As unlikely as it seems, every state in the United States makes wine.
Only an hour’s drive south of Tucson is the town of Sonoita, home to some of Arizona’s most distinctive and prestigious wines. (Both Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas WineWorks have had their wines poured at the White House.) Sonoita, at about 5,000 feet elevation, is a cooler, greener respite from the intense desert heat, and you’ll typically meet the winemaker in his or her winery’s tasting room.
Arizona has been in the winemaking business since Dr. Gordon Dutt, founder and winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards and retired soil scientist from the University of Arizona, planted the state’s first commercial vineyard, in Sonoita, in 1979. Currently, Arizona boasts 83 licensed wine growers, according to the Arizona Wine Growers Association.
Below are four Sonoita wineries we like, in alphabetical order.
336 Elgin Road
Callaghan Vineyards was established in 1990 when Kent Callaghan and his parents planted their first vineyard.
“When my parents took me to an event at Sonoita Vineyards in 1989 and I tasted their 1987 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon,” Callaghan knew he wanted to become a winemaker. “Until then I thought they were crazy.”
Callaghan makes white, rosé, and dessert wine, but is most noted for his reds, among them the Padre’s, a Tempranillo/Garnacha/Syrah blend; Caitlin’s, a Petit Verdot/Merlot blend; and Claire’s, a blend of Mourvèdre and Garnacha, two grapes well known to lovers of Rhône wines.
What makes Sonoita’s wines quintessentially Sonoita?
“I can tell you what I would not look for in Sonoita-grown wines: direct fruit, simple texture,” said Callaghan. “Sonoita, which is the epicenter – and rightfully so – of Arizona wine, produces wines that are complex and never simple. Layered texturally, with fruit mitigated by earthy, spice notes that will appeal to fans of French, Spanish and Italian wines.”
Tasting hours are Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. A $10 tasting fee includes a wine glass. More info at callaghanvineyards.com.
Dos Cabezas WineWorks
3248 Hwy 82
Dos Cabezas WineWorks has been making wine in Arizona since 1995. Its current owner and winemaker, Todd Bostock, purchased the winery in 2006 with his family and moved it from Willcox to Sonoita.
Most of Dos Cabeza’s fruit comes from the Cimarron Vineyard, located just outside Willcox and planted in 2005 by acclaimed Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath. Grapes from the Bostocks’ 15-acre Pronghorn Vineyard, which they planted in 2004 in Sonoita, allows them to produce one estate wine, “El Campo,” primarily a Tempranillo and Mourvèdre blend. Other wines include whites made from varietals like Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Malvasia, and Riesling; and reds from varietals such as Garnacha, Graciano, Petit Verdot, Petit Sirah, Sangiovese, Mourvèdre, and Syrah.
Due to its convenient location at the intersection of Highways 82 and 83, whenever we visit Sonoita, we stop at Dos Cabezas first. The long, lustrous copper bar top is inviting, and the tasting room staff are friendly and knowledgable. On a recent visit, a personal favorite was simply named Red. My tasting notes read, “Raspberry, rhubarb, molasses, spice, buy this.” I did.
If you read through the tasting notes provided by Dos Cabezas, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. For instance, the Águileón red, a Tempranillo blend, descends “into your oral airspace,” and “touches down on your tongue-y tarmac with a savory/juicy/tannic harmony.”
I asked Bostock about his tasting notes. He says, “Wine, at its best, evokes memories, transports you to places, adds to the conversation, so I think describing it deserves more effort than rehashing ‘rich and bold, blackberry and tobacco, great with steak!’”
Tasting hours are Thursday through Sunday, 10:30 a.m – 4:30 p.m. A $15 tasting fee includes a wine glass. More info at doscabezaswineworks.com.
Lightning Ridge Cellars
2368 Hwy 83
Husband-and-wife team Ann and Ron Roncone founded Lightning Ridge Cellars in 2004.
“I’d been making garage-wine for about four or five years before then,” said Ann. “It was a hobby that snowballed into a real love. Deciding to leave my full-time office job as a mechanical engineer was a bit of a leap, but doing what you really love has proven to be very fulfilling.”
Roncone is the sole winemaker, producing most of her wine from Italian varietals that reflect her and her husband’s Italian heritage. “I also proudly wear the hat of vineyard manager/ tender, tasting room manager, plumber, mechanic, electrican . . . you get the drift,” she commented.
On a recent visit to Lightning Ridge’s tasting room, we admired the expansive view and the bocce court just waiting for some wine drinkers to take it over. Inside, we tasted estate Montepulciano, estate Cabernet, a rosé of Mourvèdre and Counoise, a Syrah made from grapes sourced from Paso Robles, and a lush, late-harvest Zinfandel, also from Paso Robles grapes. If time allows, Ron may escort visitors to the vineyards planted to Aglianico and Nebbiolo and taste some of the grapes off the vine.
Tasting hours are Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m – 4 p.m. An $11 tasting fee includes a wine glass; $7 if you bring a glass from another local winery. More info at lightningridgecellars.com.
3969 Hwy 82
As the weather cools off, the idea of drinking wine outside seems more appealing. At winemaker James Callahan’s Rune Wines, the tasting experience doesn’t get more casual than this: outdoors, wine bottles standing on a table set beneath a tensile shade, a group of chairs circling a fire pit, and a spirit-lifting view of the lush desert and moody clouds that extends into the horizon.
You’ll taste six wines: a Chardonnay and Viognier; a rosé of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre; and three reds, Classic Syrah, Wild Syrah, and a Grenache. If you want to know the difference between the Classic and the Wild, either Callahan himself, or his friends Colin and Melissa, are happy to tell you. Or you can just taste the two wines and decide for yourself.
Callahan founded Rune Wines in 2013, after gaining practical winemaking experience working at Tempe, Ariz.’s PurVine. Callahan sources most of his grapes from Arizona’s Pillsbury vineyard, with the exception of his Chardonnay, which he makes from grapes sourced from the Sierra Madre vineyard in California’s Santa Maria Valley.
Asked to describe what he looks for in not only his own wines, but in all Arizona wines, Callahan says, “I would say our wines lean more toward the Old World in style. Dusty, earth tones tend to dominate the wines I make and enjoy from Arizona. The fruit component is more subdued compared to other U.S. wine regions. A well-made Arizona wine will offer layers of subtle fruit, earth, and balance.”
Despite the long hours and hard work inherent in making wine, Callahan reveals another side to the business.
“My favorite experience in the winemaking process is walking into a fully barreled-down cellar, listening to some Enya and frolicking around with the wine thief in my hand like some sort of drunken bear coming out of a long hibernation,” he said. “It really is glamorous!”
Tasting hours are Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m – 5 p.m. A $15 tasting fee includes a wine glass. More info at runewines.com.
Disclaimer: The author received no incentive or extra compensation to focus on these four wineries. The wineries mentioned in this article are not a Southern Fine Wine & Spirits offering.