Tag Archives: Sonoita AVA

Top Rated Wineries – Sonoita AVA, AZ

Banfi Stock Photo in Italy

This is a beautiful pic of an Italian vineyard, without VSP trellising. Somehow, this producer manages to make great wine. Thinking outside the box and regional differences are not necessarily a bad thing… not today’s topic though.

I advocate for balanced and restrained wines in every category. This style is a passion for me and I hope for others as well. I will be making the case for why these wineries are some of the best in their respective regions. It will be addressed one American Viticultural Area (AVA) at a time. Since my most recent tour and interviews were in Arizona, we can begin there.

Sonoita AVA – Sonoita, AZ

Stock Photo of Sonoita Grasslands, Arizona.

Sonoita AVA is a high-altitude (4,500-5,000 ft), warm climate wine growing region. The soils are mostly types of sandy loam, with a high pH character both in the soils and water. The terroir (growing environment) mirrors many wine regions in Southern Italy and Spain, but the elevation adds a significant wrinkle. Historically, the area began with trying to produce Bordeaux style wines (Cab Sauv, etc.), but a better understanding of the growing conditions and trial and error have moved the vineyards towards French Southern Rhone (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, etc.), Spanish (Tempranillo, Graciano, etc.) and Southern Italian (Aglianico, Sangiovese, etc.) red varietals. Today’s white varietals are also warm climate: Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, etc. The individual grape varieties are not the important part of this story though, as many AZ wines are blends and the varietals often change by vintage due to so many new plantings in the area. The next varietal up will be Greek Assyrtiko – the climates are similar, although the soils are quite different. Maybe… it will be the next big find, like Petit Manseng was in the last few years.

The List

These four Sonoita wineries make wines the closest to my palate. Although other wineries there make good wine, these producers deliver consistent quality and have winemakers with palates similar to mine. Does that make them the best wineries in this region? Possibly, but that judgement also depends on your taste. None of these wineries are making the fruit-forward, high alcohol, slightly sweet, low acid/tannin red blends that have become more common today (i.e. Apothic brand). These Sonoita wines are a serious attempt at chasing the premium wine category and they all succeed in some fashion. Whether or not you agree, this list is certainly a great starting place for an introduction to the region. In no particular order, they are:

Callaghan Vineyards

Tasting Room Entrance

Winemaker – Kent Callaghan the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker is a man of historic proportion to the local industry. His family has consistently nurtured the growth of the Southern AZ wine scene through their generous help and support to the local wine community and his accepted role as technical resource for the area. Since 1991, he and his family have been producing wine in Sonoita.

Wines – The first Callaghan wines I tasted date back to the late 90’s vintages. I have never tasted a Callaghan release that was not a quality wine. Their wines have been served at the White House during several administrations and generally have received enough notoriety to say they set the quality standard for the area. The wines are always made to deliver the character of the local terroir, while offering the best contribution to his vision for premium wines. While the Callaghan wines have not necessarily been restrained over the years, they have been balanced and both ageable AND approachable young. This character is what makes the wines special and is a testament to Kent’s knowledge in the vineyard and winemaking skill.

Wines to Try – All. Look for blends and single bottlings of Grenache, Mourvedre, Graciano and Tannat for reds and Malvasia Bianca and Petit Manseng for the whites and enjoy.

Rune Wines

Outdoor Tasting Area

Winemaker – James Callahan is the owner and winemaker here. He also makes the wine for Deep Sky Vineyards (also on this list), but Rune is where his palate and sensibility really shine through. James makes wine I consistently enjoy. He has had extensive experience in several different wine regions and more importantly, has developed a diverse and educated palate in his travels. His emphasis is on building the whole wine profile and that includes balance and mouthfeel, in a restrained style. These are the kind of wines that appeal to enthusiasts and foodies. Attention to the nuanced details really shines through, perhaps because of the more understated approach.

Wines – It is rare you can taste a winemaker’s vision in the wine. If you enjoy medium bodied wines that aren’t too high in alcohol, consider a visit. James has a vision for the impact of his wines and they deliver.

Wines to Try – The Syrah is the flagship and is good, but find the Grenache and Viognier. They are representative of the best of the region and capture a real fine wine experience.

Twisted Union Wine Company

Winery – This winery’s story is about the large ownership team, not an individual. All with experience in a different aspect of the industry, together they bring a total skillset to the organization that somehow… just works. The group is only together 4-5 years and is already producing a quality product. I am looking forward to what their future endeavors bring. This is a beautiful facility worth visiting to enjoy the space. For an area with limited accommodations, they offer two very spacious and well-appointed rooms for local stays. The vineyard is still a work in process and will likely be re-planted in the near future. A producing estate vineyard will be an important addition.

Wine – These are well thought-out wines. Since the vineyard is not producing yet, they acquire fruit from the local area and California, with an eye on blending for quality. The wines produced are balanced and have a sensibility worth exploring.

Wines to Try – The reds here are good, but the whites are exceptional: look for the Malvasia Bianca and Viognier. Although, the special wine at this tasting was the Roussanne. I am not usually a fan of Roussanne in general, but this bottling was special – balanced, with just the right acid level and an accompanying soft mouth-feel. A profile I often search for in a white wine.

Deep Sky Vineyards

Tasting Room Building from Vineyard

Winemaker – James Callahan is the winemaker here too. We established James’ credentials in the Rune Wines description, but at Deep Sky the sensibility is different. Bigger wines with higher alcohol in a more ageable style. The same balance is there, but with a serious structure that has higher tannin and acidity as a solid backbone.

Wines – This is the AZ home for Malbec. The owner Phil Asmundson (Sci-Fi writing fame) also owns another winery in the Uco Valley in Argentina. This is a special opportunity at their tasting room to try the Argentina and Arizona Malbecs side-by-side. They are different, reflecting the different location and terroir. Deep Sky offers other varietal wines and with James at the production helm, you know they are made well.

Wines to Try – The Malbecs of course. These are best with a few extra years of bottle age on them, but well worth the wait.

Dos Cabezas Wineworks

Tasting Room Bar

Winemaker – Todd Bostock is the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker here. He has had some success in the past acquiring distribution for Dos Cabezas wines in and out of state, but the three-tier distribution system (topic for another article) leaves very little room for a small winery to make a profit. Todd has been busy changing the game plan, focusing on moving their distribution to direct-to-consumer retail sales. The tasting room in downtown Sonoita has added a larger food menu and is pairing dishes with food-friendly wines – focusing on the tasting experience. Their specialty is gourmet pizza, but other food dishes are also available.

Wines – The wines here are terroir driven and represent the region well. The thinking is clear, blends are the answer to making approachable, food friendly wines with structure. Todd has a deft hand at building wines to drink now, or age. These blends are a broad mix of varietals, attempting to use the strengths of each varietal to compliment the other and build the profile to match Todd’s vision for the wines. The vintage variation is managed by varying the percentage mix to take advantage of the strength of each year’s fruit crop. The latest adventure has been a fun release of sparkling rose in a can. It is amazing how versatile sparkling wines are. They accompany a wide variety of foods so well!

Explore Something Different

Hops & Vines

Tasting Room Area

Winery – The founding story and the two Owners here provide reason for consideration and addition to this list. Megan Stranik and Amanda Zouzoulas originally started this winery on a shoestring. Today, the continuing operation is limited to re-invested profits, with an eye on maintaining a down-to-earth atmosphere. The winery concept was built on lampooning the sometime high-brow attitude in the wine industry. A light-hearted attitude sorely missing from many wine circles. The two are making the world of wine more accessible and have opened the eyes of an entirely different community of potential wine drinkers.

Winemaker – Megan makes some very good wine, with very little to work with. She has her challenges and sometimes encounters factors outside of her control, but I enjoy her wine sensibility. I am not sure how the local industry perceives her, but she deserves to be taken seriously. Her palate is educated and they are making restrained wines of a much higher caliber than their party atmosphere would suggest.

Wines – You can either have fun with these labels, or look past the marketing and try some serious wines. Visit their tasting room and taste through them. I am sure you will find wines you enjoy. I did.

Overview

Sonoita AVA is still evolving and has not really “found itself” yet. I originally came here with the expectation of tasting some good reds, but the big surprise was the quality of the white wines! As of today, roughly only 10% of the wine produced here is white, but that is changing. The story that drives many decisions in the wine industry here is two-fold: 1) The lack of pure growers and well-managed vineyards, and 2) The barrier of entry to estate winery ownership caused by the high cost of vineyard development. The end result is generally more demand than supply. While not a problem necessarily, it does have the potential to bring down the overall quality of the wines in the area. I will be very curious to see where the next few years take this wine region. It seems to me, all the components are in place for serious growth and overall improved quality. The future is looking bright for all of Arizona’s wine regions!

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Winery Owner on Your Bucket List?

Zarpara Vineyards – from AZ Central

Minimal Barrier to Entry

Are you a successful professional and serious wine enthusiast dreaming of owning your own winery in an established AVA, only to find the start-up costs in California are insane? Have you investigated California vineyard properties costing $75K per acre, or more? No one individual with business ownership experience would ever consider an opportunity with near zero ROI in the first five years and a 10-15 year payback. Well, hello AZ at $1-2K per acre!

Even still, an estate winery start-up is not cheap: $30K+ per acre to prep the soil, purchase and plant the vines, plus VSP trellising system and five year wait for mature vines, etc. Considering it normally requires a minimum of 1,500 cases of production output ($400-500K revenue) for the beginnings of a profitable winery business, add the major risk of variable climate/weather and you will have to bite-off a huge chunk of both savings and determination to go down this road… but if the countryside lifestyle, the great industry people, connection to fine wine & culinary culture and rubbing elbows with the rich & famous makes it worth it, AZ is your destination!

Higher Ed Degree Programs, Research and Incubators

There is a program accredited by Yavapai Community College offering a two-year Oenology degree located in the new Verde Valley AVA run by Michael Pierce (trained/experienced AZ winemaker) that has been in operation for a few years now. They currently have 15 acres of planted vineyard and are producing roughly 1,500 cases of student-made wine. The Agricultural Extension at University of AZ is also now getting serious with research surrounding climate and fruit production for the local wine growing industry. Maynard Keenan helped to start the custom crush and industry incubator facility “Four Eight Wineworks” in the Verde Valley AVA. A real place where winemakers can cut their teeth. By the way, if you have not seen Maynard’s wine movie “Blood into Wine”. Track it down. It is a fun intro to the AZ wine industry.

Continuing AZ Legislation to Encourage Wine Tourism

AZ now has a significant retail wine footprint in the Sedona-Grand Canyon tourist area, with many new projects for wine tasting rooms in planning. The recent legislation allowing licensed in-state wineries to have two satellite tasting rooms instead of only one, has caused a boom in planned tasting rooms for construction in the Sedona-Cottonwood area.

Crazy AZ Wineries and Distribution

I have been writing about California and Washington wineries for more than 10 years and I have not found one that decided to self-distribute without a major Direct-to-Consumer sales footprint via an established tasting room experience. Without a tasting room, or commercial distribution agreement, the wine business can be a pretty lonely affair. In AZ, I found two, both with high quality wines. Break-even with this scenario seems impossible, but you need to understand the special nature of the AZ wine industry. There are several contributing factors: 1) Current advantages from state statutes making it more difficult for out-of-state competition (licensing/tax barriers) and creating sales advantages for in-state grower/producer/local self-distributors, 2) The 3-tier distribution system bloating retail pricing by including two additional mark-ups, and 3) In-state wine demand exceeding supply. These two wineries load-up personal vehicles and deliver cases of wine to customers at their homes on periodic runs through the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. It took me weeks to get my head around this wine business model.

AZ Wine Identity

The area is finally starting to find a wine identity and is slowly coming around to the realization: the best wines use what the terroir gives. Forced wine styles do not work consistently well and because of this the local industry has been experimenting with lesser-known warm climate varietals native to the Rhone, S. Italy and Spain. Some of these wines are fabulous, surprisingly enough – especially the whites. Don’t be scared by varietals you may not recognize, because the whites (Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, Picpoul Blanc) and reds (Tempranillo, Graziano, Syrah, Grenache, Aglianico) are tasting as good as many popular California wines. The blended wines are definitely the best expression of AZ terroir. When the wine industry began in AZ in the late 80’s, the few vineyards that were planted attempted to plant Bordeaux varietals and the results were of mixed success. Although, a friend of mine and trained wine judge Jay Bileti (yes, AZ has trained wine judges too!) and I were recently given a Sonoita Vineyards ’89 Bordeaux style blend from their library that we enjoyed with a wonderful meal of Ossobuco made by his wife Lynn and it was very good!

Talented Winemakers

I interviewed several talented winemakers in the last few weeks. They are making wines of unique character and style. With fruit-forward, balanced profiles that would stand-up to any evaluation as “premium wines”, anywhere in the world. The last time I tasted through the state about eight years ago, it was difficult to find a winemaker able to make consistently good wine, although there were a few: Kent Callaghan, Maynard Keenan, Eric Glomski were examples. In my opinion, the strength of the AZ wine identity will be blended whites & reds. Leading you to the idea: fortune will smile on winemakers with classically trained palates, able to leverage that knowledge to deliver the best possible product from the local terroir. This was an absolute necessity to take AZ wine to the next level.

Critical Mass

AZ has definitely reached the critical mass juncture. The local wine industry and it’s future is exceedingly bright. The resources are in place to support a vibrant and successful wine community. The past several weeks of AZ winery tours and interviews have generated a significant amount of material and brought many insights into the AZ wine industry. Many more articles to come!

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Changing Arizona Wines

Lisa Callaghan – Callaghan Vineyards

A friend and wine judge (Jay Bileti) and I spent four days of intensive touring through the Southern Arizona wine country about 10 days ago and were pleasantly surprised. The quality of wine overall had significantly improved since my last serious visit to this area eight years ago. This visit produced tasting notes on many premium wines and a large selection of well-made value wines.

We tasted roughly 30 different varietals and numerous non-traditional red and white blends. There is still much searching for identity and character of terroir here, but producers are closer to consistent quality product than ever before. Warm climate Rhone, Southern Italian and Spanish varietals seem to produce the best wines here: Viognier, Petit Manseng, Malvasia Bianca and Picpoul to name a few whites and Syrah, Grenache, Tannat, Aglianico, Tempranillo and Graziano on the red side. Don’t be scared off by the unusual grape varieties. There is high-caliber wine making going on here and the most successful wines are the blends. The identity of the Arizona wine industry will likely become the home of high-quality non-traditional white and red blends. Some of the white wines (who would have guessed) in particular could be served in the premium category anywhere in the world.

Just like any California wine area, if you are a serious wine aficionado, you will want to do your homework before deciding to visit these up-and-coming AVA’s. I would be happy to make some recommendations, if you would like to drop me a note. With the warm climate, I was surprised to find the most successful wines were those made with less intervention and in a more understated, balanced profile. For those that like the big fruity wines, there is still plenty of that wine style to taste.

I will be writing about the winemaker interviews and research that has been going into my evaluation of the wine, wine industry and terroir here and I look forward to introducing you to what I believe will be a top quality wine location in the years to come. I followed the Paso Robles, Walla Walla and Santa Barbara regions on their rise and in many ways, Arizona is on the same path.

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Filed under Arizona, Sonoita, U.S. Wines by Region, Willcox, Wine Tasting