By Kimberly Schmitz • Photography by Tom Spitz (unless otherwise noted)
As Tucsonans, we tend to be spoiled. Such is the nature of our mini-metropolis that we are almost nonchalant about our opportunities to get to the very source of things. With regularity, we meet the people who grow and prepare our favorite foods, as well as the talented creators of art and entertainment we enjoy. It is becoming a more widely accepted consensus that winemaking is, indeed, an art in its own right. And, fortunately, we have the “studios” of those artists practically on our doorsteps.
The ability to actually meet vintners is perhaps a big part of the draw to visit this burgeoning industry in the southern part of the state. Unlike many places in Napa Valley, Sonoma, or Monterey, the people working the tasting rooms in Southern Arizona have likely actually touched the grapes and been a part of the complex winemaking process. Vintners value the input of fans and critics of their art and they frequent their tasting rooms. They have even been known to adjust their offerings or suggest a competitive product that would better suit a taster’s palate.
Just a few years back, when people made the pilgrimage from our cactus-studded valley to the rolling grasslands of Santa Cruz County for a sip or 10 of the good stuff, there were only three or four wineries in the area. Now, demand, opportunity, and the success of those pioneers have raised the list of Southern Arizona Wineries to 11 strong in Santa Cruz County, and seven in neighboring Cochise County.
Todd Bostock, co-owner/winemaker/grower/tour guide at Dos Cabezas WineWorks, sums up the philosophy of Southern Arizona’s Wine Country when he says, “We aren’t trying to make wines that taste like someplace else. We are making wines that tell the story of our place really well.” Through a humble smile, he adds, “It is exciting to be the ones deciding what this place tastes like.” His colleagues and contemporaries — including Kent Callaghan (Callaghan Vineyards) and Keif Joshua Manning (Keif-Joshua Vineyard) — will, with gentle prodding, discuss the varieties of fruits they have cultivated in the region.
The Southern Arizona Wineries are not the “New Napa” or North American version of the South of France; nor are they trying to be. They are, however, the source of wines served at White House functions and State dinners, lauded at world-class competitions and by respected oenophiles. However, perhaps most important to the winemakers, their wines are appreciated by the general public. They taste like home for some, and brief, sun-drenched vacations to others. There are wines produced here for every palate. Whether you prefer heavy, light, dry, sweet, red, rosé or white, wines for any season/reason are available from the tasting rooms and some retail outlets throughout the state.
And the process of sampling at the source is an adventure into the otherworldly grasslands, chatting up the people who tend the vines, and even savoring some culinary excursions. Grab your keys — it’s well worth the drive.
Smack in the middle of town, the tasting room of Dos Cabezas WineWorks is just east of the crossroads of Highways 82 and 83. As are most of the vineyards in the area, Dos Cabezas is family owned and operated. One of the pioneering operations in the area, Dos Cabezas has been producing wine since 1995 and was purchased by Todd Bostock, his wife Kelly, and his parents Frank and Paula in 2006. The Bostocks only make wine from the fruit grown on 15 acres in Elgin and 38 acres in Willcox. This year, their five-person crew will produce 5,500 cases of wine, all of which will sell out, save for a few select samples held back for aging “research” at a later date. Visitors often see Todd wearing his signature baseball cap and sampling his own vintages, performing competitive research, or chasing after his towheaded offspring in the tasting room. Bostock or his knowledgeable Tasting Room Manager Karen Grinnell will walk you through current offerings in a casual setting within view of the signature oak barrels cradling next year’s vintage. The cost of taking home a bottle of Dos Cabeza’s artistry will range from $18.50 to $50. The wines here tend to be on the dry side, but no one vintage is the same as the other. Must-tries include the 2010 La Montana Red and the 2012 Pink.
Perched at the intersection of Elgin, Lower Elgin, and Upper Elgin Roads, is the historic Village of Elgin Winery. Now boasting a second tasting room in Tombstone, Village of Elgin was founded in 1982 by Bill LeTarte and his daughter and son-in-law Kathy and Gary Ellam. Kathy was the first female winemaker in the state and remains the only female Cellar Master here. Gary earned a Ph.D. in oenology from the University of Bordeaux. Although still utilizing the age-old practice of hand-picking the fruit and foot-stomping for its reds, VoE winemakers have successfully integrated automation of bottling and the use of Stelvin ROPP cap bottle closures. The Elgin tasting room, recently moved from a building that long ago housed a bordello popular with train passengers, is eclectically casual and operated by family members and friends. The wines produced here span the spectrum of color and taste, while the vintner boasts that the Tombstone Red is the number-one-selling Arizona wine, with availability on six continents and in 27 countries. Ellam’s signature creations range from incredibly sweet white Moscato to a “100 percent Old-World Cuvée.” His goal is to make “wines for the people.” He says, “We offer everyday wines supremely balanced in sugar, acidity, viscosity and alcohol that are both enjoyable and affordable.” Village of Elgin wines range from $20 to $30. Must-tries are the Old-World Cuvée and the 12-year-old Vino de San Vicente de Saragossa.
With a self-professed tendency toward Old-World craftsmanship, Kent Callaghan, owner and winemaker at Callaghan Vineyards, also is an unofficial historian of the area. You can see his passion for every aspect of a vintage’s creation in the roughness of his hands, hear it in his voice, and by all means, taste it in his wines. Like most winemakers, Kent tends to create what suits his own palate, but he makes sure to mingle with the guests in his tasting room to absorb input and share the occasional quip on the area or the process. He was once the winemaker at Dos Cabezas, which, interestingly, occurred after he founded his namesake vineyards in 1990. Callaghan’s offerings include only one estate white wine (Lisa’s, blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Petite Sirah). Callaghan’s Claire’s 2004, was served at President Bush’s retirement dinner for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and the vineyards were designated as an Arizona Treasure by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano. The vineyard’s most distinct products are its rich and unusual Bordeaux blends. They are created with Kent’s taste for European tones with regionally specific character because, as the quiet vintner puts it, “You have to grow what works for where you are, otherwise you’re chasing something you’ll never reach.” Callaghan’s wines range from $25 to $45. Although the majority are consumed within hours of leaving the tasting room, they age well and often create further demand. Must tries include Claire’s 2009 and the Cabernet Sauvignon Red Dessert Wine (2009).
A short shot up Elgin Road from Callaghan is the Kief-Joshua Vineyard and tasting room. Perhaps some of the most stand-out features of the 20-acre vineyard itself are its sustainable farming techniques that include Baby Doll sheep and rescued pygmy goats as weed regulators. You may even catch a glimpse of Kaya, the cat-like (in personality only) wallaby. Don’t let these furry farmhands distract you too long from the tasting room. The wine here is produced under the tutelage of Kief-Joshua Manning, who sports funky sideburns, a cool, laid-back demeanor and far more knowledge of the craft than is generally held at his age. He is a student of the art of winemaking, which is readily evident in his products. He owns and operates the Elgin vineyard and tasting room in addition to 40 more acres near Willcox with his parents. The first Kief-Joshua estate wines were released in 2007. This year the family, with the occasional help of friends and neighbors, will produce 4,000 cases of 100-percent all-natural corked wine. The younger Manning can most often be found in the vineyard or perched in his “lab,” tasting, testing, and perfecting upcoming blends. When you do find him in the tasting room, a sure way to get him talking is to ask about corks and caps (a subject on which he wrote his master’s thesis). Each KJ vintage is characteristically dry, full-bodied, crafted by hand and can be poured at your table for $22 to $29.
Karyl and Kevin Wilhelm established themselves on 20 acres of the Sonoita AVA (America Viticultural Area) on Lower Elgin Road to escape bigger cities and their less endearing trappings. Upon discovery of their new land’s potential, Karyl, a biomedical engineer, former air force paramedic, second-degree black-belt, and wine lover, decided to immerse herself in the art of winemaking. She is the first U.C. Davis Certified winemaker in the state. With her husband, an F-16 flight instructor and Air Force Commander, she opened Wilhelm Family Vineyards in October 2008. The wineries’ signature offerings are its unique specialty blends, including Sangrias and a Chocolate Orange Red Port. White varieties are represented, too, with more than 40 wines, with 23 available at any given time. Karyl takes pride in creating wines across the spectrum of color and palatability. She is particularly fond of hosting tasting and luncheon events and working the tasting room. Wilhelm is a “No judgment winery.” “When 40 people walk in the door, everyone will find at least one wine that they really like,” says Karyl. Wilhelm Family Vineyards’ creations range in price from $18 to $34 with the exception of Karyl’s Kuvee Estate II Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah blend at $59. Must-tries are the Viva Sangria and Karyl’s Kuvee.
Relatively new to the region is Flying Leap Vineyards (FLV), which was incorporated in 2010. Business partners Marc Moeller and Mark Beres started with a vineyard in Willcox, and then bought the former Canelo Hills Vineyard & Winery in Sonoita a year ago. FLV has three tasting rooms — in Elgin, downtown Willcox and Old Bisbee. At press time, a fourth tasting room was slated to open in Tucson at St. Philip’s Plaza, with a fifth on the drawing board, as well as plans to expand FLV’s vineyards in 2015. The company produces a full range of reds, whites, rosés and even a dessert wine, and they offer tastings of six to seven of their wines plus, Beres notes, “a beautiful, proper piece of quality stemware,” for $10.
To save a little green on some red, you can pick up the 2014 Wine Travel Card (Arizona Edition), offering discounts at 33 wineries/tasting rooms around Arizona. That list includes 11 wineries, a B&B (Xanadu Ranch GetAway) and a restaurant (Overland Trout) in the Sonoita area. The cost of the card is $20, which can be purchased by visiting http://az.winetravelcard.com/purchase.
The area is incredibly easy to navigate, even without the use of GPS, but for a tasting tour you really need a designated driver. Another option is to pick a limo company to do the driving for you. Girlfriend getaway groups, wedding parties, couples, or complete strangers destined to share an adventure may gather at a meeting spot, be picked up from local accommodations, or even in Tucson, to roam the hills of the area and discover the tasty treasures of the region. Rates vary from $65 to $120/person, depending upon the number of people in the party and hours of the tour.
Xanadu Ranch Getaway is a lovely bed and breakfast, minus the group breakfast, conveniently located in the heart of Sonoita/Elgin wine country. The four-room inn, built as a ranch in 1912 and established as a B&B in 2006, rests on a hill with magnificent views of the surrounding grasslands and offers myriad options for relaxation and recreation. Each room can comfortably sleep four people and is equipped with private bathrooms, a refrigerator and microwave; suites include full kitchens. There are several RV hook-ups for those who travel with their modern conveniences, and the property has stables for visiting horses. An honor-based snack bar, grills, and outside dining areas are available for guest use and often serve as a post wine tour gathering spot. Miles of hiking and horseback riding trails are accessible right from the property. “Retired” owners Karen and Bernie Kauk will make you feel as welcome as if you were staying with family. Guests have multiple breakfast options, including in-room coffee and tea service, receive wine club discount cards, and may use Xanadu Ranch wine glasses for discounts on area tasting room experiences. Suites are $119/night and the beautifully adorned bunkhouse rooms are $89/night.
For a more traditional bed and breakfast experience, check in at the La Hacienda de Sonoita Bed and Breakfast, also in the heart of the Sonoita/Elgin grasslands. This gorgeous inn on a 40-acre parcel of old homestead, was opened in 2002 by owners/operators Tom and Cheryl Rogan. The four rooms that accommodate two people each feature hand-painted murals, vintage and antique accessories from Cheryl’s private collection, and “feels like home” décor. The family style breakfasts served in the expansive and beautiful main room of the “house” are culinary delights, accented with often lively conversation with the owners themselves or guests from all walks of life. La Hacienda de Sonoita visitors hail from as far as Australia and have included State Department and NATO representatives. Guests often gather in the main room, which has a television (that is rarely watched), a library of books and games, comfy chairs and a fireplace. La Hacienda often hosts special events, such as performances through the Santa Cruz Foundation for Performing Arts on property. Room rates are the same year round and include tax and full breakfast. They range from $124 to $145 per night depending on the room size.
If a traditional overnight experience is your preference, The Sonoita Inn in town is the perfect choice. Far from a traditional motel, The Sonoita Inn is a lodge-style Western experience. Lobby décor will connect you with the history and happenings of the area through photographs, artwork and documentation. The Inn’s owners have not only dedicated the building to the area and its heritage, but also the memory of famed race horse Secretariat, the winner of the 1973 U.S. Triple Crown. The horse’s co-owner Margaret Carmichael designed the inn, and a full biography of the mighty equine and his accomplishments can be found in the main lounge. Each of the 18 rooms is named after area ranches and the hallways include informative detail and photographic biographies on them. The rooms feature radio, television and private bathrooms, and are equipped to ensure comfort and a sense of the Western spirit. Rates are seasonal and also vary dependent upon local events, room location and size. Continental breakfast is included for all guests.
New to the ever-changing Sonoita food scene is Overland Trout (cowboy slang for bacon) near the Highway 82/83 crossroads. Chef Greg LaPrad, having earned considerable accolades and aplomb as executive chef at Phoenix’s Quiessence Restaurant & Wine Bar at the Farm, took the plunge to trail blaze and define the new “cuisine of the borderlands” in the Sonoita AVA. LaPrad incorporates seafood flown from Guaymas, Mexico, local grass-fed beef, and fresh produce from the area. His mission is to “define a cuisine for the region that incorporates the ranching culture and the historic nature of the area in a casual environment that sets a very high standard for service.” The word on the wine trail is that, in support of his mission, Overland Trout purchased pork raised by local FFA kids at the county fair to serve to guests. Although you will notice LaPrad directing
the culinary orchestra in the open kitchen or chatting up guests, you won’t find Sonoran- or Texas-styled Mexican dishes here. LaPrad aims to define the taste of the borderlands with dishes such as red snapper with roasted eggplant, tomato and chiltepin salsa, and wild venison with cocoa demi-glace, toasted pepitas, and tepary bean purée. Overland Trout’s menus change frequently to accommodate seasonal and daily availability of locally sourced items. Of the 150 wine offerings, 30 are from the region. Having only opened last October, Overland Trout has already developed a dedicated fan base among locals, including the vintners and B&B owners.
Originally established in the 1950s and run by the Wystrach family for 30-plus years, The Steak Out in Sonoita proper is an area landmark, rebuilt in 2000 after a disastrous fire. The Wystrachs are still serving up some of the best grilled steaks around, along with a healthy portion of cowboy beans, veggies or baked potato. The burgers and ribs are excellent choices, as well. As the name and outer façade suggest, the restaurant décor and menu are signature American-Western style. Open for dinner Monday through Friday, and lunch and dinner on the weekends, the restaurant naturally offers locally made wines, or you can belly up to the bar for a beer, a 12-year-old scotch and some toe-tapping music on the weekend.
Attractions and Activities
Lauded as one of the top 10 caves in the world, Kartchner Caverns is a must-see natural wonder. It is a living cave (water continues to add to formations) that was discovered by Tucsonans Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts in 1974. The caves and surrounding area were designated as a state park and opened to the public in 1990. Although the views above ground are stunning, those below are otherworldly and breathtaking. A guided walking tour through the caves offers a fascinating glimpse into what goes on beneath the surface of the earth, including one of the world’s longest soda straw stalactites (21 feet 3 inches); the most massive column in Arizona, Kubla Khan (58 feet tall); the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk; and the first reported occurrence of “turnip” shields and “birdsnest” needle quartz formations. Above ground, Kartchner Caverns State Park offers campgrounds, hiking/biking/horseback riding trails, hummingbird gardens, a deli and a gift shop.
Some of Mother Nature’s finest work also may be appreciated at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area; Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve; Madera Canyon; Parker Lake; Patagonia State Park Lake; and the Coronado National Forest. If you’ve left your hiking kicks and mountain bike at home, take in the area on the back of a trusty steed. Some of the local horseback outfits will guide guests directly to wine-tasting experiences and include breakfast and picnic lunch options. Equine outing providers in the area include Arizona Trail Tours, Circle Z Ranch, and Sonoita Stables where riders of all experience levels and ages may be safely accommodated.
Note: Cell phone reception is not the best in this area. Be sure to print a map or call for directions. tl
Nearby Vineyards and Wineries
Wilhelm Family Vineyards
21 Mountain Ranch Drive
Open Daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dos Cabezas WineWorks
3248 Highway 82
Open Thursday-Sunday 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
336 Elgin Road
Open Thursday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
370 Elgin Road
Open daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Village of Elgin Winery
471 Elgin Road
Open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Lightning Ridge Cellars
2368 Hwy 83, Elgin
Fri-Sun 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
18585 South Sonoita Hwy., Vail
Fri-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Rancho Rossa Vineyards
201 Cattle Ranch Lane, Elgin
Fri-Sun 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Silver Strike Winery
334 E. Allen St., Tombstone
Daily 12-6 p.m.
Yuma’s Main Squeeze
251 Main St., Yuma
Mon-Thurs 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri 11:30 a.m.-Midnight;
Sat 12 p.m.-Midnight; Closed Sun.
Hannah’s Hill Vineyard and Winery
HC1 Box 651, Elgin
Tours and visits by appointment only: email firstname.lastname@example.org
Flying Leap Vineyards, Inc.
342 Elgin Road
Wed-Sun 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Mon-Tues by appointment
290 Elgin-Canelo Road
Daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
AZ Hops & Vines
3450 Highway 82
Thurs 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
If You Go
Xanadu Ranch GetAway
92 Los Encinos Road
La Hacienda de Sonoita
34 Swanson Road
Arizona Sunshine Tours
3266 Highway 82
The Steak Out
3200 South Sonoita Hwy
Other great resources for the area include: