Two of the more under-the-radar wine regions in the United States are in the desert of southern Arizona, within day-tripping distance of Tucson. While you might not expect to find fine vino in an arid climate, these Arizona vineyards are producing some excellent-quality reds and whites. Here’s our guide to touring and tasting Arizona’s Sonoita/Elgin and Willcox wine districts.
About a dozen wineries dot the hilly countryside between the small towns of Sonoita and Elgin, 50 miles southeast of downtown Tucson. One of the most established producers along this Sonoita/Elgin Wine Trail is Callaghan Vineyards, which released its first vintage back in 1991. Kent Callaghan, who runs the business with his wife, Lisa, says that many of the region’s wineries are staffed by their owners, so you can often learn about the labels directly from the winemaker. Callaghan Vineyards is best known for its reds, which include the excellent Mourvèdre 2012 and the Padres 2009, a blend of tempranillo, grenache and syrah.
Another husband-and-wife team, Todd and Kelly Bostock, operates the Dos Cabezas WineWorks in Sonoita. At the long copper tasting bar, you can sample their full line-up of wines, from the crisp and flavorful El Campo Blanco, made primarily from locally grown roussanne grapes, to the dark and rich La Montaña, which is 100-percent syrah.
Ann Roncone started producing wine as a hobby years ago while she was working as an engineer in San Francisco. After she turned her avocation into a business, the winemaker and her team at Lightning Ridge Cellars now grow 90 percent of the grapes used in the Italian-style wines. Look for the crisp and dry muscat canelli, the medium-bodied montepulciano and the estate cabernet in their Elgin tasting room.
Where to eat: Sonoita has the wine district’s most sophisticated dining room, though it’s set in an unassuming roadside strip mall. Chef-owner Greg LaPrad left a successful restaurant in Phoenix to open Overland Trout, which serves contemporary Southwestern dishes at lunch and dinner, from Sonoran-style enchiladas with panela cheese to slow-cooked duck confit served with raisin-cranberry chutney. Note that the restaurant is closed on Wednesdays.
In the eastern Arizona town of Willcox, about 90 minutes from Tucson, several wineries have opened tasting rooms on two parallel streets in the historic downtown area.
Walk into the hyper-modern Aridus Wine Company, and you might feel that you’ve wandered from small-town Willcox into a sleek Napa winery. At the tasting bar, you can sample their chardonnay, viognier and syrah.
In a notorious former saloon where Warren Earp — the youngest brother of Wild West icon Wyatt Earp — was shot and killed, Flying Leap Vineyards operates a stylish tasting room and art gallery. They specialize in European varietals including syrah, graciano and verdelho. Flying Leap also operates tasting rooms in Elgin, Bisbee and Tucson.
Keeling Schaefer Vineyards, set in the 1917 Willcox Bank and Trust building that still retains its original tin ceiling, offers tastes of their dry Rhône-style wines, made from estate-grown grapes. Syrah is a specialty; they offer several different varieties.
Just outside of downtown Willcox, two wineries welcome visitors to their tasting rooms amid their vineyards. The area’s most established winery, Coronado Vineyards, operates a tasting room and tapas lounge in a former country club, while Zarpara Vineyard serves samples of their sauvignon blanc, viognier, sangiovese and other wines in the shadow of the nearby Dos Cabezas Mountains.
Where to eat: Dining options in Willcox are casual. Your best bets are the barbecue at Big Tex BBQ, a diner-style joint in a red railroad car downtown, or the straightforward Mexican fare at Isabel’s South of the Border across the street.
Arizona Wine-Touring Tips
Confirm operating hours: Many southern Arizona wineries are open Friday through Sunday only. Check the times before you set out.
Bring a sweater: At elevations ranging up to 5,300 feet, both the Willcox and Sonoita areas are significantly higher than Tucson; and the temperatures, particularly in the early morning and during the night, can be noticeably cooler than in the city.
Taste in Tucson, too: If you don’t have time to venture out along the wine trails, you can sample local wines in the Tucson area. At Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star CORE Kitchen & Wine Bar, the 2,800-bottle wine list contains a small selection of Arizona labels.
Get more information: To learn more about Arizona’s wine touring destinations, contact the Arizona Wine Growers Association.
Photos Courtesy of Carolyn B. Heller