Monday, March 10, 2014


Wineaux, were you aware that lil' ol' ARIZONA is manufacturing some really phenomenal juice?!

Yes, land of the saguaro cacti and desert sun, Arizona has three main wine regions and is home to around eighty-three licensed and bonded wineries. I recently visited the Sonoita AVA (located about an hour south of Tucson) to meet some winemakers and sample their wares. [Sonoita is currently the only AZ region granted an American Viticultural Area designation.]

I've tasted wines from less-familiar winemaking states in the past, noting varying degrees of success. Many states, like CT and IN, are often forced to use hybrid grapes to combat the challenges in climate and terroir they face. Others, like MI and NM, find pockets of land where decent vitis vinifera wine can be made. In Arizona, the potential is huge... but there's a reason you may not yet be on the AZ wine bandwagon: availability. Each winery I visited had an incredibly small production, yet most spoke of exponential growth in the near future.

Historically, 16th-century Spanish Jesuit missionaries planted vines in Arizona to make sacramental wine. But strict laws from Prohibition and other legislation put a stop to AZ winemaking until the 1970s when the soil scientist Dr. Gordon Dutt noticed that the red clay Arizona soil had some similarities to that of Burgundy. He was involved in other agricultural projects around the Southwest, but when he got the AZ wine ball rolling, it quickly gathered momentum.  

Now there are around fourteen wineries in the Sonoita area, and on a recent overcast Sunday, I stopped by four of them to see what this little "secret" AVA was about. I was joined by my friend Aaron—a Tucson resident, editor, photographer, and budding Wineau.

Flying Leap Vineyards front porch.
First stop was FLYING LEAP VINEYARDS, INC. Marc Moeller, the co-founder and winemaker, described how he and his partner Mark Beres took over the former Canelo Hills property a few years ago. They absorbed some Canelo inventory, but quickly set to planting vines of their own. Now they have 6.5 acres of vines in Sonoita and about 20 acres in Willcox, another AZ wine region. Flying Leap has the feel of a real working winery, and while Marc wants to double in size over the next six to seven years, he still struggles with juggling the output he has now in his small space, likening it to an ongoing game of Tetris.

As AZ winemakers expand in their booming industry, there are a handful of wines still being made with grapes or juice from other regions—some quite lovely, but I'm going to focus on the unique terroir of AZ fruit, like the 2009 Canelo Hills Zinfandel. Very pale garnet color, lots of black pepper spice and dark fruit. Light but quite spicy with a bit of acidity. Nice pizza-sauce-y character (you know: oregano, tomato stem, that kind of thing.) $22.50

I quite enjoyed the 2011 Flying Leap Graciano. Graciano is more well known in Spain, but is well served here: light ruby color, rich notes of blackberry, black currant, violets, licorice, spice, and a bit of barnyard earthiness on the nose and palate. $29.11

The 2010 Canelo Hills Cabernet Sauvignon was a medium garnet color with an intriguing note of cumin in the nose, and cedar and bright red fruit. Nice balance through the finish, and although it was light in style, it could age well for about five years. $32.96

Aaron's favorite of the tasting was the 2011 Flying Leap Head Over Heels, which was a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Mourvèdre, and Merlot. Medium garnet color, heady nose of mesquite, smoke, black fruits, and charcoal. Well blended, and the integrated tannins helped add a solid structure. $30.85

Tempranillo had its own showcase with the 2012 Flying Leap Estate Tempranillo—a medium garnet, very earthy/merde-y character, with fragrant eucalyptus and a nice light but long finish that was smoooooth. $38.33

Marc pulled out his 2009 Flying Leap Sangiovese to share with us: very, very pale garnet with a nose of forest floor, dried spice and caramel, and with those elements on the palate, notes of figs, anise, and dry Madeira. Aaron chimed in that he was getting "butterscotch... and actual Scotch." (Yes!) Very elegant and rich, rich, rich. $31.95

Marc and his tasting room manager Rolf were so approachable, and took pride in greeting every person who came through the door while we were there. Their customer interaction was an early hint that these AZ wineries would be absolutely defined by their proprietors. As we talked more about the wines and their plans for the future, Marc excitedly brought out two bottles of barrel samples for us to try:

The 2012 Flying Leap Grenache was a pale ruby, with smoke and cherry liqueur on the nose, and a mouth of peppery spice, cherry, and a bit of caramel, and the 2010 Flying Leap Graciano was a medium ruby, with violet florals, forward berry salad, quite perfume-y with sweet oak and black fruits and a long, smooth finish.

It is always an honor to be surprised with barrel samples, and Aaron and I headed off to our next appointment wondering if the hospitality was a fluke or would be the norm... and quickly discovered it was the norm.

Entrance at Kief-Joshua Vineyards.
When we arrived at KIEF-JOSHUA VINEYARDS, Kief Manning himself was rushing to find a screwdriver as a klatch of Sunday regulars were having a grand old time in the tasting room. There was an omelet station outside, and a warm, festive atmosphere.

Kief spent some time traveling around Europe as a youngster, and started working at a wine shop at age 15. That led to his experimenting with making wine, which has since snowballed. He wants to stay a relatively small operation, but plans to double in size over the next ten years. When I asked what that would entail, he replied, "Well, we're gonna need employees by that point."

The 2012 Kief-Joshua Cephus (90% Viognier, 10% Chardonnay) was pale with a green tint, lots of tropical fruits on the nose, and tart citrus, pear, and a bit of barnyard as an anchor. $18

I loved the incredible floral tones of the 2011 Kief-Joshua Lacrime Divino (80% Syrah, 20% Viognier) which were enhanced by licorice, a lot of mocha, and light red and black fruits. Soft tannins and a smooth finish. $28

The smooth trend continued with the 2012 Kief-Joshua Magdalena (72% Barbera, 28% Cabernet Franc). Rich, velvety black fruit, notes of graphite and eucalyptus, layers of flavor and mild, integrated tannins. $29. I remarked that his red wines had a nice structure even with the incredibly soft tannins, and Kief said with a shrug, "People don't want to age wine anymore; they want to drink!"

Finally, we sampled the 2012 Kief-Joshua Zinfandel (late harvest). A deep ruby color, loads of fresh rosemary with mesquite and cinnamon on the nose. Very ripe plum and fig in the mouth, this had a somewhat sweet finish, but wasn't at all cloying—my notes say "very interesting,"—while it would pair well with dessert or cheese, I'd be curious to try it with a meaty, flavorful hunk of beef. $32

Already we had tasted single varieties and blends, from international grapes as well as signature grapes from Italy, Spain and the Rhône... yet the wide-ranging potential of Arizona wines seemed barely scratched.

Bocce courts and vines at Lightning Ridge
And the trend of hospitality continued at LIGHTNING RIDGE CELLARS where owner and winemaker Ann Roncone ushered us immediately into her barrel room to taste a number of barrel samples. A former mechanical engineer, Ann began by making garage wine at her home in the Bay Area near San Francisco. Her oenophile interest quickly led her to twenty acres in Sonoita where she took a former grazing property and built a winery from the ground up.

After discovering that "Italian reds like it here," she has focused on red Italian varietals, like the 2013 Lightning Ridge Aglianico, which was a very dark ruby red with a luxe nose of plum and cherry. Some licorice and cherry liqueur came through on the finish, though the wine still seemed a little youthful and green. Ann nodded at her glass and said, "It's like a teenager, being stupid." Guess that teenager will remain confined to his oak "room" for a while!

I really loved the 2011 Lightning Ridge Montepulciano: a heady nose of oregano, with lots of red fruit and spice. Very warm and rich with a long finish of herbs, well-balanced. My notes say, "Fantastic, tasty, slurping," meaning (I think) I wanted to lap this up all day.

As we tasted, Ann clarified the issue behind why Arizona wine was such a mystery to the rest of the country: most estates are so small that they sell almost ALL of their wine on site in the tasting room! Finding a distributor is ultimately not cost-effective. (Perhaps as these wineries grow, they can work together to get more of their wine out to the rest of the country, but for now they are clearly worth a visit if you're in the Tucson area.)

After departing the barrel room, we sampled a few of Ann's current wines, like the 2013 Lightning Ridge Muscat Canelli, with fragrant florals and pear on the nose, a bit of a "grapey" feel, very very light and vinified totally dry. A very pleasant white wine, perfect for an aperitif.

The 2010 Lightning Ridge Montepulciano was also wonderful, with a pizza-dough-y spice, a hint of barnyard, and lovely development, with jammy black cherry fruit, and a well-balanced finish with good acidity.

Although Ann advocates educating consumers about varietals that may be new to them, she does make the fine 2011 Lightning Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. With a nose of eucalyptus and cedar, and soft cassis and red cherry in the mouth, this very light Cab has an easy, pleasant finish.  (While all prices were not available, most of the Lightning Ridge wines sell in the $22-29 range.)

Front stoop at Callaghan Vineyards
We bid goodbye to Ann to head to our last stop of the day, CALLAGHAN VINEYARDS. Kent Callaghan is one of the pioneers of modern Sonoita winemaking, and Ann herself singled him out as a "standard-bearer" for the region. The tasting room ambiance was convivial, and it was evident that the production area that spread out into the room beyond was an exercise in organization.

In fact, Kent routinely pulls out and replants vines to experiment with many different varieties, and his tasting sheet reads like an encyclopedia of grapes.

We started with his only estate white, the 2012 Callaghan Lisa's: a field blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Malvasia Bianca. It had a very aromatic nose, with peach and apricot notes, and a long, fresh finish with integrated acidity. $28

Another white from 100% Arizona fruit was the 2010 Callaghan Ann's, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Verdelho, and Symphony (Muscat crossed with Grenache Blanc.) A soapy, lemon nose, with nice mountain florals, soft melon, a bit of pear, and a soft, balanced finish. $25

I quite enjoyed the 2012 Callaghan Mourvedre, with a nose of crunchy red fruit and earth, and notes of pepper and cherry, very juicy and quaffable, nice and bright but with a smooth finish. $28

The 2012 Callaghan Graciano had a dusty, floral nose with a bit of mossy tang. Lots of herbs on the palate, pepper, and a bright note of grapefruit pith. $28

We tasted two vintages of the Callaghan Padres: the 2009 is a blend of Tempranillo, Gernache and Syrah, with a sexy nose of velvety red fruit, good acidity, and raspberry and mocha notes. $35. The 2007 is a blend of Tempranillo, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Plush nose of blue and black fruits, and cigar leaf, a little merde, nice acidity and apparent tannins. $NA

When I asked Kent about his winery's potential growth, he inferred that he was almost a bigger operation than he wanted to be, and I got the feeling that he'd rather jog right back into the vineyard or the blending room instead of answering any more questions. He did jog to a case in the back of the room and pulled out a few single varietals he wanted us to try: the 2012 Callaghan Petit Verdot, which had strong notes of blackberry, Asian spices and a woodsy quality. Nice density and sexiness in the mouth, with a long finish. $NA. And the 2012 Callaghan Tannat, of which he only made two barrels. I loved the big notes of berry salad and cassis on the nose, with pencil shavings. It's a pretty huge wine, with a bit of grapefruit citrus that keeps it light. Excellent richness and complexity. $NA.

Aaron and I headed back to Tucson with a few of our favorite bottles in the back seat, and I pondered the future of Arizona winemaking. Considering the difficulty in distribution of such small quantities, I wondered how AZ wine would ever claim its deserved place on the U.S. wine map. However, the near-exponential growth of their industry over the past five years does hint to unlimited potential in the future. Unless these wines stay where they are: born, raised and consumed in the neighborhood.

It could go either way, and is up to the winemakers themselves; for as Kent said, "These are people who like what they do—out working in the vineyard, not jetting around, trying to sell wine."

All I can say is that amazing wines are being made in Arizona, and it's worth a trip, if that's the only way you may get to sample them. Cheers!

[All photographs by Aaron Downey ©2014 All rights reserved.]