Monsoon rains and desert warmth make great wine in Arizona. Yes, heavy rains can be common for early July to August. This Southwest Monsoon brings in warm humid air from the Gulf of Mexico and close to half of the annual rainfall for Arizona.
How much rain? One such storm brought over 5.50 inches in one day just outside of Phoenix and at times over 3.00 inches in an hour. These intense storms with lightning and thunder can cause flash floods that can mean serious damage. Because of this, Arizona traffic code has the “Stupid Motorist Law” (also known as section 28-910 of the Arizona Revised Statutes) which forbids motorists from entering flood barricaded roadways. If you need to be rescued you can be fined up to $2000. Being a smart driver has benefits.
Let us get one thing clear: these heavy rains are extreme events. Yearly, Phoenix averages 7.46 inches of rain and has 290 days of sun. Contrast that with my hometown of Seattle which averages 164 sunny days along with a lot more rain (36.2 inches).
So wine tasting in the Arizona sun was a treat not to be missed. Sonoita AVA (American Viticultural Area) region is just an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson and covers the Sonoita/Elgin Wine trail, home of 13 different wineries. This area is in the foothills with three mountain ranges surrounding the area. The terrain is in the high desert location (at 5000 feet) and provides a cooler climate and more rain than neighboring areas. Also, the gravel soil retains moisture and provides a perfect balance for the wine.
This region has many years of experience in wine making, back to the 1500’s when Spanish Jesuit priests planted vines to make wine for religious purposes. Today, the top varietals (in terms of production) are: Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mourvedre. Further east of the Sonoita is the Wilcox Wine Trail (Cochise County). This high desert location produces over 74% of the state’s wine grapes and includes wine festival and events along with 13 wineries.
The father (not in a religious sense) of the contemporary wine industry in Arizona is Dr. Gordon Dutt, a retired soil scientist from the University of Arizona. He established an experiential vineyard in 1973 and certainly had insider information. Terroir!! Dr. Dutt knew that the soil (red clay) is nearly identical to that of Burgundy France and has produced wines that have won accolades by the famous Robert Parker. The rest, as they say, is history. Currently, these excellent wine producing properties are popular for purchase by famous winery owners from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
After your wine tasting, you should check out the roots of this region that some call the Wild West, or “Land of Legends”. One such legendary character is Wyatt Earp, famous for the shootout at the O.K. Coral which happened in 1881 at Tombstone (southwest of Wilcox). Tombstone was not known for wine then but the town boasted 110 saloons (and one school!). Wilcox’s claim to fame was the shooting death of Wyatt Earp’s younger brother, Warren, at The Headquarter Saloon. The saloon burned down in 1940 and all that is left is a marker.
As they use to say in the west: time to hit the dusty trail. The third wine trail is quickly becoming the most popular, Verde Valley Wine Trail which is 300 miles north of Wilcox and home to 10 wineries. After more than two hours on the road, a lunch stop in Phoenix was required. The timing was perfect since it was Food Truck Friday at the Open Air Public Market.
There we found about 20 different food trucks featuring cuisine from all over the world – South African fare to Maine Lobster. But my favorite was The Short Leash – best hot dogs ever! For those who prefer a “sit down” experience there is the Café Phoenix at the Public Market. They serve wonderful soups, sandwiches, salads and especially tasty desserts.
After lunch we gazed into the blue sky and noticed what I thought was a giant basketball net dangling in the sky. However, my wife thought it was a giant butterfly net.
We were both wrong. It was a fantastic sculpture floating in the air and called “Her Secret is Patience”, designed by artist Janet Echelman. Echelman was inspired by the city’s open sky, monsoon cloud formation, and desert flora. Seemingly suspended in the air above the plaza, the coils and lines of the sculpture ripple and shift with the wind. It is especially spellbinding at night when it is illuminated in a beautiful array of color. Check it out at the Downtown Civic Space Park. It really inspired me to return here during the summer monsoon season to enjoy all the clouds and storm watching in the desert
However, it was a warm fall day with no clouds or storms in sight so we headed for some more outdoor wine tasting. In less than 2 hours we arrived at Cottonwood for some wine tasting in the historic town. After that we continued north towards Sedona along the Verde Valley Wine Trail, all while enjoying the sun-lit red rocks that make the Sedona area famous. The final stop was just south of Sedona, Javelina Leap Winery. We enjoyed sampling there wines with lunch and the only disappointment was that we did not see a javelina; the cute mammal that looks like a pig and runs fast. Maybe during our next visit we can find one and if we don’t find one, we can just visit the other wineries.
About our guest contributor:
Michael Fagin is a freelance travel writer who has traveled across Canada and visited all the major Canadian wine regions. Mr. Fagin is currently touring the Pacific Northwest enjoying the wine country, dining, and hiking the region. While he is not writing Mr. Fagin is a weather forecaster for West Coast Weather, LLC forecasting weather for the West Coast of the US as well as on an international basis.