Checking out the choices in Arizona’s wine country | On Wine

Many Islanders snowbird to warmer states during the colder, wetter Washington winter months. I kept hearing about Arizona wines from many of these snowbirds. When I planned a trip to the Grand Canyon, using Sedona as a base camp, researching the emerging Arizona wine industry was high on my list of things to do.

Arizona has three main wine growing regions: in Northern Arizona, the Verde Valley is near Sedona and is host to nine tasting rooms. Sonoita is an hour south of Tucson and boasts 10 tasting rooms. Willcox, located east of Tucson, produces the highest quantity of Arizona grapes and has four tasting rooms.

Enter Dick Erath: the legendary pioneer who was among the first to plant wine grapes in Oregon. The success of Oregon wines — primarily pinot noir and pinot gris — is wine history. Since the early 1990s, Erath had been escaping Oregon’s chilly, damp winters to Willcox, which is near Tucson. Erath bought a house in 1995.

Then, some fortunate events ensued. First, Erath sold his Oregon winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle. With the proceeds of the sale of Erath Winery and the advice of Professor Mike Kelly of the University of Arizona, Erath bought a 40-acre vineyard site in the Kansas Settlement area which is close to Erath’s winter home. While 40 acres is small compared to California or Oregon, it is one of the largest vineyard sites in Arizona. Right after Erath purchased is land, prices in the area soared.

Armed with acreage and three decades of wine growing and winemaking expertise, Erath is eager to be a pioneer again. He experimentally planted 20 varieties of grapes that he has culled down to the Argentinean varietals such as malbec and tempranillo, which grow well at high altitudes. At the high temperatures of the high desert, these grapes ripen slowly, developing flavor. Most of Arizona’s vineyards are between 4,200 and 5,200 feet.

Not only is Erath eager to be a pioneer again, the Arizona wine industry is enthused to have this enological superstar blazing the Arizona wine trail, lending credibility.

The history of wine in Arizona dates back to the late 17th century, when the first vineyards were planted by Franciscan missionaries. There was a resurgence of winemaking in the 1970s, but the efforts were feeble and inane, resulting in banal wines. Since the mid-1990s, quality wines have been produced with good reviews by The Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator. Arizona wines have been served at the White House and will be served at two James Beard dinners.

At every restaurant, I asked for Arizona wines. None were being poured. Either marketing is not being done or production is too low. I stopped at a wine shop in Sedona to taste a flight of Arizona wines.

The best were red blends. The shop owner said that Arizona has 60 wineries; a recently updated Web site said there were 45; the Arizona Growers Association reported 30. It is prudent to say there are wineries in Arizona. In comparison, Washington state has more than 700 wineries.

Arizona has wildlife problems. Erath’s winemaker reported problems with rattlesnakes, which were attracted by ground squirrels. To rid the vineyards of ground squirrels, Erath installed owl nests that were immediately occupied.

That solved, Erath needed to keep rabbits from eating grapes. Two-foot fences went up. Then, the deer arrived. Deer are a huge problem.

Greg Osenbach, owner and winemaker of Whidbey Island Winery, told me that he built a high fence to keep marauding deer out of his vineyards. Then, he watched in amazement as one deer skillfully unlocked the gate with his mouth as the rest of the herd waited.

While the three main regions of Sonoita, Willcox and Verde Valley are the current prominent areas in Arizona, other areas are being planted: Skull Valley, Tombstone, Benson, Payson and Portal.

While no one expects Arizona to be a main wine contender like California, Washington and Oregon, Arizonians hope that wine tourism and wineries will go hand in hand.

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