Wine on the Prairies in Arizona

We are spending a week in Scottsdale, AZ. while our house sitter enjoys our air conditioning and HBO back home. Yes, I know it is really hot here now, but we enjoy the heat and the hotel bargains are too good to pass up. In general, we hike early in the day, like 6 am, and spend the rest of the day pursuing indoor activities like museums, shopping and drinking margaritas. Last year, we discovered a restaurant in Scottsdale called FnB which, in addition to preparing delicious meals, features Arizona wines. We were unaware there was that much wine production in Arizona, but the owner of the restaurant, Pavle Milic, opened our eyes to several wine growing regions in the state. We decided then that we would begin learning about Arizona wines. Pete and I have been doing a bit of reading about the two growing regions, one south of Tucson between Willcox and Sonoita/Elgin and the other up north in the Cottonwood/Jerome area. Saturday we drove down to the Sonoita area to wine taste and were pleasantly surprised.

The desert around Scottsdale is fairly typical with Ocotillo, Saguaro, Barrel Cactus, Cholla, Creosote bushes and the like. In August the desert is very dry. As you drive south to Tucson, the elevation increased to about 2500 feet and the desert changes as well. The desert becomes greener around Tucson and the Saguaro become very numerous. The Sonoran Desert Museum within the Saguaro National Park on the west side of Tucson is amazing. There are indoor exhibits and outdoor trails. It is a combination of a museum and a nature park. There is a lot to be learned about the Sonoran Desert flora and fauna. It is absolutely worth a stop. You can easily spend most of the day there. We didn’t stop on this trip, but have been there on previous trips.

South of Tucson, we took Highway 83 south. The road is marked as a Scenic Highway and it did not disappoint. The scenery became greener as we drove with more trees, rolling hills and a few small pine trees. The trees eventually gave way to rolling grasslands. I was astounded to find what looked like the midwestern prairie in southern Arizona. The waist high grasses are green and wave in the breeze, only the buffalo were missing! There are several iron sculptures of cowboys and cattle along the road instead. The elevation in this area increases to about 4500 to 5000 feet.

The temperature was only about 90 degrees, compared to 110 in Scottsdale. Needless to say, the reason the grassland is so green is due to frequent rain. One of the winemakers told us they receive between 5 and 15 inches per season, the season being from June to August! The ground was wet owing to thunderstorms the night before. Weather is the big variable for wine growers in this area. Last year many growers lost most of their crop to an unusually heavy hail storm in August.

Around Sonoita there are at least 10 wineries with tasting rooms. We had decided ahead of time to try Dos Cabezas WineWorks, Lightning Ridge Cellars and Callaghan Vineyards. All are within a 10 or 15 minute drive of each other.

Our first stop was Dos Cabezas WineWorks. The Summer tasting featured five red wines and a fortified red dessert wine. In addition to being recommended by Pavle, we noticed that Dos Cabezas sources grapes from Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi. We have tasted Bokisch wines at tastings Liz Bokisch put on and enjoy them very much, so we were curious to taste the wine made from their grapes. Dos Cabezas also sources grapes from Casey Hartlip of the Eagle point Ranch in Mendocino, CA as well. They grow about 30 varietals themselves and were in the process of harvesting when we were at the winery. Kelly took us on a tour and there were several large bins of Grenache awaiting crushing in the winery and a truckload of grapes arrived while we were tasting.

In general, I would describe their style of wine as a lighter red with a lot of flavor and light tannins. The color of most of the wines was lighter, not being over extracted. The Grenache blend (2009 Red) had definite Grenache flavors and the Syrah blend (2009 El Norte) had a pleasant smoky nose and rich ripe flavors. In general, they are good red wines for hot weather and would pair well with a variety of food. The 2009 Montana, a blend of equal parts Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, stands out among the other lighter red styles. It is riper, darker and more complex. The production is small, only 75 cases.

Kelley, co-owner of Dos Cabezas with her husband and winemaker Todd, gave us a lunch recommendation that can only be described as interesting, Grasslands Cafe, but it filled the void! After lunch we moved on to Lightening Ridge.

We were greeted at Lightening Ridge by Bruna, a very large, friendly Great Dane (I’m talking canine here). Lightening Ridge makes wines in the Italian style and was pouring five wines, three of which are from Estate grown grapes. They grow classic Italian varietals: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano, Primitivo, Malvasia and Muscat Canelli. Their vineyard is located at a 5100 foot elevation. These wines were a bit darker in color and tasted riper. Although these wines were not among my favorites of the day, they did have a pleasing amount flavor and tannins and none were poorly made. One of note was the Muscat Cannelli of which neither of us usually care for. It had a real nice burnt orange flavor, very pleasant. It was made in an almost dry style which was really nice. We did not get to taste the Montepulciano as it had been sold out. Pavle had recommended this wine very highly.

Our next stop was Callaghan Vineyards. This tasting room was very quaint, being staffed by a slightly skittish labrador mix, the owner/winemaker Kent Callaghan and his daughter. The back of the building was filled with cases of wine, and our wine tasting was interrupted when the winemaker needed to go change the water on the grapes! It was great. We chatted with other wine tasters and generally enjoyed the ambiance. Kent, naturally, is extremely knowledgeable and chatted with us the entire time he poured wines. He talked climate, varietals, grafting and it was during this time that we learned his entire 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon crop was lost to hail. Kent is also a big proponent of screw caps and all of his wines have them. We had a real interesting conversation about bottle closures and a book recommendation from Kent, “screwed for good” by Tyson Stelzer.

Among the things we found interesting about these wines was ability to taste Mourvedre blends. The 2009 Mourvedre is 85%, with 15 % Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 Claire’s is 54% Mourvedre, 23% Syrah, 23% Zinfandel. The 2008 Back Lot is a blend of 54% Mourvedre, 36% Syrah and 10% Zinfandel. Pete’s favorite of the group was the Claire’s while mine was the Back Lot. Interestingly, Callaghan sources some Syrah grapes from El Dorado County, not far from where we live. El Dorado County is in the foothills to the east of Stockton.

Our favorite wine of the group was the 2009 Buena Suerte, a 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot 10% Cabernet Franc blend. The flavors were complex, fruity and spicy with good tannins. We will be ordering this wine when they are shipping again in the fall.
In general, these wines were darker, had more fruit flavors and tannins. Some are higher in alcohol, with the Syrah as high as 16 %, though our favorite comes in at 13.8%.

We intended to make this our last stop, but in talking with Kent, we decided we needed to go next door to Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery to meet Wayne. The stop was very worthwhile! When I say we went next door to Canelo Hills, that is literally what I mean. We drove out Callaghan’s driveway and down the road about 100 feet or so into Canelo Hills driveway. How convenient.

We were greeted by Wayne and Cheryl, who were sitting in for the Vineyard owners, Tim and Joan. Wayne and Cheryl are two very interesting people who know wine, food and grape growing. Wayne is a retired Professor, publisher of multiple text books and other books of interest and attendee of the CIA at Greystone (Napa). Wayne has been learning about grape growing and has been assisting Kent Callaghan, next door, with his Grenache varietal in particular (hence the 2009 Wayne’s, a 100% Estate Grenache). Unfortunately Callaghan’s was not pouring the 2009 Wayne’s. We will put that on the list for our fall order.

The tasting list was comprised of two whites and four red wines. Of the lot, the 2010 Pinot Grigio stood out for it’s floral nose and flavors. Not like so many flavorless Pinot Grigios I’ve tasted in some areas. The 2008 Sunrise, a blend of 50% Nebbiolo and 50% Syrah was also interesting with some complexity and flavors.

This wine trip ended up being as much about the people as the wine. This wine region is small, relatively uncrowded and allows the taster to spend time, often with the wine makers themselves. It is a chance to learn about grape varietals, growing conditions, bottle closures, politics, food and much more. The scenery was surprising and beautiful. This trip was a surprise on so may levels and the wine in general did not disappoint either. We are very glad we made the trip to the Sonoita area and will return again to Sonoita and on to the Willcox area as well in the future.


  1. Pingback: Callaghan Vineyards – Elgin, Arizona | Pull That Cork

  2. Please let us know when you head down toward the Willcox area for wine tasting. We are located in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains and we would love to have you taste our wines and tour our special place. We look forward to a visit soon. Peggy

    • Unfortunately we won’t make it to Wilcox on this trip. We plan on staying in Tucson or Sonoita on our next trip, however, instead of Phoenix. Then we will be spending time in the Wilcox area tasting wine. We had a lot of fun in Sonoita and Elgin with a lot of nice wines and are looking forward to exploring Wilcox, too.

  3. We will have a post on northern AZ wineries in a day or so. Quite a difference in the climate and geography. You will see some pretty eclectic blends from the north.

  4. I don’t know about the combination of grape varietals and politics (sounds bad for the belly), but it was very interesting to hear of the Arizona wine industry.