We were making good time driving north on Interstate 17 at about 11:30 a.m. on Friday, May 10. I took the day off work so we could get an early start. That was important because the 90-minute drive can extend to two and a half hours on a busy weekend. “Traffic can get pretty bad coming from Phoenix on a Friday after work,” Paula Woolsey, vice president of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, reminded me later.
Then, we encountered temptation. Exit 262. Rock Springs Café. Pie. Cherry pie. Apple pie. Banana cream. Key lime. Blueberry crumb. Lemon meringue. And of course, the specialty of the house, Jack Daniels pecan pie.
Dare we take the bait? Risk our on-time arrival? No, I tell my wife (and driver). We don’t want to spoil our wine-drinking with an early dessert. We can stop on the way home Sunday.
And that was our mission. Forty-eight hours on the Verde Valley Wine Trail, which more and more is becoming a popular weekend getaway from the Valley of the Sun. It doesn’t hurt that summertime temps average 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in Phoenix, either.
Certainly, the lure of wine has been contributing of late to the traffic on I-17, which also carries travelers to Sedona, Jerome, Flagstaff, and Arizona’s ultimate vacation destination, the Grand Canyon.
That hardly used to be the case.
Fifteen years ago, there were only three tasting rooms in the Verde Valley, which includes Cottonwood, Clarkdale, Cornville, and Page Springs. Today, there are more than two dozen, including several in Jerome and Sedona.
Wine is still a boutique industry in Arizona, but vineyards generate $56 million annually in tourism dollars, according to a 2017 study by Northern Arizona University. An economic report for the National Organization of American Wineries is even more generous, calculating that Arizona’s 121 wine producers create a total annual economic impact of $3.3 billion and generate more than 187,000 tourist visits.
The Verde Valley, in Yavapai County, is one of three prime wine regions in the state along with Sonoita-Elgin in Santa Cruz County and Willcox in Cochise County, south of Tucson, where the majority of the state’s grapes are grown on much less expensive land.
And people like us, who used to take California winecations in Napa, Sonoma, the Anderson Valley, and Santa Barbara, have started staying closer to home. Even the New York Times has taken notice with a recent travel piece on the Verde Valley.
“We’re not California,” said Tom Schumacher, president of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, “but we have to be true to our own tastes, our own wine. And people are discovering that what they put in their mouths tastes pretty good.”
We’ve been to all three Arizona regions, and the Verde Valley easily has become the most amenable for an extended stay. There’s so much more to do than just drink wine all day (although that’s not a terrible alternative). Sonoita-Elgin and Willcox provide few additional options other than a view of the mountains and the Labor Day Rodeo.
The Verde Valley offers excellent restaurants plus museums, scenic train rides, Jeep tours, kayaking, birding, shopping, some nightlife, and, of course, the Cliff Castle Casino in nearby Camp Verde. There’s also the proximity to the attractions in Jerome and Sedona.
As a result, according to the NAU study, the Verde Valley is drawing younger visitors (average age 46 compared to 48 in the state overall) and wealthier ones, with 51 percent from households earning more than $150,000 per year compared to the other areas. These visitors spend an average of $84 per person on wine and 51 percent stay overnight, 9 percentage points higher than the state average.
“Wine is becoming interconnected with everything else,” said Woolsey, who uses the handle winewitch22 on her emails. “You can visit Out of Africa, then drink wine. You can ride the train and drink wine. You can take a kayaking trip and stop at a winery. Restaurants sell our local wines. We want everybody to get a piece of the pie.”
Ah, did you have to mention pie? We’ll get back to that later.
In the meantime, you’re welcome to join us on the rest of our 48-hour wine adventure
Friday, May 10, 12:15 p.m.
We arrived at our favorite wine tasting room, Page Springs Cellars, after finally exiting I-17 and a short drive through Cornville. Full disclosure: We have been among the 1,800 members of the Page Springs Cellars wine club for five years, which means we get a discount on purchases, free tastings, and priority seating on a covered deck overlooking Oak Creek and shaded by majestic sycamore and cottonwood trees. We usually pick up our annual shipments on-site so we can take advantage of our free tastings at the same time.
Owner Eric Glomski is one of Arizona’s wine pioneers. He opened in 2004, when there were only three tasting rooms in the region, his and neighbors Javelina Leap and Oak Creek, and only a dozen wineries in the state.
Laws passed in Arizona in 2006 eased restrictions on selling directly to consumers, allowing small wineries to compete with the big boys, and the industry took root here.
Page Springs has served as sort of an incubator, helping many others get their start, including celebrity vintners Sam Pillsbury and Maynard James Keenan.
“One of the cool things has been to educate and support the new winemakers until they are ready to go out and fly on their own,” Glomski said.
He likes the camaraderie among most of the winemakers he sees in the Verde Valley. “There’s strength in numbers. We bounce ideas off each other. There are still some strong personalities, and we don’t always agree. But the competition is good. There is a lot of room for all of us to grow.”
Glomski, who also produces a lower-price label, Provisioner, says more inexpensive wines are the key to the expansion of the Arizona wine industry.
Woolsey believes that will come with critical mass, when the businesses that sell barrels, commercial grape vines, and vineyard equipment such as trellising, planting sleeves and stakes, etc., see enough potential revenue to set up shop in Arizona.
“Right now, we import all that stuff from California,” she said. “That adds a layer to the pricing.”
But Page Springs has enough price points and varietals to appeal to most wallets and palates. After tasting six wines each and a light lunch consisting of the popular vegetable tower (the New York Times writer had the same dish) and a small plate of bacon date pintxos, we bought six bottles of Page Springs Cellars wine in addition to our regular shipment, taking home nine bottles total. And this was just our first stop.
Friday, 2:15 p.m.
We think we’re so smart, but 1,000 years ago, the Southern Sinagua were building a massive condo complex high in the Verde Valley. Talk about rooms with a view.
The Tuzigoot National Monument includes the remains of a 110-room development that overlooked the fields where these Native Americans grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton using the same canal irrigation techniques that allowed Phoenix to rise from the desert centuries later. Apparently, they left the area around the start of the 14th century. No one is certain why, though drought is suspected. Can you say climate change?
The $10 admission is worth it, and it’s free if you have a national parks pass.
Friday, 3:30 p.m
A decade or so ago, we were told, much of what is now historic Old Town Cottonwood was boarded-up buildings. These days, Main Street bustles with shops, restaurants, two hotels, and six tasting rooms — Carlson Creek, Pillsbury, Burning Tree Cellars, Arizona Stronghold, Winery 101, and the Merkin Osteria.
“The wine industry, but more specifically the talented and passionate individuals that put skin in the game, helped pull Old Town Cottonwood from its sleepy state into the thriving and vibrant Main Street you find today,” Cottonwood Mayor Tim Elinski said in an email. “I tip my hat to the entrepreneurs and restaurateurs who believed Cottonwood could be the epicenter of Arizona wine, and I’m as pleased as they are that we have arrived.”
We continued to do our part for the good of the Cottonwood economy, purchasing bottles of green chile pepper-infused olive oil and grapefruit-flavored balsamic vinegar at the Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders, then stopping at Winery 101.
A young woman was wrestling with three infants, two of her own and another belong to one of the servers, as she sat on a couch in the center of the comfortable tasting room. As she fed a bottle to one of the kids, she took an occasional sip of white wine from her nearby glass.
“We didn’t have that in my day,” said another woman seated beside us at the bar. She identified herself as a grandmother of 12. “We didn’t drink wine while we were feeding babies. We could have used it.”
The grandma, Irlyn Gallifant, is the co-owner with her husband, Gavin, of Winery 101, where they serve their two labels, Gallifant Cellars and SouthPaw Cellars. (Both are left-handed.)
I thought Winery 101 meant it was for beginners, but the name originated from the location of their first tasting room, near Loop 101 in Peoria. They opened their second room in Cottonwood two years ago. They divide their time between the two cities.
“We love the pace of life here,” Irlyn Gallifant said. “So much quieter than the Phoenix area. But 15 years ago, you didn’t want to come downtown. They’ve done a great job of renovating.”
Wine has been the straw that stirred the drink of redevelopment.
“The city of Cottonwood is easier for businesses like us,” she said. “They were very accommodating. We had a place in Sonoita-Elgin for a while, but they really didn’t want things to change.”
Even though Winery 101 is the only tasting room in Maricopa County outside of Scottsdale, we had never tasted either of the Gallifants’ wines before. We were quite pleased after sampling a half-dozen or so.
We bought two Gallifant pinot gris and a Super Tuscan. But who’s keeping count?
Friday, 4:40 p.m.
I had searched for hotel reservations more than a month in advance of our trip, but found almost everything was sold out. I finally found a room in a Best Western in the strip mall part of Cottonwood, about two miles from Old Town, at about $150 a night. We had a great view of the Home Depot across the street.
Wine and tourism “are the biggest economic drivers in the region,” Woolsey, the winewitch22, said. “But we need more hotel rooms.”
Cottonwood only has 408 hotel rooms, according to its Chamber of Commerce, although there are probably also as many as 500 Airbnb rooms. I didn’t check for one of those because I still haven’t warmed to the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s house.
There are plenty of rooms in Sedona and in Camp Verde near the casino, but those are a half-hour drive or more from the bulk of the tasting rooms. Not what you want after a few hours of sipping wine.
Friday, 7:40 p.m.
I screwed up, thinking our reservation at the Up the Creek Bistro and Wine Bar, a restaurant that is getting a lot of buzz these days, was at 7 on Friday night. It was Saturday night. Friday was a private party. We drove back to Old Town Cottonwood and remembered a recommendation for a good place to eat late at night, the Three Kings Kasbar, a Middle Eastern restaurant just a couple of blocks off the main drag. Since quarter till 8 constitutes late-night dining in Arizona, we walked in and, sure enough, found that we had missed the dinner rush.
We shared lamb and spanakopita empanadas, which are made in house, a Caesar salad with white anchovies, and a bottle of Pillsbury Wild Child Red. The meal was light enough that we splurged on a piece of baklava for dessert.
Friday, 8:45 p.m.
Several people told us the hotspot for nightlife in Old Town Cottonwood is the State Bar near the end of Main Street. And for folks who are 60-somethings like we are, they’re right.
The bar serves only Arizona beers and wines on tap. I ordered an Arizona Angel White from 433 Cellars in Jerome, and my wife selected a Dos Cabezas Red from Sonoita, then we fortuitously found a couch while we sipped and waited for the night’s featured act, the Well Dressed Wolves (they weren’t) to take the stage.
They were surprisingly good for a local band, particularly the drummer, as they strummed through a playlist of ’60s hits from the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Creedence, etc.
The music prompted several silver-haired geezers to coax some younger women to the dance floor. It looked sort of sad.
We resisted until the band broke into the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” — a song I first danced to when I was 12.
It didn’t take long to remember I was 67. We called it a night and began our drive back to the hotel when the band took a break around 10 p.m.
Saturday, May 11, 8 a.m.
If you want a quick getaway from the bustle and bright lights of Old Town Cottonwood, you don’t have to go any farther than the end of Main Street.
We parked in one of the city’s several free municipal lots (did you read that, Phoenix?) then started hiking the two-mile Jail Trail, which begins at the city’s old jail house, into the riparian ecosystem.
The walk is shaded by massive sycamore, willow and cottonwood trees. It’s popular among birders, who, we learned, find summer tanagers, western tanagers, Bullock’s orioles, Lazuli buntings, great horned owls, rufuous hummingbirds, and black hawks in abundance, especially during the spring.
Some hikers, we were also told, bring along wine for the journey. It was a little too early in the morning for us, but the walk did work up an appetite for breakfast.
Saturday, 9 a.m.
The Crema Craft Kitchen & Bar seems to be the most popular breakfast spot in town, partially because you get a discount if you stay across the street at the Tavern Hotel, which is owned by Eric and Michelle Jurisin, who have made a significant investment in Old Town Cottonwood, practically rebuilding Main Street themselves. They also own the Tavern Grille, Pizzeria Bocce, and Nic’s Steak & Crab House in Old Town, and have two restaurants up the hill in Jerome as well, the Haunted Hamburger and Grapes Restaurant & Bar.
Since we’d eaten at Crema once before, we opted for a less crowded venue, the Old Town Café, which seemed to be popular with locals as the hostess greeted several folks by their first names. The menu is slight, just a few breakfast burritos, the quiche of the day, a fruit plate, and a glass case of killer pastries.
It was tough to ignore the desserts, especially as one local dressed in a white hat and dragon shirt walked away with one so large they couldn’t fit it in a box. We stuck with the basic burrito, which came with a house-made salsa that was almost as good as a cream stick.
Saturday, 10:15 a.m.
We didn’t have much time for shopping, but we could resist taking a few minutes to tour Larry’s Antiques & Things on the eastern edge of Old Town. It promises and delivers two acres of antiques and things, mostly things. But if you’re in need of a rusted Chevrolet truck ($7,500), a stuffed blue marlin to hang over your oversized mantle, or a Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme LP, this is heaven.
Saturday, 11 a.m.
The Verde Valley Wine Festival in Clarkdale didn’t open its gates until noon, so we had a little time to kill. That’s where we made perhaps the most pleasant discovery of our journey.
Clarkdale is named for the man who built the city, one of the most corrupt politicians in history, William Clark.
Clark was denied a seat in the U.S. Senate representing Montana after it was discovered he had bribed the legislators who sent him there in 1899. “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag,” wrote Mark Twain, a friend of one of Clark’s political rivals.
Nevertheless, Clark built an exquisite town for his employees, many of whom ruined their lungs working in his United Copper Mine in Jerome. Clarkdale’s original high school closed in 1960, until it was purchased to be a museum in 2002. The Meinke family of Minnesota, who had been collecting copper art for decades, donated the resources for the project. The high school was renovated and the Copper Art Museum opened in 2012, quickly becoming one of Arizona’s top tourist attractions.
Several former classrooms house the collections, which include everything from cookware to ornate ceilings. Most fascinating was the room dedicated to trench art — collectibles fashioned by World War I soldiers from the copper shells that were ejected after they fired their cannons at the enemy. Some are quite intricate.
Admission to the museum is $10, or $8 for seniors like us.
Saturday, 12:15 p.m.
The wait was 15 minutes to get into the Verde Valley Wine Festival (full disclosure, Phoenix New Times was a sponsor, so our admission was free). Frankly, $45 a ticket for only eight tiny tastes plus some music seemed a little steep, but obviously the price didn’t deter the crowd.
The festival gave us a chance to meet Michael Pierce, a Verde Valley winemaker who is also the viticulture and oenology director at Yavapai College.
Yavapai offers one-year and two-year courses in winemaking. Those who opt for the two-year associate’s degree will experience the full Montepulciano of winemaking process: planting the grapes on the school’s 13 acres of vineyards, harvesting them, making the wine, bottling it, and ultimately marketing it under the school’s Southwest Wine Center label. Pierce said the program currently has 104 students, but these aren’t typical college kids: Their average age is over 48.
The interest is reflective of the industry’s growing value in the Verde Valley.
“The rate of growth has been double hockey sticks since 2010,” said Pierce, whose family produces two labels, Bodega Pierce and Saeculum Cellars, sold at tasting rooms in Clarkdale and Willcox. “We’ve seen new hotels, restaurants … additional Airbnbs … home values have gone up.”
But with growth, comes some headaches, and not just the morning after consuming too much chardonnay.
“We need more affordable housing,” Pierce said, echoing a cry that can be heard around the country these days. “It’s getting too expensive for many of our students to rent here.”
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
The best-known among Verde Valley’s winemakers is probably Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of the alt-metal band Tool. Keenan began growing grapes in 2002 and now sells wines under the Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyard labels.
Woolsey said she worked for Keenan several years ago. She helped him market his wine nationally, getting it into stores in 40 states, she said, but the effort was a struggle. “We were selling to fans of Tool. That’s not a sustainable business model.”
Keenan has since ventured into food, opening a Merkin Vineyard Tasting Room and Osteria in Cottonwood (and more recently in Scottsdale).
Everything in the Osteria is locally sourced, including the wine, of course, our servers told us. You can watch the pasta being made in-house. Keenan’s father even grows the vegetables here in Arizona.
My wife ordered one of the locally grown salads for lunch. I was going to try something equally light, anticipating a big meal later in the evening at Up the Creek. But I couldn’t resist the pasta of the day, a chicken and sausage ragout over the homemade spaghetti noodles. And it came with a side of house-made bread, perfection paired with a glass of Merkin’s Tarzan Red.
After the New York Times article, a commenter complained that Keenan’s culinary interests were the reason Tool hasn’t released an album in more than a decade. (Their first album since 2006’s 10,000 Days is due out in August.)
Personally, I hope he sticks to the food and wine.
Saturday, 2:45 p.m.
As we sat at the bar at the Pillsbury Wine tasting room, a man walked in from Main Street and struck up a conversation with one of the servers.
The server began to regale him with the story of Sam Pillsbury, the movie writer and director and Arizona’s other celebrity winemaker. Pillsbury also used to write a food blog for New Times.
Pillsbury started making movies for the government of New Zealand, where he grew up, the server said, then moved to Hollywood.
He rattled of some of Pillsbury’s top films — The Quiet Earth, Starlight Hotel, Where the Red Fern Grows, etc. — then mentioned how impressed Pillsbury was with an Arizona wine he tasted when he came here around the turn of the century to film a pilot for a TV series.
Pillsbury eventually decided to jump into the grape business with both feet, even though, he said “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing,” according to the server. He obviously does now.
The server pointed out the row of medal-winning wines over the bar. “We entered 14 wines in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition this year,” the server said. “And we won 14 medals.” (Including Best in Class for its 2017 malvasia).
The visitor seemed fascinated.
“Would you like to try a tasting, or maybe buy a bottle?” server asked.
The man shook his head. “No, I was just curious about what this place was. I saw the Pillsbury name.” And he left.
He is the exception. According to the NAU study, about 70 percent of visitors to the tasting rooms leave with at least one bottle.
We bought six: two bottles of the Pillsbury 2018 One-Night Stand rosé (my wife’s favorite), three bottles of the 2014 Symphony/Inappropriate white (my favorite), and a bottle of the 2016 petite sirah.
And we weren’t done collecting yet.
Saturday, 5:15 p.m.
I double-checked to make sure our reservation at Up the Creek was indeed for 7 tonight. The hostess assured me that it was. I asked if we could make it for 6. Nope, we’re full then, she said.
That left us time for one more tasting room. Our server at Page Springs Cellars had suggested a newer place, Chateau Tumbleweed, in Clarkdale. “All four of their owners used to work here,” she said.
That meant a drive through the interminable roundabouts on State Route 260 (do these things really make roads safer?) but it was worth the drive. Chateau Tumbleweed won best in class for in the San Francisco competition for its 2016 viognier. We left with three more bottles, a Sandy Jones white blend, a sangiovese, and another white blend, The Descendants. We also sampled a small plate of cheese and crackers even though our dinner reservation was close at hand.
It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.
Saturday, 7 p.m.
Right on time. I was excited. Up the Creek Bistro and Wine Bar was a favorite of the late Senator John McCain, who had a home nearby. Chef and co-owner Jim O’Meally often came out and played the piano for him. The Washington Post wrote a touching story about O'Meally and McCain. Locals highly recommended the restaurant.
“Warner for two,” I told the hostess.
She looked around, conferred with the manager.
“Your table isn’t quite ready yet,” she said. “You can have a seat at the bar while you wait.”
We saddled up to the front of the bar.
“Not those two seats,” the bartender said. “They’re reserved.” She pointed to two seats at the far corner. “You can sit there,” she said.
Yes, right by the door that led to the kitchen.
Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
This time, the manager approached us. “We’re sorry, people are lingering at their table longer than we expected,” he said. “It will be just a little longer.”
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
“They still haven’t left,” the manager said. “Let us comp your drinks.”
Thanks, I guess.
Glad we had those cheese and crackers.
Saturday, 7:44 p.m.
The hostess cheerfully approached us.
“Your table is ready,” she said.
I looked around. People who had come in without a reservation were also getting seated. Of course, it’s Arizona. Almost every restaurant clears out before 8 p.m.
She sat us at a window table, where we would have had a great view of Oak Creek, but by now it was too dark to appreciate the scenery.
Saturday, 7:57 p.m.
I’m marking the time closely now. The waitress finally takes our drink order. Up the Creek offers more than 20 Arizona wines. We selected a Gallifant Super Tuscan that we had tasted the day before at Winery 101.
Several minutes later, she returned again. “We’re out of that wine,” she said.
Hmm. We ordered two glasses of another red, and the manager offered us another glass of a more expensive French red on the house. Whatever.
Saturday, 8:33 p.m.
Our dinners arrive, and, in fairness, the food was as good as advertised. My venison medallions, served in a blueberry gastrique with soubise rice, were tender and flavorful without tasting gamey. My wife’s lavender chicken in a pomegranate beurre rouge with savory bread pudding, a local favorite, was also outstanding.
But, as I preach to my food editors and critics, the quality of the meal is only part of the dining experience.
We’ll rate Up the Creek three paddles out of five. Maybe three and a half since the chef came out of the kitchen and played a mean piano for the diners. Of course, he also regularly gives mean retorts as Jim O. on Yelp to critical reviews. I’ll be waiting to see what he thinks of this.
Saturday, 9:45 p.m.
We drive by the Main Stage in Old Town Cottonwood. It was rockabilly night. Tempting, but we turned left toward the Best Western.
Sunday, May 12, 9:30 a.m.
We’d spent a lot of money by this point, so we took advantage of the free breakfast at the hotel. You get what you pay for. I didn’t want much anyway. I was saving up for a slice of pie at the Rock Springs Café.
We drove back to I-17 and exited on the east side toward Montezuma’s Castle, another national monument, where the Sinagua people built homes in the massive cliffs. Nobody seems quite sure why they were called Sinagua or why they left. But it does seem certain that Montezuma, the last independent ruler of the Aztec empire, was never in the Verde Valley.
The national monument is near Cliff Castle Casino — I always wondered why “Cliff” had a castle before I saw the cave dwellings. The light bulb switched on. We drove around the casino looking for a parking place, then realized that we didn’t want to shoot craps at 10 on a Sunday morning. So, we got back on I-17, where this story began.
Sunday, 11:15 a.m.
There it was again. Exit 262. Rock Springs Café. On Warner Road, no less. We pulled off this time and headed toward the restaurant. The parking lot was saturated. Must be a lot of pie lovers on the road today.
We drove to the auxiliary parking area. Same situation.
We returned to the restaurant again. The line was way out the door. At 11:15 a.m.?
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Oh, yeah, it was Mother’s Day. And who doesn’t want to treat their mother to a perfect slice of pie on her special day? The wait looked like at least an hour.
Mother fudge. No pie for us, I guess.
Then I looked in our backseat. We had collected 21 bottles of wine. Not a bad consolation prize. We headed for Phoenix. Our adventure was done. Or maybe just beginning.