Arizona has always had a spirited reputation. Cowboys, gunslingers, card players, prospectors and entrepreneurs seem to pair perfectly with the desert backdrop. What might not seem like such an obvious pairing is Arizona and wine.
When most people think of wine country, they think Napa, Sonoma or even Washington state. Even though Arizona has a lot of cacti, we also grow plenty of grapes, and our wine is garnering quite a lofty reputation.
Grapes were used in Arizona 200 years before California started making wine. In the late 1500s, Spanish Conquistadors began making wine from wild grapes growing along the desert rivers in Tubac. A hundred years later, Jesuit priests brought over European vines to grow and make communion wine. Now winemakers from all over the world come to Arizona to learn about growing grapes in harsh climates.
Arizona has three wine regions: Sonoita, Willcox and the Verde Valley. Each area produces a different kind of fruit depending on the climate and the soil, each with a unique taste. There are more than one hundred wineries and more than four dozen tasting rooms spread out across the state where folks can experience these wines for themselves.
Arizona is at the forefront of educating a new crop of growers and makers. At the Southwest Wine Center at Yavapai Community College, students enrolled in the viticulture and enology program learn everything and anything to do with this beverage.
Students study soil science, water management and cultivating. There is a production facility where they can make critical decisions like true winemakers. In addition to the creative side, there’s the business end where students learn the art of selling and decisions about running a tasting room.
A young man that works at the Southwest Wine Center said he left his career in aerospace to pursue his passion in the fertile fields of Clarkdale. He called winemaking a beautiful marriage between science and art and felt that what’s happening here in Arizona is game-changing.
What’s great about all these wine regions is that it’s an excellent way to explore the state. The wineries are usually surrounded by lush fields of green and framed by rugged mountains and mesas awash in sun-faded hues of vermillion.
Down south in Sonoita and Willcox, you can also go birdwatching, horseback riding, hiking and experience the areas’ rich wildlife, lakes, and Patagonia State Park, where folks can boat, fish and camp.
Anyone who works in wine in Arizona is a maverick, and it’s exciting to see that this pioneering spirit is still alive and growing strong right here in the desert. Now that’s a good reason to raise a glass.
– Robin Sewell is the host and executive producer of Arizona Highways Television, Saturdays and Sundays on CBS.