Sour Grapes

The first edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine devotes four pathetic little lines out of its 1,088 pages to the wines of Arizona. This definitive reference for the neophyte tippler or the oenophile in the know covers the wines of the world from scientific, historic and artistic perspectives.

"Arizona, just west of New Mexico, has similar growing conditions, but there is a strong focus on growing vinifera grapes. The terra rossa, or red soil, in the southeast appears promising for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon vines."

That's it. At least we can feel superior to Colorado, which got only three lines.

Local wine stores seem about as interested in Arizona vino as the Oxford people.

Sportsman's Wines, Spirits and (Other) Flavours, at 3205 East Camelback Road, keeps its Arizona inventory in an alcove near the rest rooms. On its own narrow shelf, the home team appears to be in a sort of internment camp for troubled wines.

When I first asked where I could find the selection of Arizona wines, the salesman offered a bit of friendly advice by casually suggesting that there were many fine wines in the store and that I'd find most better than our state's own. I persisted and was directed to the detention area.

I got a similar response from the man who helped me at the Via Linda branch of AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods.

Both wine merchants sell Arizona wines from the same three wineries: Dos Cabezas, Callaghan Vineyards and Kokopelli Winery. Odd coincidence, since there are at least nine and perhaps as many as 13 Arizona wineries -- depending on whom you ask and which ones are still in business.

When it was obvious that I was going to buy Arizona-grown, the salesmen at both venues steered me away from the Kokopelli label and left me on my own to choose between the Dos Cabezas and the Callaghan.

Choosing wasn't easy. Each winery had several varieties and blends that sounded interesting. Prices ranged from about $15 to about $25 a bottle. Sadly, there is no correlation between taste and price.

Seven wines (and a lot of whines) later, the tasting was over. I should have apologized to my tasting guests, but they got some free food, so I feel that I did them justice.

The best of the lot was a blend of Viognier and Riesling produced by Callaghan Vineyards; I'd buy it again. The Viognier contributes floral scents as well as its signature dryness. The Riesling's high acidity makes it compatible with the Viognier, while its sweetness and spice add depth and texture to the blend.

Callaghan's successful blend satisfied everyone -- the white Zin drinkers and the drier-the-better types. This wine would complement tacos or foie gras.

The Dos Cabezas Viognier, Cochise County, was drinkable, but it wasn't memorable. It was too sweet for a Viognier and lacked the crisp dryness that usually makes it one of my favorites.

I should have gone with my intuition and never bought the Sonoita Vineyards Cabernet at Drinkwater's Liquor and Cheese, 10802 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. The bottles were grimy, and the nearby Chardonnay was a '94 vintage. Who would drink a six-year-old bottle of Arizona Chardonnay? Who would stock it? These wines had "bargain table" written all over them -- in dust.

It's the only wine that everyone spat back into his or her glass. The nicest comments were about earth and must. Things deteriorated from there.

One of the wines I bought was unfiltered. Although no one knew when the unfiltered wine would be served, everyone assumed the wine from hell was the culprit. The Sonoita Vineyards Cab was so cloudy that even I made this assumption. Wrong.

The real unfiltered, Dos Cabezas, was actually not that bad. It had no finish, but the mild tannins and currant undertones weren't unpleasant. It was worth a try, if not a repeat performance.

Similarly, the Dos Cabezas Sangiovese was worth a try. Actually, one of my tasters called it "pizza wine." He was right. Sangiovese is the dominant grape in Chianti. The wine was mildly tannic and acidic, with an uncomplicated, middle-of-the-road flavor.

One of the biggest surprises was the Callaghan Syrah. The label said that its alcohol content was 18 percent. In the United States, the alcohol content of wine must be between 7 percent and 14 percent. A 1.5 percent variance is allowed. Sherries range from 17 percent to 20 percent, and ports from 18 percent to 20 percent. Maybe the Callaghan winery can get away with an 18 percent alcohol content by not shipping it out of state.

Syrah is known for having a lot of tannin -- that's the chemical that makes your mouth feel puckery and dry when drinking some red wines. The Callaghan Syrah had no discernible tannins. Syrahs aren't known for sweetness, and this was really sweet. It tasted like a syrupy, berry-and-currant-flavored port. I wondered if someone mislabeled a dessert wine.

In fact, Callaghan makes a red dessert wine. The type of grape isn't mentioned on the label, but it has 20 percent alcohol. It was thin-textured and tasted like bargain-brand crème de cassis. The oddly sweet Syrah would make a better dessert wine.

In Barefoot in the Park, Jane Fonda said to Robert Redford, "Six days does not a week make." He asked her what that was supposed to mean. I can answer for her: wine in the desert.

A handful of wineries near Sonoita does not a Napa Valley make.

Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]

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Andy Broder