Maybe you don't have to be a rocket scientist to start a winery, but it couldn't hurt. Mark Beres, co-founder of Flying Leap with his former military pilot buddies Marc Moeller and Rolf-Peter Sasse, still works his day job, an engineer at defense contractor Raytheon. That training helped get the vineyard off to a flying start. "We did a lot of research and data-gathering before we started the company," Beres told Edible Baja Arizona in an interview. "We want to know everything before we make a decision. We're engineers and mathematicians so it's in our DNA. We studied Napa, and I mean we studied Napa. Why are some wineries successful and some not? What are they doing right and wrong? Why do customers go back?" The line of customers on a recent weekend at the tasting room in Sonoita-Elgin and at the adjacent distillery seems proof that they're doing something right. Flying Leap opened in 2010 and already has added tasting rooms in Willcox, Bisbee, and Prescott. The owners told us they've found the desert temperatures combined with the elevation of the vineyards in Willcox and the Sonoita-Elgin region are conducive to growing Spanish-style grapes, which are producing some excellent wines — white blends like a 2015 Trio and a 2016 Fly Girl, and reds like a 2014 Grenache, a 2014 Estate Tempranillo, and a 2014 Mourvedre. And certainly you don't need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate drinking them.

As you pull into the drive at Lightning Ridge Cellars, you are greeted by Monty, a huge Great Dane who can look you in the eye even when you're in an SUV. It can be a bit intimidating at first. Much the same can be said about Americans trying a new varietal of red wine. Think Paul Giamatti in Sideways: "No fucking merlot." He got us to try pinot noirs. Now maybe Monty, who is as gentle as this wine is smooth, can persuade you to try the wine she's named after, Lightning Ridge Cellars' 2013 Montepulciano. The Italian grape is rarely grown in the U.S., but former engineer Ann Rancone is making it work in Elgin. The grapes are 100 percent estate-grown, and aged for 38 months in East European oak barrels. If you have a nose for this sort of thing, you notice aromas and flavors of back cherry, plum, and — ex-smokers will love this — tobacco leaf. The 2013 Montepulciano was named Best in Class at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. And it was among the least expensive at $28. Alas, we would have brought a few bottles back with us, because it's not available in stores yet, but it was sold out. We settled for the latest, a 2016 vintage, but we prefer the full Monty.

Let's face it: White wine doesn't stay in the bottle long during the summertime in Arizona. One cool sip leads to another, then another, and the next thing you know, you've got another dead soldier in your hands. Arizona's growing wine industry produces several good whites, noticeably last year's Best of Phoenix winner Symphony Sweet Lies Reserve and this year's Arizona Growers Cup winner, the 2016 Wild Child White, both made by movie director and actor Sam Pillsbury's Pillsbury Wine Company in Cochise County. But we've developed a fondness for Flying Leap Vineyards' 2015 Trio, a blend of malvasia, grenache blanc, and picpoul grapes. The winery likens it to a classical trio of piano, violin, and cello playing in perfect harmony. Sure. We like Trio because drinking it is like biting into a chilled piece of fruit on a hot summer's day. (Is there any other kind here?) And you want to consume it all before the weather sweats away its crispness. Oops. There goes another empty bottle for the trash.

Wren House Brewing Co.
Lauren Cusimano

So many of the most innovative and headiest beers of the last year were released by this brewery, still in its toddler years. Piloted by Drew Pool and Preston Thoeny, central Phoenix's Wren House, already great, has only been getting greater. This past year, Wren House's Pie Series included an eerily dessert-like pecan pie wheat wine made with pecans smoked by local favorite barbecue joint Little Miss BBQ. Las Frescas, the brewery's fruit-infused sour line, recently debuted, changed weekly, and was the main summer attraction for geeky craft beer drinkers. Thoeny, the head brewer, even released a fruited sour IPA and a s'mores-inspired imperial stout. And here, yes, even a simple lager or kolsch hits the spot.

Many craft beer bars carry local just to carry local. The Wandering Tortoise is different, curating a selection with a rigor that shows that the owners, Shay Gau and Justin Evans, have a more complete understanding of beer. The Tortoise's 22 taps flow with some of the best and rarest offerings from top Arizona breweries, including Wren House, Arizona Wilderness, and Pueblo Vida. But the owners go further, procuring treasured kegs and cans from intriguing far-off breweries like Omnipollo (Sweden) and Melvin Brewing (Wyoming). A stunning selection of to-go bottles and cans awaits you as well. The Tortoise also does cider, mead, and rollicking events.

Josh and Jason Duren usually keep about 15 ciders flowing in their Mesa taproom. They also have cider aging in barrels at one end of the large space, as well as icy cider spinning in a slushy machine. Where most cideries are content with apple-flavored beverages, the Durens shift into new gears. They have apple ciders flavored with mango, black tea, and peach; with bacon and maple syrup; with cascara and pea flowers that turn the cider deeply violet and funky. Not every cider is great, but, thanks to the sheer creativity, every visit to the Cider Corps taproom is.

One of the great jolts to our food scene in recent memory has been the rise of Arizona Sake. Since 2017, Atsuo Sakurai, a native of Yokohama, Japan, has brewed incandescent sake in his Holbrook garage. He makes Junmai ginjo, an old-school sake that allows only rice, water, yeast, and koji (a kind of fungus) in production. Some of the town's most lauded chefs revere Arizona Sake, which changes batch to batch, week to week. Sakurai doesn't pasteurize or filter. He does everything the hard way. What he gets in the end is a beautifully floral sake with distinct Arizona spirit.

It's hard to know where to point the camera to get the perfect shot at Pop 'N Tea. Do you focus on the dessert shop's trademark diamond-shaped gelato and sorbet bars chilling behind the glass, employees standing by to add chocolate drizzle and the toppings of your choice? Or do you pose in front of the restaurant's grass-covered wall, where a bright pink sign reads, "Today Was a Good Day"? (Perhaps an homage to Ice Cube?) When it comes to the restaurants occupying My Florist Plaza on McDowell Road, Pop 'N Tea is easily the hippest. The concept for the store originated with a trio of friends from Southern California. It's not just geometric bars, either: Pop 'N Tea also serves boba with your choice of milk, white, or green teas, plus a selection of smoothies and slushies. On a typical night, you can expect to find a cool crowd lounging inside — just be prepared to wait your turn before you grab your phone and dart in front of the neon wall.

Hearth '61
Hearth '61

Stunning food optics are on nightly display at this upscale restaurant at Mountain Shadows Resort. "Food is a composition," executive chef Charles Wiley said last fall. "Your eye moves around the plate like a painting." Wiley's plating style veers classic. More of the visual fireworks here come from the aesthetics of Alfred Muro, chef de cuisine. Hearth '61's plates of food have explosive color. They have texture and smoothness and three-dimensionality. They are done up without being overdone. Salads snake through canyons of jagged rice crisps, and scallops stud orange seas of romesco. And yes, taste matches appearance.

They say you eat with your eyes first, which is to say that merely seeing food that looks appealing can make you hungry. Which might explain why we always leave Ruze Cake House with a pile of treats. The Old Town Scottsdale bakery continues to make some of the loveliest goodies in town. On any given day, you might find smooth, perfectly round macarons topped with chocolate and nuts, adorned with icing, or painted with a design; flawlessly decorated cookies (the bakery's Instagram account reveals themes like floral, stars and stripes, and marbled with gold accents); and eye-popping cakes for special occasions. Ruze recently began offering a limited brunch menu, and it's no surprise they do beautiful meals just as well as they do gorgeous desserts. And don't worry: When it's time to dig in, everything we've encountered has tasted just as good as it looks.

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