When you hear the term “wine country,” your mind probably conjures up images of rolling, vineyard-covered hills in California’s Napa Valley. It might come as a surprise to you, then, that we have a little treasure trove of wineries right here in Southern Arizona. While the wineries of Sonoita and Elgin may not be as well-known as the giants in California, I can attest that these are some of the best wineries and produce distinctive wines, and offer locals and visitors alike a one-of-a-kind Arizona tasting experience.
My husband Jeff and I recently took some friends for a day-trip to Sonoita, where we stopped in at four tasting rooms. This was not our first trip to the region, nor will it be our last. And while each tasting room we’ve visited during past trips has offered something unique, I can’t say we’d gladly return to all of them. I can say, however, that after multiple visits, the following five wineries are winners in our book—definitely worth the trip for both the wine enthusiasts and wine novices among us. Tasting fees at these wineries range from $5-$12, with discounts given when you arrive with a glass from another local winery. In other words, you’ll want to purchase your glass at the first winery, and take it with you to the next tasting room.
Dos Cabezas (best wineries) – Nestled within an unassuming strip mall in Sonoita is the Dos Cabezas tasting room. While the exterior of the building is anything but spectacular, as soon as you walk through the door you are greeted by a surprisingly intimate setting. The centerpiece of the room is undoubtedly the long bar, where you’re just as likely as not to find the winemaker, Todd Bostock, standing behind, pouring his wines for patrons. In fact, most Southern Arizona winemakers do the pouring in their tasting rooms, and they are eager to shoot the breeze with wine enthusiasts who come calling. During a recent visit to Dos Cabezas, our group was treated to tastes of eight red wines, all but one of which was made using locally-grown grapes. Favorites from among our group included the light-bodied 2009 Red (a steal at just $18 per bottle) and the newly-released 2010 Toscano, ($26.50) described as having aromas of bittersweet cocoa and dried, tart cherries. If you go: Don’t be shy about asking to step inside the adjoining barrel room; it makes for a great photo backdrop.
Lightning Ridge Cellars (best wineries) – This particular winery definitely evokes an Old World Italian charm. Don’t be deceived by the relatively modest tasting room; there is much more to this place than meets the eye. During our recent visit, we were treated to a quick tour of the impressive back room, where the winemakers hold various special events throughout the year. Anchored by a massive table, the windowless room houses countless wine barrels. Guests feel as though they’ve truly descended into a wine cellar. The stand-out wine for our group was the light but earthy Mourvedre ($23), unique in that Mourvedre grapes are more commonly used in blends, but hard to find as a single varietal. If you go: Be sure to ask about upcoming tasting events in the barrel room.
Canelo Hills (best wineries) – Perhaps the most uniquely-landscaped of all the wineries we visited, Canelo Hills definitely sets itself apart with the garden of wine bottles “planted” out front. The playful atmosphere carries on inside the tasting room, where a desertscape of paper mache creatures overlook patrons. While the décor might be playful, the wine is serious business. Besides the sparkling wine we bought here over the holidays, my favorite from Canelo is the bright and rich Estate Temparanillo 2009 ($33). If you go: Strike up a grape-growing conversation with Joan, Canelo’s farmer. She is sure to share some very interesting tidbits that wouldn’t occur to us farm-virgins.
Kief-Joshua Vineyards (best wineries) – Guests know they’re in for a treat the moment they step into what is arguably the most beautiful of all of Sonoita’s tasting rooms. The best part, though, is that the wine doesn’t disappoint and neither does the experience. Every single time we’ve visited, the winemaker himself, Kief Manning, has been behind the counter, pouring our tastes and humbly discussing his craft before wishing us a hearty “cheers” as we drink up. During our most recent visit, the tasting list at Kief-Joshua included three whites and three reds. Personally, I’m partial to the 2010 Cephus ($22; named after the winemaker’s grandfather), a blend of Chardonnay and Roussanne that makes for a divine porch-drinking wine. If you go: Consider a Sunday visit when the omelet bar is open for business (11am-2pm).
Callaghan Vineyards (best wineries) – The winemaker behind Callaghan Vineyards is highly regarded by his colleagues as a pioneer for the success of wineries in Sonoita and his wines certainly showcase why. Although we were a bit too late in the day to visit the tasting room during our most recent trip, past visits to Callaghan have set this apart as a personal favorite. You’d be remiss not to include it during a wine-tasting adventure in Sonoita. If you go: Make it one of your first stops. They close at 3 pm.
What running up would you add to our list of Best Wineries?