There aren’t many places that more clearly symbolize the Wild West than the deserts of southern Arizona. Most places look relatively unchanged since the days that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp made the area their stomping grounds. Given the wild history of the area, it seems only fitting that Arizona serves as one of the current Wild West spots in the wine world.
On a recent family visit to Arizona I was able to carve out a day to make a very brief survey of the area’s local wineries. Although the trip was too short to really get too much insight into the Arizona wine industry, it was enough to get a little bit of the local flavor and to learn a bit about the area.
Star Power Shines a Spotlight on the Industry
If it wasn’t for one celebrity winery owner, most people outside of Arizona wouldn’t even be aware that the state produced wine, and the impact that Maynard James Keenan has had on the local industry is evident everywhere you go.
The story of the Tool frontman’s foray into the Arizona wine industry has been spread through various channels, but was probably most widely consumed in the form of the documentary Blood Into Wine, which tells the story of the founding of Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. Although the partnership between Keenan and Eric Glomski has since dissolved, with Glomski keeping the rights to the Arizona Stronghold name, Keenan has remained involved in his other Arizona wine projects, Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards. Additionally, Keenan has maintained control of the actual vineyard portion of Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, which he has renamed Buhl Memorial Vineyard after Albert K. Buhl, founder of Dos Cabezas WineWorks.
The choice to name his vineyard after one of the Arizona wine industry’s pioneers says a lot about the way that Maynard Keenan has integrated into the industry, becoming a core member of the community, and not just a celebrity figurehead. When I talked to people at the various wineries that I visited, everyone spoke of Maynard with respect and appreciation for what he’s done for the local wine business. The one fact that is inarguable about his involvement is that he has brought a lot of publicity to Arizona wine with his high profile.
Kennan isn’t the only well-known name that has become associated with the local wine scene though. Oregon Pinot Noir Pioneer Dick Erath has also dipped his toe into the Arizona industry.
Spanish is King
I will repeat that I only made a quick trip to taste at a handful of wineries, but in that short trip I found that Spanish varieties seem to rule the land. Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Monastrell were found on the tasting notes at all of the wineries that I visited. There is a lot of cross-over between Spain and France’s Rhone Valley, and some of the best wines that I had were actually Rhone whites, specifically Viognier.
The Arizona wineries seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion to the wineries of Texas regarding ideal varieties, but skipped the years of planting grapes that don’t really work well with the local climate. The majority of the wineries seem to have been founded in the last few years, and it seems like many are focusing on varieties from Mediterranean climates, which seems to fit them well.
A Couple of Stand-Outs
Dos Cabezas Wineworks
My tasting trip was planned mostly on convenience and was a bit of a last minute affair. That being the case, I was fortunate to start off the trip with one of the wineries that was on my shortlist of Arizona wineries to visit.
My initial interest in the winery stemmed from having read about Dick Erath’s involvement in the industry. Dos Cabezas Wineworks, which is currently owned by Todd and Kelly Bostock, has worked closely with Erath, purchasing most of their fruit from the vineyards that Erath founded in the 1990’s. In addition to their main label wines, they have partnered with Erath on a separate label, Cimarron, which can also be tasted in the tasting room in Sonoita.
The wines were pretty solid across the board. I particularly enjoyed the 2012 Toscano, a Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc blend, and the 2010 Cimarron Rojo del Sol, which is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Monastrell.
Bodega Pierce / Saeculum Cellars
We also visited some wineries and vineyards in an area called Kansas Settlement, which is around Willcox, Arizona. One of the wineries that I visited there was Bodega Pierce, where I found a Washington connection with the owners, Dan and Barb Pierce. It turns out that Dan had studied through the Washington State University Enology and Viticulture program, and had spent some time working for Owen Roe.
The tasting room also pours the wines that are produced by the Pierce’s son, Michael, under his Saeculum Cellars label. These wines featured some of the most striking labels that I saw while I was in Arizona.
I had the treat of tasting a variety that I had never had as a single variety wine, in the Bodega Pierce Bianca. This wine is 100% Malvasia Bianca, which I have previously had in a blend from Arizona Stronghold, but have never tasted as a stand-alone wine. The other wine that stood out most during the tasting was the 2012 Saeculum Cellars Gallia, which is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This wine was like eating chocolate covered cherries, wrapped in leather. Probably my single favorite wine of the trip.
Coming from Texas, I have a warm spot in my heart for off-the-beaten-path wine regions. Sure, after you get past the big three states (California, Washington, and Oregon), quality gets a little less consistent. That said, you still find some pretty cool stuff being done in the younger wine regions. Just from my brief glance at the wines of Arizona, the state seems to be on the right track with their varietal selection.
The industry is still on the young side, so I’m sure there is a lot of growing and developing going on, but the area seems to be off to a great start. The wineries that I visited were very friendly and I enjoyed seeing what the state had to offer.