Phoenix's wine scene flourishes thanks to sommeliers, Arizona winemakers and new bars | Phoenix New Times

How sommeliers, Arizona winemakers and new bars help Phoenix's wine scene flourish

The wine scene in Phoenix has blossomed thanks to bars and bottle shops, a greater selection and knowledgeable staff helping people broaden their horizons.
Jason Caballero is an advanced sommelier and the CEO and wine director at Wrigley Mansion, which will host a four-day wine festival this weekend.
Jason Caballero is an advanced sommelier and the CEO and wine director at Wrigley Mansion, which will host a four-day wine festival this weekend. Wrigley Mansion
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Phoenix in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a different place in many respects.

Nice homes could be bought for under $200,000, several freeways were in the planning stages and wine bars were still a bit of a novelty. Many restaurant employees still thought serving wines at “room temperature” of 75 degrees or higher was the right thing to do and would correct anyone who complained. Wine lists were drearily similar all over town. BevMo and Total Wine hadn’t hit the market yet.

Around 25 years later, the wine scene in Phoenix has matured and is flourishing. Dozens of wine bars exist, with some specializing in a specific niche such as natural wines or those from Arizona. More restaurants than ever feature an impressive selection of wines by the glass, a greater variety of wines from lesser-known grapes and regions and knowledgeable staff who are enthusiastic about helping people broaden their horizons (and who serve wine at proper temperatures).

Numerous wine dinners, tastings and festivals happen throughout the year to help people expand their palates, including the upcoming Wrigley Mansion Festivin. Taking place from May 18 through 21, the festival is devoted to wine tasting, education and of course, a good time. A portion of Festivin 2023 proceeds will be donated to Almost There: A Mom + Pups Rescue.

Although many restaurants and bars still have a lot to learn about wine and wine service, things have improved vastly. A handful of Valley restaurant professionals who have been around for at least the past two decades shared their thoughts on what led to this evolution in Phoenix’s wine scene.

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This photo of a former iteration of Christopher's, which operated from 1989 to 1996, offers a peek into the fine dining scene of the time.
Christopher Gross

Wine lovers saw selections expand

James Beard Award-winning chef Christopher Gross and his then-general manager, Steve Olson, were vanguards in the Phoenix wine scene at Christopher’s and Christopher’s Bistro, which operated from 1989 to 1996.

“We came up with the idea that we were going to have 100 wines by the glass,” Gross says, and, just like at Baskin-Robbins, customers could taste before buying. This was wise, because many of the grapes like mourvedre and tannat were new to the audience.

Gross ran Christopher’s Fermier and Paola’s Wine Bar with Paola Embry from 1997 to 2007 and then Christopher’s Restaurant and Crush Wine Lounge from 2008 to 2018, both at Biltmore Fashion Park. Embry was instrumental in helping customers find new wines based on their preferences by organizing the wine list according to general characteristics, such as "medium- to full-bodied rich, dry whites."

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Crush Wine Lounge opened in 2008 with lesser-known wines and a list arranged to help customers find new wines based on their preferences.
Christopher Gross
Meanwhile, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar made a splash by offering 100 wines by the glass when it opened its first Arizona restaurant in Scottsdale in 1999. Soon, mom-and-pop wine bars began springing up from Ahwatukee Foothills to Fountain Hills.

Peter Kasperski in particular wowed customers when he opened Kazimierz World Wine Bar in Scottsdale in 2001. The bar offered more than 800 bottles from around the globe — from regions and grapes many Phoenicians had never heard of — at price points from the teens into the thousands, along with a couple of dozen wine flights with three 3-ounce pours for about $10 to $35, according to an Arizona Republic review from the time.

Although more wines were available, many wine lists were still uninspired. Kung Fu Girl riesling and La Crema pinot noir were about as crazy as it got in a lot of places. Yet a lot of drinkers were satisfied with these choices. They were mired in their same tried-and-true favorites, generally leaning toward well-known producers and grapes. Restaurant and wine bar owners pushed the idea of “ABC,” which stood for “anything but chardonnay” or “anything but cabernet,” to try to sell things like zinfandel, which had a bad rap due to the unfortunate white zinfandel fad of the 1990s.

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Erin Vargo has worked for Bianco Group for two decades and says people have become more adventurous when it comes to wine.
Erin Vargo

As palates broadened, expectations increased

People these days are more adventurous, says Erin Vargo, who gives her title as “multitasker” with Bianco Group, where she’s worked for 20 years. Customers no longer shy away from Italian grapes like nerello mascalese and vermentino.

“People are noticing there’s more available out there and are excited to try new things and take suggestions,” Vargo says, noting that good wines can be found at great values. “They’re well-made and they’re not going to break the bank."

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Mark Tarbell opened Tarbell's in 1994 and says tastes have changed.
Dave Seibert
Mark Tarbell of Tarbell’s says people want new experiences and are open to grapes like carignan, picpoul and aglianico rather than just chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

“With every generational shift there’s a shift in what people are interested in,” he says. “It happens in music and art. What’s popular with my parents or grandparents is not popular today.”

Tarbell opened his restaurant in 1994 with 140 wines on his list. Over the years, that has ballooned to about 500, with another few hundred being aged. He says he also likes to nudge people to try new wines without breaking out of their comfort zone. For instance, if someone likes California chardonnay, he might recommend Pouilly-Fuissé, a French chardonnay aged in oak.

“When you build trust, they’ll take a ride with you,” Tarbell says. “They don’t want to order something and politely drink it when it’s not their style.”

Vargo and Tarbell also mention that the Valley’s demographics are changing due to transplants who may be savvier in terms of dining and drinking.

“They have a higher level of expectation of what they should be getting out of a big city,” Vargo says.

Bar and restaurant owners have access to a greater world of wine today, Tarbell says. Any given vintage of wine has a finite number of bottles, and buyers have to forge relationships in order to get an allocation of highly sought-after bottles.

The community of sommeliers in Phoenix, which Tarbell has helped foster, has been crucial to bringing better wines to the Valley, he says. They make connections with winemakers around the globe and bring attention to Phoenix as a top food and drink destination.

“You do have to have a business that they feel reflects their wine positively,” he says.

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Jason Caballero, advanced sommelier and wine director at Wrigley Mansion, and Chef Christopher Gross of Christopher's at Wrigley Mansion, pose in the Wrigley Mansion wine cellar.
Geri Koeppel
Case in point: Jason Caballero, an advanced sommelier and the CEO and wine director of Wrigley Mansion has helped amass a world-class list that includes high-end verticals — various vintages of the same wine — with the goal of nabbing a Wine Spectator Grand Award of Excellence, an elite honor given to just 97 restaurants worldwide in 2022 (none of which were in Arizona).

Wrigley Mansion owner Jamie Hormel and Caballero share the goal of earning a Grand Award because of the added prestige it would bring. It signifies a world-class selection of wine and top-quality service.

Dining at a restaurant that has a Grand Award of Excellence "should be one of the best experiences you have with wine, period," Caballero says.

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The Wrigley Mansion Festivin will feature seminars, cooking demos, chef's dinners and tastings.
Wrigley Mansion

Turning to local, sustainable and natural wines

Meanwhile, consumers have become more aware of what's out there and what to ask for, says Pavle Milic, co-owner of FnB Restaurant and wine grower and managing partner of Los Milics Winery and Vineyards in Elgin, Arizona.

“The advent of social media was a huge, I think, impetus to help people get information and access,” Milic says. Instead of being relegated to following the experts at major wine publications, “Now you have people in the trenches with a voice.”

Champions of Arizona wine, like Milic, have been instrumental in increasing the market for homegrown vino and raising the bar on quality. In the 2000s, Arizona wine was still not usually seen on wine lists except for a few selections at places like Pizzeria Bianco. When he opened FnB with Chef Charleen Badman in 2009, Milic suggested they showcase a list of wines from the state.

“I said, ‘You know, I think there’s enough wines here and I think there’s a story to tell,’” he says. But people at the time, including Kasperski, told him he was making a huge mistake. “‘You are crazy; you are committing suicide with your first restaurant’ were his exact words,” Milic recalled.

Although the advice was relevant at the time, the warning thankfully didn't come to fruition and the friendly colleagues have watched Arizona wine blossom in popularity. FnB received James Beard Award nominations for outstanding wine program in 2017 and 2020. And Arizona wines are now even more prevalent — the state has three viticultural areas, around 120 wineries and production that tripled from 2012 to 2019, according to the Arizona Winegrowers Association.

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People thought Pavle Milic was bonkers for offering an Arizona wine list when he and Charleen Badman opened FnB in 2009.
Jill Richards Photography
As for what else Arizonans are seeking now, Caballero sees the bloom fading slightly on rosé and a move away from the chewy cult cabernets from California and butter bombs like Rombauer chardonnay.

“People now crave elegance in a wine versus monolithic, monstrous knuckle-dragging wines,” he says.

Caballero says there’s also a budding interest in “grower Champagnes” — bottles in which the grapes were cultivated, harvested, bottled and aged by the same person — and more people enjoying Champagne with everyday dinners, not just for celebrations.

Over the past five to 10 years, let alone 20, Vargo remarks, another important facet in providing wines is not just in finding esoteric, exciting varietals, but starting literally at the ground level to look at whether the grapes are grown sustainably.

“As a buyer for the restaurant, the most important thing for us is, ‘How does it start? How are these farmers treating their land?’” Vargo says. “It’s all from the beginning. If a tomato is treated well and with respect, it’s going to be the most delicious. The same goes for the wine.”

To cater to customers who care about how wines are made, several Phoenix bar and restaurant owners now offer hearty selections of organic, biodynamic and natural wines, many of which have very low sulfur, are produced with native yeast and are not fined or filtered.

For instance, Hidden Track Bottle Shop has focused on "clean" wines produced responsibly, sustainably and equitably since opening in 2015. It now has a connecting wine bar downtown, Hidden Track Cafe & Bodega, and an uptown bar and bottle shop on 12th Street.

Century Grand opened in 2019 with a natural wine list and Sauvage introduced customers to natural wines by the bottle at The Churchill starting in 2018. The popular bottle shop recently moved a few miles north and reopened as the highly anticipated Sauvage Wine Bar & Shop, selling only natural wines.

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The Wrigley Mansion Festivin will feature seminars, cooking demos, chef's dinners and tastings.
Wrigley Mansion

Festivin offers classes and tastings

The upcoming Festivin weekend offers attendees the opportunity to learn about and try wines to develop their knowledge and tastes.

Events at this year’s festival include seminars such as a blind tasting and a master class in Australian wines along with cooking demos by Chef Christopher Gross of Christopher’s at Wrigley Mansion and by Chef David Brito of Geordie's Restaurant. There will also be a chef’s table dinner with vintages of Dom Perignon, a Sunday brunch and a grand wine tasting in the Garden Room and on the Terrace featuring roughly 100 bottles to sample.

The grand tasting takes place from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday and costs $175. Other tickets range from $60 for some of the seminars to $5,000 for two people for a wine pairing dinner that comes with a bottle of Louis XIII dé Rémy Martin cognac to take home (worth over $4,300) and two specially made crystal glasses worth $600. All events are 21 and over; tickets are sold online.

Wrigley Mansion Festivin 2023

2501 E. Telewa Trail
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