Wine lovers “in the know” have been watching Arizona advance into the earned status of a true wine destination over the past few years. That has taken a while—in fact, much longer than should have been the case. And, with apologies to the Grateful Dead, what a long strange trip it’s been. While we have the proper climate and soil—what the French call the terroir— to grow outstanding vitis vinifera wine grapes, and while this area had experienced winemaking success in the heyday of the mines in Jerome in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a particularly harsh Arizona prohibition was put in place five years before federal prohibition took effect in 1920, putting everyone out of business. The winemakers left the state. Under the national law, you simply couldn’t sell the product. In Arizona, however, you couldn’t make it, own it, consume it, or sell it; even sacramental wine was banned.
When national prohibition was repealed in 1933, everyone had forgotten about state laws—after all, you could drink legally again! And the bootleggers, of course, had to find a new profession. The state had agreed to ‘look the other way’ with the churches in 1915 to avoid a major lawsuit, but the law wasn’t actually changed until 1982! That’s also the year the first licensed winery and vineyard since prohibition was allowed to open for business, although with extreme restrictions and limitations on operations.
A few true pioneers took up the challenge. They quickly showed that Arizona could produce quality wine when an Arizona wine was served at the White House in 1989 for the George Bush inauguration. However, the business restrictions were so severe that only nine licenses had been issued at the new millennium and it didn’t seem to be possible to operate a successful business under those rules. Then, in 2006, a bill was passed that finally allowed wineries to operate as they do today. There are still some leftover archaic laws, like restrictive production limits (I like to ask legislators how many strawberries or tomatoes you can grow in Arizona), but these wine-making pioneers are proving Arizona’s worth as a wine-producing destination. With the new law, they could operate a tasting room and ship their product. They could maintain standing orders and establish and maintain client and membership lists. In other words, they could operate a winery essentially like they operate in other parts of the country.
What a difference that made! There are now over 100 licensed wineries in Arizona with more beginning production all the time. Vineyards are being planted and new ones are coming on line every year right here in the Verde Valley. And the quality has remained quite high. In fact, as the grapes mature and the skill levels continue to rise and mature, the array of high-quality wines goes up every year. And, for a wine lover, here’s the exciting part. They are making Arizona wine. They are not simply trying to make ‘California’ wine or ‘French’ wine or ‘Italian’ wine. They are experimenting and learning, with each vintage, which grapes do best where, and what winemaker techniques will prove to be most successful. They are constantly expanding the number of grape varietals in the mix; and they are experimenting with unique blends.
Classic Bordeaux grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are here, along with Burgundy varietals including Chardonnay, and some outstanding Zinfandel. But look for the normally harder to find Rhone varietals like Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Viognier, all of which grow very well here, or Spanish varietals like Tempranillo, or Italian varietals like Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Moscato, or Malvasia, which is rapidly becoming the Arizona white wine, to name just a few. At last count, there were at least 78 wine grape varietals in commercial production in Arizona. With such a variety of grapes, winemakers are developing some very interesting blends. And now we get to the fun part.
The most popular wine destination in Arizona is right here in the Sedona Verde Valley area. As this is being written, there are 26 winery-operated tasting rooms here, with more on the way. The really exciting part is that you don’t have to be a highly experienced wine connoisseur to enjoy a visit. While there is certainly plenty here to appeal to that segment of the wine drinking public, it’s a great place to experiment and learn as a novice. These places are operated and staffed by the pioneering winemakers who are making their mark here. They have traveled all over the world to learn their craft. The winemakers here have studied in California, Oregon, Washington, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Croatia, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, among other places. In other words, they have sought out quality winemakers and schools in the finest, well-established wine regions around the world to master their own skill set before coming to Arizona to make their own mark.
When you visit a winery tasting room here, you’re generally dealing with someone enthusiastically involved in the efforts to make something special; and they are delighted to show you the results in a fun, relaxed, setting. People constantly say it’s like what visiting a winery tasting room in a place like Napa was many years ago when winemakers and other staff actually took the time to visit and explain what they were doing. It’s a great place and a great way to learn why people are so interested in wine and to begin to pick a few favorites of your own. This isn’t judgmental, this is fun. It’s also an interesting way to explore and learn the area.
“There are winery tasting rooms in Sedona, Jerome, Cottonwood, Clarkdale, Camp Verde, and along Page Springs Road. ”
Story written by Tom Pitts Photos Provided by Wineries