. Winding mountain passes unexpectedly revealed wide-open countryside with cattle and horses grazing in the midday sun.

It was a blustery, 80-degree Sunday afternoon in October when my boyfriend, Matt, and I drove scenic Highway 83 through the grasslands of southern Arizona. Here in the heart of Arizona’s wine country, the tallest structures are the circling windmills.

“Are we still in Arizona?” Matt joked as he took in the rows and rows of grape vines. Our palettes and noses were primed for some of the best homegrown wines the state has to offer.

Photo by Amanda Lee Myers
Lisa Callaghan savors the fruits of her vineyard’s labor. Callaghan Vineyards is one of four wineries located in Elgin, Arizona.

Callaghan Vineyards
You could easily drive right past Callaghan Vineyards if you missed the obscure weathered sign leaning against the chain-link fence. From the outside, the building looked like an old-time general store. Inside, it resembled a drafty storage warehouse, with wine-stained oak barrels and white boxes stacked to the ceiling.

Six visitors were sampling the wines. Kent Callaghan, owner and vintner, stood behind the counter, making sure the reds and whites flowed while he educated tasters about his prized wines.

Callaghan explained why wine making is successful in Arizona. “There are actually areas of Spain that mimic the same climate as this area,” he said. “It’s the lack of humidity that makes the months of May and June perfect for grape growing in Arizona.”

The pungent bouquet of the Mourvedre 2002—a cherry-plum liqueur and red licorice—tickled my nose hairs. I let the red wine drench my tongue, roll around the sides of my mouth, and then ease its way to the back of my throat. The creamy sweetness was capped with a slight bite.

One of the vineyard’s best whites is Kevin’s Cuvee 2001, which Callaghan describes as having a “smoky popcorn and lime scent.” This sweet white has a firm finish that will delight those who like wine with character and zest. Another must-try is Junior 2002, a creamy red with the taste of chocolate, spice, and black cherry. 

Unlike other wineries in the area, Callaghan bottles his reds and some whites without filtration to help preserve their natural flavor and texture. President and Mrs. Clinton once served his Buena Suerte Curvée Vintage 1993 at a White House dinner.

Although Callaghan and his wife opened their winery to the public only three years ago, they have grown grapes on this land since 1990. It takes a long time to grow flavorful grapes and produce high-quality wine.

Host a wine-tasting party

Be the toast of your social circle by inviting people over to sniff, swish, and spit. A wine-tasting party is a low-stress way to have a get-together in your home while giving people the chance to become wine connoisseurs. These tips for hosting a party will make heels click and glasses clink.

Wine: Serve enough varieties of wine to suit a full range of tastes. Have at least six bottles for the tasting—three whites and three reds. Start with the lightest whites and gradually move up to the heaviest red. This will keep the flavors of a strong wine from overpowering a lighter wine.

Cheese and chocolate: To bring out the flavor notes and make the individuality of each wine stand out, pair each bottle with a cheese or chocolate. Visit Gourmet Sleuth for hints on pairings.

• Bread:
Put out some chunks of French bread for guests to nibble on between bottles. This will cleanse their palates and prepare them for the next wine. Drinking water in between tastings helps too.

• Glasses:
Chances are you won’t have enough wine glasses for each guest to have a glass for each separate wine. Leave pitchers of water and buckets out for rinsing glasses between wines.

• Buckets: Leave some out in case guests actually want to spit out precious wine. But who really spits anyway?

• Pens and index cards: Clearly label each bottle of wine, cheese, and chocolate. Provide guests with pens and index cards so they can make notes about what they taste and pairings they like and dislike. Provide lists of terms and taste descriptions so guests can translate the sensations that tantalize their tongues. The point of the party is to become savvier wine saveurs, but if people get too tipsy, have designated drivers.

Sonoita Vineyards
Dr. Gordon Dutt, a former soil scientist at the University of Arizona, started the first experimental vineyard in southern Arizona more than 25 years ago. Today Sonoita Vineyards bottles about 3,000 gallons of wines each year—all by hand.

Like the Beatles song, it was a “long and winding road” up to Sonoita Vineyards, set atop a tawny, grass-covered hill. Two sleepy dogs greeted us on the front porch, their ears and noses twitching in the breeze.

Inside, shiny bottles of wine lined a white tasting stand. A talkative man with gray hair and glasses poured us each a drink. “We tend to start people with the lighter and fruitier wines,” said Geoff Smith, the owner’s cousin. “As you go along, you generally graduate up to the drier reds.”

Smith poured a peach-colored wine called Angel Wings. The heavenly drink floated over my tongue, leaving behind a soft trail of fruit and sugary bliss. The light aftertaste coated my throat with a gentle sweetness and a hint of sin. Another favorite is the Arizona Sunset, a semisweet, fruity blush wine. 

Yvonne Downs, wearing jeans and dangling turquoise earrings, gave us a tour of the winery. She showed us the bottling room and the area where the grapes ferment in giant steel vats and oak barrels from Kentucky.

“The wine sitting in these barrels now will be the first estate wine we’ve had in five years,” Downs said. “That means it was grown, made, and bottled all right here on the Sonoita estate.”

Matt was intrigued by the bladder press machine, which presses and filters the grape juice, leaving behind seeds, stems, and sediment. Unlike Callaghan Vineyards, Sonoita filters its wines. It’s the final step before the juice is hosed into the huge fermentation vats.    

From the winery’s balcony, we had a first-class view over the vineyards. The soil in this part of Arizona is almost identical to that in Burgundy, one of the world’s great wine-producing regions.

Downs pointed to the rows of grapes. Sunken in a slight valley was an aging barn where Dutt made his first wines.

The Village of Elgin is the only winery where people still stomp grapes, just like in the movies.

Village of Elgin Winery
At our final stop of the afternoon, Matt and I walked through an old wooden gate into the courtyard of the Village of Elgin Winery. Inside the wood-paneled building, built in 1895, we tasted four wines. The most memorable was the winery’s specialty, Tombstone Red. The best-selling Arizona wine, this dynamic blend of a sweet light white and a powerful dry red created a pleasing balance of subtly with a bite. Matt and I agreed it was our favorite wine of the trip. But we also enjoyed the Village of Elgin White Cabernet Sauvignon, another specialty that melds pomegranate, pineapple, and cherry flavors.

Owner-vintner Gary Reeves and his wife, Kathy, began making wine here in 1995. Before that, they had worked with Dutt at Sonoita Vineyards. They planted their vineyard here after concluding that southern Arizona’s red clay soil and mild climate were better for growing grapes than Northern California’s.

The Village of Elgin is the only winery where people still stomp grapes, just like in the movies. This helps maintain the purity and flavor of the grapes.

The winery uses a more modern method to bottle its wines. “We have the only completely automated bottling machine in the state,” Reeves said proudly. “There’s no human contact from the time the bottle is put on the machine to the corking of the wine.” The automated system eliminates the possibility of contamination.

“Oh, and if you ever want to go scuba diving, let me know,” Reeves said as he handed us each a business card for Divers of the Cortez. Like the rare combination in his Tombstone Red, Reeves is a wine master in southern Arizona and a dive master in the Caribbean.

As Matt and I headed home after an afternoon of educating our taste buds, cottony clouds filled the approaching night sky. They looked as though they had soaked up some of the very wine we had just sampled, drenching the desert sky with rich shades of burgundy and pink.


Photo by Amanda Lee Myers
Don’t fly to France to experience a vineyard visit. A trip to Arizona’s wine country offers a taste of local whites and reds along with wide-open spaces.

IF YOU GO

Elgin, Arizona

Getting there
From Phoenix, take Interstate 10 east toward Tucson. About 17 miles east of Tucson, get off at the Highway 83 exit (Sonoita/Patagonia). Drive south on Highway 83 for 24 miles. You’ll pass through the town of Sonoita. Go four miles and take a left at Elgin Road, which is marked by a large “Elgin Wine Country” sign. 

Distance
325 miles round-trip (6 hours)

Getting oriented
Elgin is a rural town surrounded by cattle ranches and a few wineries. It you’re looking for food, stop in Sonoita. The Steak Out Restaurant and Saloon (520-455-5205), Café Sonoita (520-455-5278) and most eateries close early on Sunday. Café Sonoita will open for groups of 10 or more on Sunday if given a few days of advance notice. For overnight lodging, try the Sonoita Inn (800-696-1006 or www.sonoitainn.com), which features local artwork, artifacts, and historical photos.


Callaghan Vineyards

Getting There
After taking a left at Elgin Road, drive about three miles. This winery is easy to miss, as there’s only a small rusted sign on the left side announcing Callaghan Vineyards. 

Wine tasting
It’s $3 per person to sample the reds and whites. You can keep the 18-ounce wine glass. Samples of chocolate and bread enhance the wine-tasting experience. You can purchase wine. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy while sipping wine on the front porch. 

Don’t miss
Mourvedre 2002, Kevin’s Curvée 2001, Junior 2002.

Hours
Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.–3 p.m. 

Best time to visit
Spring, summer, and fall

Contact info
336 Elgin Road, Elgin, AZ 85611; (520) 455-5322 or www.callaghanvineyards.com


Sonoita Vineyards

Getting there
Take a left at Elgin Road. Four miles past the Village of Elgin Winery, turn right at the Sonoita Vineyard sign. Go 2.5 miles up a winding dirt road to the winery on the top of the hill.

Wine tasting
Free tastings. Free tours of the winery throughout the day or on request. The gift shop sells wine, T-shirts, and art prints. You can bring a picnic lunch and enjoy views of the vineyards from the upstairs balcony.

Flavor notes

Feel like a novice when it comes to nipping Napa? Want to make sure your Riesling goes with the right thing? Visit the Food Network for hints how to taste wine and pair wine with food.

Don’t miss
Arizona Sunset, Angel Wings.

Hours
Daily 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Best time to visit
Spring, summer, and fall

Contact info
HC1 Box 33, Elgin, AZ 85611; 520-455-5893 or www.sonoitavineyards.com


The Village of Elgin Winery

Getting there
After taking a left at Elgin Road, drive about 4 miles. The winery is on the right side in the center of Elgin, which isn’t very big, so you might easily drive right through it. 

Wine tasting
A suggested $1-per-person donation.

Don’t miss
Tombstone Red, Village of Elgin White Cabernet Sauvignon

Hours
Daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Best time to visit
Spring, summer, and fall

Contact info
The Elgin Complex, HC1 Box 47, Elgin, AZ 85611; 520-455-9309 or www.elginwines.com

 

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