VINO IN THE VALLEY
A sip of homegrown success in Arizona wine country
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.
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
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
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
Best time to visit
Best time to visit
Best time to visit
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