The Sonoita AVA is the first Arizona AVA we visited, so it will always be special to us for that reason. That was back in 2011 and I remember being astonished to discover high-elevation grassland in Arizona dotted with windmills, grazing horses, cattle and antelope. I was even more surprised by the sight of vineyards growing in what looked like a prairie.
As we drove from Willcox to Sonoita in May I felt the anticipation of returning to those familiar rolling hills and grasslands. By May the grass had dried to a beautiful straw color. Windmills were spinning madly in the breeze and rustic, iron sculptures welcomed us to the area. It was unmistakable…this is cowboy country.
Return to Xanadu
Where there are cowboys there will be horses. On our last visit to Sonoita, Peter found a bed and breakfast called Xanadu Ranch GetAway with quiet accommodations on a horse ranch. The Bunk House provides a comfortable room with a kitchen and deck overlooking the wide open spaces.
Happily, five years later Bernie and Karen Kauk are still operating their hybrid B&B and we enjoyed a longer, very relaxing stay. We love Xanadu because it’s quiet and close to town and, of course, wine tasting.
Nothing beats being able to watch sunrise and have breakfast on the deck. We spent many an evening sipping Sonoita wine and enjoying the changing colors of sunset. Ebony, the resident Tennessee Walker, passed by regularly to say hello on her way to the large pasture she shares with the deer that pass through.
Sonoita AVA (American Viticultural Area) is the first Arizona AVA to be designated in 1984 after the efforts of Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist, determined the area was a good location to grow wine grapes commercially.
Much like the Willcox AVA, the Sonoita AVA is a high-elevation basin ringed by mountains. The Santa Rita, Huachuca and Whetstone mountains surround the basin, which sits at 4500 to 5000 feet above sea level.
Growing conditions in the Sonoita AVA are unpredictable at best. Spring frost is always a threat. Monsoons between July and September can dump large amounts of water in a small amount of time. That’s not the biggest problem though, soils here drain quickly, but when those monsoon rains are accompanied by hail significant crop damage can ensue.
Because the growing conditions are a bit more predictable, and the price of land is more affordable, vineyard acreage in neighboring Willcox AVA has outpaced acreage in Sonoita. The Willcox AVA now produces about 75% of the wine grapes in Arizona. Those Sonoita winemakers who do not also own vineyards in Willcox generally source some of their grapes from the neighboring AVA.
Wine Tasting in Sonoita AVA
Tasting rooms in the Sonoita AVA lie between the small towns of Sonoita and Elgin and south along Highway 83 and Elgin-Canelo Road. Driving between wine tasting rooms will give you a feel for the beautiful rolling hills and grassland. Keep your eyes peeled for antelope.
We visited a couple of our favorite wineries and found two new wineries we enjoyed very much.
Dos Cabezas WineWorks
Dos Cabezas is our gateway Arizona winery. It is the first Arizona winery we visited on that first trip to Sonoita and where we met our friend JR in 2013 on our second visit. We enjoyed the wines made by Todd and Kelly Bostock back then, and we still enjoy them today. We always stop to taste at Dos Cabezas when we are in the neighborhood.
With vineyards in both Sonoita and Willcox, the Bostocks have positioned themselves to take full advantage of the southern Arizona terroir. Blending is Todd’s strength and on this visit we particularly liked the White, an aromatic blend of Viognier, Malvasia, Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Albariño and Grenache Blanc and the Pink (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Graciano and Picpoul Blanc). At $19 per bottle these are complex wines for sipping regardless of the season.
The 2013 El Norte, $30 and a blend of Garnacha, Monastrell and Syrah, is full of bright red fruit with a bit of grip. We also loved the 2014 Toscano and the 2014 Águileón, which is a Tempranillo/Graciano blend.
Part of the fun of tasting wine at Dos Cabezas is to discover what’s new, because there is always a new project. Fun and portability are important factors to the enjoyment of wine for the Bostocks. They were the first Arizona winery to put their wine in cans. And they won Best in Show with their Methode Canpenoise at the 2017 azcentral Arizona Wine Competition in January of this year.
The name, Methode Canpenoise, is a play on méthode champenoise. It is a sparkling wine made by inducing the second, bubble producing, fermentation in the can. Yes, in the can, a 1-liter can. When the judges at the azcentral Arizona Wine Competition tasted the sparkling wine they did not know it was made in a can.
The wine fun continues beyond Dos Cabezas WineWorks as well. Todd and Kelly are partners with longtime friends Brian and Megan Ruffentine in Garage-East located in Gilbert, 150 miles north of Sonoita. The name, Garage-East, makes light of Brian’s difficulty pronouncing garagiste.
Todd makes all of the wine at Dos Cabezas in Sonoita and they are “packaged” at Garage-East. A variety of wines are on tap at Garage-East for enjoyment by the glass. For wines to go, once again cans come into play as do glass bottles with crown caps. But don’t mistake wine fun for winemaking that is not serious.
We stopped by Garage-East and enjoyed a delightful tasting with Brian. Several other groups were in the tasting room at the same time and there was a lot of laughter in the room. We recommend a visit if you are in Gilbert.
Deep Sky Vineyards
We visited the Deep Sky Vineyards tasting room on Elgin Road on a Friday morning and were fortunate to find owners Kim and Philip Asmundson in the tasting room.
Malbec is the grape variety that led Kim and Philip to vineyard ownership. First in Mendoza, Argentina where, during a trip to celebrate Philips 50th birthday, they purchased a vineyard in the Vines of Mendoza development.
As they learned about Mendoza they discovered many similarities to southern Arizona where the couple lives. The two regions are located at the same latitude, albeit it in difference hemispheres. Elevation and climate are similar as well.
It wasn’t long before Kim found an opportunity to purchase a vineyard in Willcox where they now farm 15 acres planted to Malbec, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Viognier and Counoise. Farming is very high-tech in the vineyard. Philip, no doubt, will share those interesting details with you when you visit too. 2010 was the first vintage they made in Argentina and 2013 the first in Arizona.
In April 2017 the Asmundsons opened their tasting room on Elgin Road and they have begun planting a vineyard there as well. Two clones of Cabernet Sauvignon have been planted with Cabernet Franc and possibly Merlot to come. The Bordeaux varieties will balance the mainly Rhône varieties planted in Willcox.
The Deep Sky name comes from one of Philip’s hobbies — taking photographs of celestial objects beyond our solar system. The names of their wines follow a similar theme. The colorful labels are designed by Thomas Ale Johnson of TRUST Art & Design with input from Philip and Kim.
James Callahan, who makes wine under his own label, Rune, makes Deep Sky wines as well. Philip works closely with James in blending and aging decisions. They experiment with picking time and yeast choices for fermentation as well.
Philip has been a serious wine collector for 35 years and his palate was set to a very high standard from the beginning of his wine experience. Unlike most of us, he had the good fortune to learn about wine by tasting Château Lafite, Château Latour and Mouton – as a teenager. These were the wines that accumulated in his father’s wine cellar; gifts received by a man who preferred Scotch to wine.
In general, Deep Sky red wines are aged two years in oak, always French, and a mixture of new and used. The wine is aged a further six to 12 months in the bottle before they are released.
A few highlights of our tasting include the 2015 Aurora (100% Viognier), 2014 Supernova (a blend of Mourvèdre and Counoise) and 2015 Big Bang (100% Malbec). You will always find both varietal wines and blends on the Deep Sky tasting menu.
Periodically Kim and Philip pour the wines they make in Argentina at the tasting room in Elgin. Those wines are made under the Asmundson Family Vineyard label and provide an interesting opportunity to compare Malbec from both regions. We came back the next day for that tasting.
We were impressed with the complexity and fruit flavors of the Argentinian wines. 2015 Dark Matter is 100% Malbec that was farmed for a higher yield in the vineyrd. Aging is in neutral French oak and the result is a lighter, fruity Malbec. 2014 Lakawa is 100% Malbec that was farmed for a lower vineyard yield. Oak aging is 50% new French oak resulting in a fruit-forward wine with hints of barrel spice. We finished the tasting with the 2012 Lakawa, which has 5% Cab Franc added to the Malbec, and 50% new French oak aging. Then, just because Philip had a bottle open, we tasted the 2011 Lakawa as well. Delicious. Mature fruit flavors and smooth tannins reflect time in the bottle.
Both the Deep Sky and Asmundson Family Vineyard wines are made to age. If you are a fan of Malbec, or are curious about the variety, then a stop at Deep Sky is a must.
Rune Wines or Rune with a View
Rune: A mark or letter of mysterious or magical significance. Wine is the most ancient and influential beverage ever known to mankind. Through its craft, a story of time and place is bottled and consumed. For this reason, every wine has a story…
Like many skilled winemakers, James Callahan’s journey as a winemaker has taken a winding path. It began in Tempe, AZ, with turns in Walla Walla, WA and the Wairarapa region of New Zealand. Kosta Browne in Sebastopol, CA then followed before he returned to Arizona in 2012 to make wine at Aridus Wine Company. James founded Rune Wines in 2013.
In addition to making his own wines at Rune and those at Deep Sky Vineyards, James also makes wine for Pillsbury Wine Co. in Willcox. He is a very busy winemaker.
The Rune Wines’ sign along AZ-82 directs you off the highway to a gravel road that culminates in a dirt parking lot. A young vineyard stands between the parking lot and the wide open space of grassland and mountains in the distance.
Several modest buildings are punctuated by solar panels. The winemaking operation at Rune is, as they put it, “off the grid.” No fancy buildings here, but enough solar power to get things done.
Wine tasting at Rune Wines is an outdoor experience when the weather permits. The day was warm and breezy when we visited in May and the outdoor tasting room, framed by the tasting bar and overhead canopies came with that spectacular view of grassland and mountains I mentioned earlier.
Every Rune wine bottle label tells the story of a different character, one that continues from one vintage to the next. The labels are very distinctive and the first I’ve seen that continue a story with each vintage.
James sources grapes from the Willcox area as he waits for his young vineyard, planted to Viognier, Grenache and Syrah, to mature. In general the grapes are grown organically, he uses native yeast for a slow fermentation and neutral oak for aging. The Rune wines we tasted were very aromatic with layered and complex flavors and lots of texture, yet they are light on their feet.
The youngest wine we tasted was a 2016 Rosé. From the 2015 vintage we tasted Viognier (sur-lie aged in neutral French oak and stainless steel for 12 months), 2015 Grenache (sourced from the Pillsbury Vineyard), 2015 Wild Syrah (a co-ferment of Syrah/Viognier, Syrah/Roussanne and Syrah/Malvasia) and 2015 Petite Sirah (which is co-fermented with a bit of Viognier to kickstart fermentation).
We came home with just about one of everything we tasted. All are now gone, shared with friends who were impressed by every wine. The one Rune wine that remains is a bottle of 2015 Grenache sourced from the Colibri Vineyard, which we purchased without tasting it. I have read about the Colibri Vineyard over the years, so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to purchase this wine at Rune. We will open it soon. Stay tuned.
Other Wineries to Visit
Callaghan Vineyards is one of the oldest vineyards established in Elgin. Kent and his parents planted their vineyard in 1990 and Kent has been dealing with the harsh and unpredictable weather of the Sonoita AVA ever since. Kent’s wines have been served at the White House and won many awards.
The tasting room and winemaking facility are not fancy, just the way I like them. No pretense, just delicious wines and lots enthusiastic tasters.
At Kief-Joshua Vineyards you will likely find Kief Manning pouring his wines (another busy winemaker). In addition to 20 acres in Elgin, Kief purchased 40 acres in Willcox and recently completed a winemaking and tasting facility on the property. Soon all wines be sourced from estate vineyards.
If you’re lucky there will be a food truck serving barbecue when you visit. Grab a glass of Sangiovese and enjoy a pulled-pork sandwich. Look for the BBQ flag flying out front.
Flying Leap Vineyards has something for everyone…a range of wines and a distillery. The name comes from the three co-owners’ connections as pilots and you will find their wine bottle labels to be quite whimsical and unique. This fast-growing winery also has a vineyard in Willcox, in addition to the Estate Vineyard in Elgin, and several tasting rooms.
Beyond wine tasting there is hiking and birding near the artsy town of Patagonia (also excellent shopping) just 20 minutes away. Kartchner Caverns State Park is only a 30-minute drive and offers hiking in addition to cave tours. Sonoita is an area that is worth exploring on many levels. We have enjoyed every visit to Sonoita and feel there is still much left to explore. We will be back.