Arizona wine is having a moment. In late 2021, the Verde Valley Wine Consortium announced the region was federally declared an American Viticulture Area (AVA). The monumental declaration made the wine region just the third AVA in the state of Arizona, with the other two in the Southern Arizona regions of Willcox and Sonoita.
In addition, Governor Ducey recognized the growing importance and impact of our state’s wine producers by designating March 2022 as Arizona’s first official Wine Month. According to the Arizona Office of Tourism, Arizona’s wine industry brings nearly 600,000 visitors to its vineyards and tasting rooms and attracts more than $33 million in spending annually. Cheers to that!
In observance of Arizona Wine Month, and celebrating Verde Valley’s big news, here is a look at where to sniff, swirl and sip across State 48.
Vino in Verde Valley
Let’s get you started in Cottonwood. Essentially halfway between Prescott and Sedona, Cottonwood is a walkable wonderland for adults and the perfect respite from the daily grind, especially for those who love culinary delights, beer and wine tastings and outdoor adventure. Currently, there are four working Arizona vineyards with wine tasting rooms along Main Street. The first is Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, which is located in Northern Arizona but uses many grapes sourced from the Southern Arizona AVAs as well. They are particularly adept at Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, but the best bet is to try a flight of reds and white to see what you like best.
Next, there Carlson Creek Vineyards, which is all of 30 steps from Arizona Stronghold. The name will likely be familiar as there is a tasting room in Scottsdale (more on that in a moment) of the same moniker with many of the wines, but the barrel-covered space up north is something out of a storybook (and adult one, of course). The Rule of Three should not be missed here, nor should the Sangiovese or Mourvedre. Next door to Carlson Creek is Pillsbury Wine Company. Helmed by New Zealand-turned-Arizona resident Sam Pillsbury (so no relation to the Doughboy), the winery excels at sustainable estate-grown varietals. Tasting flights, wines by the glass and full bottles are available during a visit, with the Guns and Kisses Shiraz being of particular note.
Both a pasta paradise and tasting room, Merkin Vineyards Osteria is adjacent to Pillsbury. Founded by Maynard James Keenan, best known as the front man of Tool but becoming known for his skill at winemaking in more recent years, he uses fruit exclusively from his 110 acres of estate vineyards in both the Verde Valley and Willcox. Joining them along Main Street are also Burning Tree Cellars, whose focus is offering several brands, but all are boutique, small-batch vineyards one would never find in a grocery or liquor store. They also always have games such as Card Against Humanity on hand for visitors, and one of the best patios in the region. Then there is also Winey 101, which features wines from the husband and wife winemaker owners; The State Bar, an indoor-outdoor bar with yard games and both local wines and beers; Provisioner Wines, which is a side brand of Arizona Stronghold with exceptional canned wines and one of the best rosès in the state; and Small Batch Wine & Spirits, a family-owned tasting room and bottle shop with both boutique wines and craft beers.
Beyond Cottonwood’s ultra-convenient Main Street offerings, be sure to also set aside time for the other similarly spectacular wineries in the AVA as well.
I visit the Page Springs (a k a Cornville) region at least twice a year. Up there, Alcantara Vineyards is a long-time favorite. This family-owned vineyard, which is focused on sustainable farming and offers nearly 20 varietals for taste and purchase along with antipasto, cheese and sweets plates, not only boasts a massive deck overlooking the Verde River and its vines, but kayak tours before tasting. About 10 minutes from Alcantara is one of the vineyards that helped put Arizona on the map: Page Springs Cellars. This winery and vineyard tucked into the volcanic landscape overlooking pristine Oak Creek Canyon, Page Springs produces Rhone-style wines, working primarily with Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Mourvedre. Oh, and guess what: certain times of the year they offer massages in the vineyard, yoga programs and more!
Just half a mile from Page Springs is Javelina Leap, which makes about 3,000 cases of estate-grown wine each year and is across the street from both a bird sanctuary (tip: bring your binoculars) and the State Fish Hatchery. Oh, they also have a true French-style traditional methode champenoise rosé, the first of its kind in Arizona thanks to second generation winemaker and estate enologist Lucas Reed. And…hidden behind the main tasting room space is an insanely good bistro, so getting small bites to pair with your tasting is a must here. Oh, so are the chocolate truffles. Mmmmm, truffles and red wine.
Less than 30 minutes west of Javelina is the Southwest Wine Center, which is home to Yavapai College’s Viticulture and Enology program. A full-scale winery and farm features a 13-acre teaching vineyard where students of all ages take part in the ultimate hands-on approach to learning. Nestled into the vineyard is an opulent tasting room and patio, where wine tastings are available Saturday and Sunday by reservation.
Finally, do not miss a taste or two in Jerome. Once a ghost town, the Jerome of today is a mecca for oenophiles, thanks in great part to the previously noted Keenan, who actually lives in the town. Beyond Merkin in Cottonwood, he also has a tasting room, Caduceus Cellars, up the hill in Jerome, and people come from all over the world to taste up there.
Sip across Southern Arizona
Southern Arizona has abundant wineries and vineyards. I am particularly in love with the Willcox AVA, which is located about three hours from the Valley. It leads Arizona wine grape production by growing 74 percent of the state’s wine grapes and is the source of the most highly rated Arizona wines by Wine Spectator, San Francisco Chronicle, tastings.com and the Arizona Republic.
Start out any visit down south with Keeling Schaefer. For more than 20 years, Keeling Schaefer – Rod Keeling and Jan Schaefer to be exact – has led the surge in quality winemaking in Arizona. Almost all of their wines are single varietal, and all of the grapes are grown on just two vineyards. The team especially excels at Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier and the little-known Picpoul Blanc. More popular in France, this white varietal has a crisp acidity and almost a pineapple essence. The bright and airy tasting room is located in the heart of Willcox in a refurbished building that was the Willcox Bank and Trust more than 100 years ago.
Also, don’t miss Carlson Creek. Though it has a tasting room in Scottsdale and winery/tasting room in Cottonwood, Willcox is home to Carlson Creek’s actual vineyard property, which – at 280 acres – is one of the largest in the state, though is still a family business made up of two brothers and their dad. It is also home to the flagship tasting room, which is just across the railroad tracks from Keeling, set behind an adorable white picket fence that will offer a fun “Ozzie and Harriett” photo moment. Their vineyard produces a variety of award-winning wines, including everything from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Grenache Rosé to Syrah, Malbec, Mourvèdre, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The best bet is a flight as well as a bottle of Rule of Three if with a group. Its jammy blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre will tickle the taste buds of even the most discerning wine drinker.
Aridus Wine Company is also making lights-out good wine in Willcox. Like Carlson, there is a tasting room in Scottsdale for Aridus, which is also similarly family owned. In 2009, a Canadian husband-and-wife team–who first met in middle school and worked together in the wine business in Sonoma before making the move to Arizona to start Aridus–purchased land in the Willcox AVA and got to work, naming the vineyard Aridus, a play on the Latin word “arid,: as a tribute to their desert setting. The stylish cellar formally opened in 2012, and the tasting room nearby (nearly next door to Carlson, in fact) soon after. Both are open for tours and tastings, but the tasting room may be most convenient as it is next door to Carlson Creek so eliminates the need for driving. Plus, the tasting room is super modern; with a cool combination of wood and steel inside, giving a warmed industrial feeling that really sets the mood for an experience.
Stroll through Scottsdale
If a visit up north or down south isn’t in the cards straight away, you can also get your Arizona wine fix in Old Town Scottsdale, where there are several tasting rooms just a short walk from one another, starting with Merkin Vineyards Old Town. Merkin serves wines from its brand and Caduceus Cellars, its sister brand. Both are high elevation wines made in the tradition of Spain and Italy. The tasting room offers wine by the glass and bottle as well as Arizona craft beers and nonalcoholic options, plus an impressive food menu. There is also a storefront that features both brands plus Keenan’s Puscifer label and featured bottles from sister Arizona wineries for purchase.
Walking distance from Merkin on the Scottsdale Waterfront, LDV Winery Tasting Room brings a piece of LDV’s vineyard – located near the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona – to the heart of Old Town Scottsdale on Stetson Drive. LDV Winery specializes in wines produced from Rhone-varietal grapes including Viognier, Grenache, Syrah and Petite Sirah. The tasting room offers several flight options as well as wines by the glass, bottle and for purchase. There are snacks and cheese plate for purchase as well as regular events.
Located near Merkin and LDV, Carlson Creek is one of three tasting rooms from the family-owned boutique winery Carlson Creek Vineyard (as you have seen from the above). The 2,300-sq.-ft. space, which was a former art gallery and still shows the works of artists each month, offers guests the opportunity to taste more than a dozen of its varietals ranging from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat to Sangiovese, Mourvedre and Grenache Rosé. Cheese boards are also available with an assortment of artisan cheese, meats, marinated olives, nuts and dried fruits.
Aridus Wine Company also has a tasting room along the trail. The modern space currently offers tasting flights that focus on wines made using a blend of the best of Old World and New World styles as well as snacks and charcuterie boxes. One other I always stop by when along the trail: Salvatore Vineyards Scottsdale. This tasting room and brand is owned by the Domanico family, whose roots are in Sicily and Italy. The family – who also own the Passion Cellars label – grows its grapes in Willcox and is known for its crisp, fruit-forward white wines and complex red wines. At the tasting room, guests can mix and match flights with both Passion Cellars and Salvatore (generally the reserve wines are under the Salvatore brand) options and pair them with several cheese plate options.
One Last Pour
To make planning easy, last summer the Arizona Office of Tourism launched the digital Arizona Wine Trail Passport to help travelers find nearby tasting rooms and special offers. With more than 120 wineries, tasting rooms and vineyards around the state, there are plenty of places to explore.
And finally, to put the exclamation point on what’s sure to be a great new annual celebration, the Arizona Wine Grower’s Association is hosting the Governor’s Cup Awards and Wine Festival at Tarbell’s Wine Store on March 27. The outdoor event will include booths from more than 20 local Arizona vineyards, fantastic Tarbell’s food and live music.