Three things surprise me about Arizona: they make wine here, they make good wine here, and the desert, under the right conditions, can be as green as a jealous Leprechaun. After all they don’t call it Verde Valley for nothing.
Verde Valley is about 2 hours North of Phoenix bounded on the North by the up-scale, new age, red-rock-inspired woo of Sedona and on the South by the shabby-chic mining-town-turned-artist-community of Jerome. In between is a valley of crushed granite and limestone fed by the confluence of two rivers to which wine grapes seem to take a liking. Combine a temperate winter climate, gorgeous scenery, near a major thoroughfare, and you have the makings of a tourist mecca. Add a burgeoning wine industry and you guarantee the visitors will be well-buzzed and primed to open their wallets for the Southwestern-themed arts and crafts that give this region its character.
Truth be told, wine is not the main attraction of Verde Valley. It’s the mild, desert climate and the valley’s proximity to the famous geological formations of Sedona that bring the hordes to this region. Sedona’s rust-colored rocks provide a stunning backdrop to the main activity that pre-occupies visitors—browsing the countless shops that peddle everything from the latest fashionista garb to intriguing works of contemporary art, usually with a healthy dose of new age spirituality thrown in to add a luster of deep meaning to the transaction. Even if this wedding of spirituality and commerce is not your thing, Sedona is still worth visiting—the hiking trails are superb, and neither the crowds nor the shills can erase the sublimity of these sun-kissed, rust-red buttes and spires that guard the town like a fortress—and there is some genuinely fine local art to be found at the Sedona Arts Center and Tlaquepaque Village.
When you tire of seeking the energy of the vortex, head to the opposite end of the valley to Jerome, where the shopping is more affordable and the vibe is more historical than metaphysical. The good people of Jerome strive to preserve the look and feel of an old working class town, although the weathered, precariously perched buildings are now occupied by galleries, B and B’s, restaurants, and saloons.
With sweeping views of the valley below, and the aura of history that permeates every nook and cranny, Jerome is a photographer’s dream.
Unfortunately, if you are interested in regional or unusual foods that you cannot get elsewhere, the valley is lacking. The food here is competently prepared, eclectic-American style with some occasional, generic Southwestern influences—some chile here, some black beans there. It is hard to find food that is distinctly Arizonan, with the exception of Sonoran-style Mexican food which I will discuss in a separate post.
Happily, all of this art, nature, and history can be washed down by plenty of wine as tasting rooms are opening all over the valley.
The formula for predicting the character of a region’s wine goes like this: Intense heat and lots of sun produce high sugar content and riper fruit which produce big, bold, heavy wines with high alcohol, dark fruit, and low acidity. This is what I expected from Arizona wines but it is not what I got. The wines here tend to be light to medium bodied, with fresh, bright red fruit, exceedingly spicy, with crisp acidity and soft, reticent tannins. Why do Arizona wines flout the formula? I never received a clear answer. Word is that the grape skins are thinner here than in California producing a lighter-bodied wine even with thick-skinned varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon. But I never received an explanation for why that should be—some people think I ask too many questions.
Whatever the case may be, Arizona wines will keep you refreshed and they are very food friendly. The dominant varietals are Rhone reds—Syrah, Grenache, some Mourvedre—but with plenty of Zinfandel, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the occasional Sangiovese. Pinot Noir is rare. White varietals also tend toward Rhone-style blends. Grenache Blanc and Viognier are plentiful, Chenin Blanc is popular as a blending grape, and cool weather whites such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio make regular appearances in blends as well. Winemakers here have fallen in love with blending—although Syrah and Zinfandel are sometimes stand-alone varietals almost all other red and white varietals have several partners. The area’s winemakers manage to coax out remarkable cinnamon, clove and floral notes that produce subtle intriguing bouquets. However, when they go big and try to produce a more robust, fruit forward style, I find the wines too coarse and lacking finesse to enjoy.
Slender and spicy appears to be the path to success here.
With all the tourism in the area, the demand for wine is greater than Verde Valley’s relatively young vineyards can meet. Although most of the wineries use some local grapes, a significant portion of their wine is sourced 300 miles away from Southeast Arizona . We found only one winery—Alcantara Vineyards—that uses exclusively local grapes.
It augurs well for the region that these were among the better wines we tasted. The acreage devoted to wine grapes in Verde Valley is expanding but there is no deep history of agriculture in this area. Whether Verde Valley wines will ever become genuinely regional wines with primarily locally sourced fruit is a matter of debate.
So is this a region that wine lovers should visit?
Yes, if your interests go beyond wine to include arts, crafts, nature or photography. The wine tasting experience here is enjoyable and the wines are interesting, although not extraordinary. Many of the tasting rooms are off-site and busy with tourist trade. The staffs are friendly and accommodating and reasonably well-trained, but we encountered no winemakers in our impromptu, unannounced visits. The information you receive in casual visits is not deep. Tastings are typically $10-$13 dollars for 5 tastes, often with a discount if you make a purchase.
If your passion is to have your aura photographed while sipping a svelte, clove-scented, Rhone blend this may be the best place on earth.:
Here are the wineries we visited:
Cellar 433 (Jerome )
A tasting room selling several lines of wine all made by winemaker John McLoughlin with grapes sourced from their vineyards in Southeastern Arizona. The best overall lineup we tasted in a lovely 3-story tasting room showing local art and with a great view of the valley. Don’t miss their Bitter Creek Emperor, a blend of Grenache, Blaufrankisch, Marselan, and Petite Sirah—soft and elegant with complex spice on the nose and intriguing earth notes.
Page Springs Winery (Cornville)
A very extensive list of Rhone-style wines in a busy on-site tasting room and winery. Vineyards are nestled in a valley that runs along Oak Creek. One of the older, established wineries in Verde Valley, they blend Willcox grapes with their own local grapes. A rural, bucolic atmosphere on the winery grounds, good wines, and a knowledgeable if hurried staff. Don’t miss their ECIPS, a blend of Counoise, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache. Very well balanced and intense.
The only winery we discovered using all locally-sourced grapes from their own vineyards. A pleasant tasting room with a view of the vineyards and river valley. These wines are flavorful but svelte and balanced on the palate. The Merlot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir were noteworthy. This is the only Pinot Noir we found worth drinking—soft and round on the palate with spice and earth on the nose.
Caduceous Cellars and Merkin Vineyards (Jerome)
A comfortable tasting room in Jerome selling coffee and breakfast at 8:00; the wine tasting begins at 11:00. Mostly Spanish and Italian varietals from their Willcox and Verde Valley vineyards. The 2012 Dos Ladrones (a Chardonnay/Malvesia blend) and their 2012 Kitsume (100% Sangiovese) were among the best wines we tasted.
Fire Mountain Winery (Cottonwood)
A comfortable tasting room serving wines from Fire Mountain Winery and also Grand Canyon Winery located in Williams Arizona. Several good wines, especially the Grand Canyon Zinfandel blended with some Sangiovese and Barbera, but overall the list was uneven.
We also visited Javalina Leap, Oak Creek, Pillsbury, and Passion. Although we enjoyed our experiences the these wineries, the wines did not stand out.