On a recent trip to Sedona, Arizona, I expected to be wowed by the majestic red rock formations in the Verde Valley. I did not expect to be wowed by local wine!
Like many places in the world producing sacramental wines, Arizona was first planted to vines several hundred years ago by Franciscan monks. Crossing an equally common long gap in wine production, Arizona’s first commercial winery was founded in 1983.
Two of Arizona’s established wine regions are situated in the southern part of the state near Tucson where high elevation desert — sunny, hot and rocky — offers perfect conditions for winegrowing. But north-central Verde Valley is emerging as a serious contender. A drive through the red rocks tells you why at a glance. Thousands of years of volcanic history speak clearly in layers of sandstone rock striations. Together with the alluvial remnants of the Verde River, the soil imbues minerality and distinctive flavors into more than 100 French, Italian, and hybrid grape varieties. Wide temperature swings intensify the complexity of grape flavors (although frost is a persistent risk).
The Page Springs area of the Verde Valley is about 100 miles north of Phoenix, between Prescott and Flagstaff. This is the sub-zone where most vineyards and tasting rooms have popped up. Grapes also grow in and around the small towns of Cottonwood, Jerome, and Camp Verde, three communities eager to welcome visitors.
The Verde Valley Wine Trail includes 22 wine tasting rooms. Wine Tours of Sedona offers multiple tours to fit travel schedules and personal interests. And if you happen to be in Phoenix in January, the Arizona Wine Growers Association partners with the Southern Arizona Arts & Cultural Alliance to present “The Grand Wine Festival.” For more information and maps of Arizona wines, be sure to check out AZWINE Lifestyle.
Setting a Benchmark: Page Springs Cellars
Winemaker Eric Glomski is a Verde Valley pioneer. Armed with a dream dating back to 1990 to make wine in central Arizona, he learned the business in California. In 2003, he bought an ideal property along the banks of Oak Creek. (Glomski has also made wine for other Arizona wine labels along the way.) Producing about 8,000 cases of wine a year, Page Springs Cellars owns 21 acres of vineyard property, and purchases about 40% of its grapes.
Page Springs Cellars offers a sophisticated tasting room and bistro where visitors can taste several different flight combinations of 5 wines each. These menus change as Glomski produces a wide range of varietal and blended wines.
Executive Chef Michael Wolfson has created an inventive menu for snacking on charcuterie, pizza, pinxtos (small plates), and amazing little mason jars of rillettes perfect for spreading on crunchy bread in the tasting room or outdoors on picnic tables. Helping to build the Verde Valley experience, Page Springs Cellars also offers an outdoor bocce ball court, and massage and yoga packages. Shipping is available only within Arizona.
During my visit in early February, I sampled a flight of white, rosé, and 3 reds, called “The Combo”:
- 2017 Vino del Barrio Blanca (“white wine from the neighborhood”) — Blend of 6 white grapes including Italian Malvasia Bianca, French Grenache Blanc, and hybrid Vidal Blanc. Refreshing acidity, hints of flowers and lemon peel. Perfect for an afternoon sip on the patio.
- 2017 House Mountain Counoise Rosé — Deeply colored, dry, earthy rosé best with food.
- 2017 Wilcox Merlot (100%) — Light ruby color and body, aged in neutral oak. Unusual — a bit vegetal, earthy, with almost Burgundian notes (to a non-Burgundy grape!!).
- 2016 Campania — Red blend of Italian grapes Aglianico and Sangiovese, plus Merlot. Rich red-fruit and spicy aromas, bright acidity, moderate tannins. Drink now or hold.
- 2016 El Serrano (“man of the mountain”) — Red blend of French grapes Syrah and Mourvèdre , with Petite Sirah (the American name for a French cross called Durif), is Page Springs Cellars’ flagship wine (for good reason!). Spices and fruit on the nose, subtle pepper notes on the palate. Perfect with grilled meat.
Scary Good Wine
Jerome has quite a reputation. In the 1800s, it was home to some 15-20,000 people associated with the copper mining industry. When the mines closed in the 1950s, Jerome became a “ghost town.” And there it is … you must visit Jerome for the possible adventure of meeting a phantom resident!
Today, Jerome is a come-back kid. This tiny but mighty town boasts several wine tasting rooms, antique shops, restaurants/bars, and an artists’ colony that supports local galleries. (Shout out to Raku Gallery where I bought a gorgeous lamp made of blown glass in the likeness of paperweights.) There is even a degree and certificate program for viticulture and enology at Yavapai College in Clarksdale.
Maynard James (MJ) Keenan is perhaps better known as a Grammy-award winning vocalist for musical groups Tool and A Perfect Circle. Five times larger than Page Springs Cellars, Caduceus/Merkin owns 110 acres of vines. Keenan also founded a northern Arizona wine cooperative called Four Eight Wineworks (because Arizona was the 48th state in the Union), and runs an restaurant called Merkin Vineyards Osteria. In the tasting room, each wine selection offers a sleek “shelf-talker” with a brief, very helpful explanation of the wine and its provenance. Tasting room staff are equally knowledgeable and helpful.
Like Page Springs Cellars, Caduceus Cellars produces a range of French and Italian wines, with Spanish Tempranillo added to the mix. During my visit in early February, I sampled a flight of 5 reds. All bottles but one (“Chupacabra”) retail for $50. Shipping is available to many states.
- 2014 Le Cortigiane Oneste — Barbera and Merlot blend made from grapes grown in Cochise County. Savory herbs, sour notes to red fruit, an earthy/mineral finish. Hold.
- 2013 Nagual de la Paciencia (“patience) — An American homage to Italy’s Piedmont region, this wine is 80% Nebbiolo and 20% Barbera made from grapes grown in both Cochise and Yavapai Counties. Yes, tar and roses were evident. But patience will be needed for this wine: hold.
- 2017 Chupacabra — A Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Juicy, floral, fruity, and easy to drink. Smooth tannins. Our wine guide, Alissa, said this is her house wine!
- 2014 Sancha (“the mistress”) — Imagine that a wine lover is cheating on Syrah with 100% Tempranillo. Sancha garnered 92 points from James Suckling.
- 2015 Anubis — Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with the local twist of Petite Sirah. Full-bodied with velvety tannins. Best with grilled meat.