La Hacienda de Sonoita sits in the center of the scenic wine-growing region in southern ArizonaEXPAND
La Hacienda de Sonoita sits in the center of the scenic wine-growing region in southern Arizona
Cheryl Rogos

We Tasted More Than 80 Sonoita-Elgin Wines ... So You Can Just Drink Them

The Santa Cruz County cruiser's lights began flashing just as I turned off Highway 83 onto the dirt road that led to the bed and breakfast where my wife and I were staying.

Oh, was I dreading the question as I pulled to the side.

"Have you been drinking, sir?"

"Well, I tasted 80 wines in the past 26 hours. But I was just sipping, not really drinking."

And there were 17 bottles in the back seat.

Fortunately, he didn't ask. Instead, he said, "The light over your license plate is out, sir. I'm going to give you a repair order."

Whew.

That was sobering. But in fact, it had been more than four hours since we completed our tasting marathon of the Sonoita-Elgin wine region, one of only two   only federally designated American Viticultural Areas. Willcox is the other. The Sonoita-Elgin AVA covers more 300 square miles in the plains below the Santa Rita, Huachuca, and Whetstone mountain ranges.

We stopped at nine of the area's 15 tasting rooms and one distillery between 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 2, and 4:30 p.m. the next day.

It was an intoxicating tour.

We have taken winecations to Sonoma, Napa, the Russian River Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley (think Sideways), and the Anderson Valley in California, and the Verde Valley north of Phoenix. We've also done considerable consumption in Italy and France. But this was our first venture to southern Arizona, and we left impressed, sated, and with enough of the local product to pick up a whole lotta DUIs.

Our haul from the Sonoita-Elgin wine region.EXPAND
Our haul from the Sonoita-Elgin wine region.
Stuart Warner

I should quickly point out that we are not wine snobs. I'm not sure what a great nose is, unless it's on Jimmy Durante. Nor do I detect hints of raspberry or asparagus when I'm drinking. Don't care. We enjoy trying different wines and, through a lot of practice, our tastes have improved. There was a time, for instance, when I believed Orson Welles was telling the truth about Paul Masson.

But we do feel competent enough to tell you that you should appreciate the quality and variety of Arizona's young but rapidly maturing wine industry. We are regulars in the Verde Valley; an afternoon of tasting and dining at Page Springs Cellars is one of our favorite quick getaways. We love the mile-high tasting rooms in Jerome, but aren't crazy about the drive back down the mountain afterward.

We still haven't been to Willcox, which is where the majority of the state's grapes are grown, but we've sampled enough wine produced there to assure you that it's a true asset for Arizona.

We found our visit to Sonoita-Eligin, which is about 45 minutes south of Tucson, comparable to the Anderson Valley, which is between Napa and Mendocino on Highway 128 in northern California. It's quiet with very little to do after the sun goes down. Most of the vineyards are family owned, and you go there for the wine, not the scene.

As I said, we really did taste around 80 wines ... at some point, you just lose count. A tasting of five or six wines are $10 to $11, unless you have your own glass. Then they are $5 to $7. The trick is to buy the glass at the first tasting and use it for all the others.

I can truthfully say we didn't find one wine that wasn't worth drinking, although a few may be overpriced for casual consumers.

Here's a quick summation of our tour de vines:

SATURDAY

Dos Cabezas WineWorks, 3248 Highway 82, Sonoita, owned by Todd and Kelly Bostock — If there is such a thing as downtown Sonoita, the Dos Cabezas WineWorks is at the center of it, surrounded by several restaurants, gift shops, and the Sonoita Inn and two rental units attached to the winery. This was our first stop after we arrived around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, so we each had a tasting of five wines, and we shared those with each other. Maybe we should have had something to eat first, because we bought two bottles, a 2015 meskioli, a spritely white, for $28, and then we plunked down $50 for a La Montana, a red blend of Willcox grapes. The vintner only makes about 150 cases of it each year. Later Saturday evening, we also had a bottle of Dos Cabezas' Arizona Grower's Cup champion El Norte ($30 retail) to accompany our massive chunks of red meat at The Steak Out across the highway. Tastings: Thursday through Sunday,10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The full Monty, a 105-pound Great Dane, greets you at Lightning Ridge Cellars
The full Monty, a 105-pound Great Dane, greets you at Lightning Ridge Cellars
Stuart Warner

Lightning Ridge Cellars, 2368 Highway 83, Sonoita, owned by Ann Roncone, 520-455-5383. You come for the wine, but you stay to pet Monty, a 105-pound Great Dane who greets you as you drive up to the winery and steals the show once you're inside the small tasting room. We tried to behave ourselves and shared one tasting of six wines made from grapes based on the family's Italian heritage. Our favorite was a 2013 sangiovese ($24) with grapes grown in Paso Robles, California. Tastings: Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m to 4 p.m.

Arizona Hops & Vines, 3450 Highway 82, owned by Megan Haller. With a large tasting room and even larger outdoor space, Hops & Vines was the liveliest spot we visited. It bills itself as the only female-owned and -managed winery in the state. It also stays open later than any of the others that we visiting, closing at 6 p.m. A $10 cheese plate was one of the few food items we saw.  Again, pacing ourselves, we shared a tasting of six wines, taking home Cheers, a grenache, syrah, and mourvedre blend, for $26. Thankfully, the winery is within walking distance of our bed and breakfast. Tastings: Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Arizona Hops and Vines tasting room perpetuates a sense of fun.EXPAND
The Arizona Hops and Vines tasting room perpetuates a sense of fun.
Stuart Warner

SUNDAY

Sonoita Vineyards, 290 Elgin Canelo Road, owned by Lori Reynolds. Okay, yes, 10 a.m. is early to be drinking wine in the Pacific Time Zone, but we're from the east, so we were ready for the challenge. Sonoita Vineyards was the first vineyard in the region, founded in 1978 by former University of Arizona professor Gordon Dutt. We had a filling breakfast, so we started with six tastings each, adding a dozen more tastes to our total. Not a bad one among them. We brought home a bottle of MeCaSah, a dry red blend, for $28. Tastings: daily 10 a.m. through 4 p.m.

Village of Elgin Winery, 471 Elgin Road, owned by Gary Reeves. Serious drinkers could stay here all day because the complex also includes a brewery and a distillery, making it the only one in the state with all three, according to our pourer. We decided to stick with wine because it was still before noon. We shared one tasting of six wines and couldn't decide which we liked best, a Bella Rosa Blush for $30 that my wife said was the best blush she's ever tasted, or a crisp 2015 Wilcox Ava Riesling for $23. So we bought both. I almost plunked down another $25 for a Tombstone Rain, a semisweet white, but decided we should pace our budget better. Tastings: Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Flying Leap Vineyards, 342 Elgin Road, owned by Mark Beres, Marc Moeller, and Rolf-Peter Sasse. Okay, just one more before lunch, we said. And this was the best. The other couples staying at our bed-and-breakfast thought so, too. The Flying Leap is owned by three former military flying buddies, thus the name. We shared a dozen tastes of the Spanish-style wines and were so impressed we joined the Flying Leap Wine Club, purchasing six bottles. Our favorite must have been the 2015 Trio, a white blend that is $32 before the club discount. Flying Leap has also opened a tasting room in Prescott, where we will pick up our next club shipment.  And did I mention we hadn't had lunch yet? So we stopped at Flying Leap's distillery next door and sampled a vodka distilled from wine grapes, a sweet orange liqueur, Arancello, that would make a fabulous margarita, and a lavender infused brandy liqueur, but  at least we didn't buy any of the hard stuff. Okay, now it was time to eat. Tastings: daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Hannah's Hill Vineyard, 3989 Highway 82, owned by Ann and Jim Gardner. The Phoenix couple are still commuting to Sonoita on weekends, but Ann Gardner told us they are planning to move south full time soon. The vineyard is named after their daughter. What began as a hobby has turned into an award-winning family operation. The family includes two white German shepherds, rescue dogs that helped us find the modest tasting room, which we almost overlooked. We shared 10 tastings, settling on a 2012 California petite sirah ($25) to add to our collection. Tastings: Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Rune prides itself on its energy conservation as well as its wines.EXPAND
Rune prides itself on its energy conservation as well as its wines.
Stuart Warner

Rune, 3969 Highway 82, owned by James Callahan. Another fairly new winery next door to Hannah's Hill, Rune prides itself on energy efficiency, running much of its operation on solar power. Both places have gorgeous views as well as excellent wines. We split five tastes, and took home a 2014 viognier, made from grapes grown in Cochise County. Tastings: Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Callaghan Vineyards, 336 Elgin Road, owned by Kent Callaghan. We thought we were saving perhaps Arizona's best-known winery for last. Wine expert Robert Parker calls Callaghan Vineyards (the owner pronounces the "g") “one of the most interesting wineries in America.” Callaghan's wines have been served at the White House four times, including at President Bill Clinton's final state dinner. The place was packed at 3 p.m., but we slogged through the crowd for 10 more tastes. Picking a favorite was tough. Among the reds, the 2013 mourvedre and the 2013 tempranillo were both excellent. So was Barrett's, a sparkling white made from grapes grown on the site. But we decided to take home two other reds, a 2014 Al's Syrah, made from 100 percent syrah grapes grown at Sam Pillsbury's vineyard and a 2015 petit verdot. And that would have been the end of our journey, except, as we were driving back to our room around 4 p.m. we saw a sign pointing off the beaten path. Tastings: Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Wilhelm Family Vineyards, 21 Mountain Ranch Road, owned by Kevin and Karyl Wilhelm. As we started the drive back to our bed and breakfast around 3:45 p.m., we spotted a small sign for the Wilhelm Family Vineyards ... well, why not? Normally, it closes at 4 p.m., but on this holiday weekend it was staying open until 5. Kevin and Karyl, who is also the winemaker, both served in the military. Now, she was serving a thirsty packed house. Apparently, a lot of people thought they had time for just one more stop. We had to admire her patience as well as her wines. We bought an excellent bottle of Kevin's choice, a tempranillo blend, for $25, and called it a day around 4:30. Just then, a busload more of drinkers pulled into the parking lot. Tastings: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

There is more to the Sonoita region than wine: Not a lot, but the rodeo was in town during Labor Day weekend. There didn't seem to be a lot of crossover among the wine and cowboy crowds.

The great room at La Hacienda de Sonoita is really great.EXPAND
The great room at La Hacienda de Sonoita is really great.
Cheryl Rogos

Accommodations: We stayed at a wonderful bed and breakfast, La Hacienda de Sonoita, run by Tom and Cheryl Rogos. He's a retired banker, she worked in high tech, but their 5,000-square-foot home and hospitality inn "pays homage to Southern Arizona's ranching heritage," according to Arizona Highways magazine. "Saltillo floors, finished concrete, and cowboy ephemera give the hacienda a rustic feel." Tom cooks a hardy breakfast, and you can buy Cheryl's solemn photographs of the Southwest at a reasonable price. There are four rooms for let. Ours, a single with a queen bed, went for $140 per night including breakfast. The Sonoita Inn is the largest hotel. There are also a couple of other B&Bs in the area, and the Xanadu Ranch Getaway offers the full Western experience.

The smoky prime rib at the Steak Out with Dos Cabezas El Norte was a perfect way to end our first day in Sonoita.
The smoky prime rib at the Steak Out with Dos Cabezas El Norte was a perfect way to end our first day in Sonoita.
Stuart Warner

Dining: The Steak Out Restaurant and Saloon has the ambience of Phoenix's Rustler's Roost, including a live country band at nights, but its mesquite-grilled meats are as good as you'll get at Donovan's or Durants. My hunk of prime rib was perfect. Surprisingly, though, the wine menu was limited. More of a beer-drinking joint, I guess. We had an excellent light lunch both days at the Vineyard Cafe, which is just across highway 82 from the Steak Out. We missed dinner at The Cafe, which is closed on Sunday nights, but heard excellent reviews from others.  And both cafes have a wide selection of local wines, if you're still in the mood after tasting them all day.

Just be sure you've given yourself a few hours to sober up before you do any driving.

Correction: This story originally stated incorrectly that Sonoita-Elgin was the only AVA in Arizona.

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