Every summer and most Christmases of my childhood I boarded an airplane to visit my grandparents in Northern Arizona. They lived in a place called the Verde Valley, known less as a destination and more for its proximity to flashier neighbor Sedona. When I was young the view of the red rocks of Sedona was unobstructed by rooflines. The town of Cottonwood only had one stoplight and possibly the best independent shoe store on earth. I still find the Verde Valley breathtaking even though 30,000 people live there now, and my favorite shoe store has gone out of business. The shop where my parents bought my first pair of shoes is now an art gallery in revitalized Old Town Cottonwood.
One fairly recent development in the Verde Valley is a small but growing wine industry. I hadn’t been to Cottonwood in a couple of years, and after reading an article about wine in the Verde Valley Independent, I decided it was an ideal time to visit my grandfather. The Verde Valley sits between the Black Hills which include Mingus Mountain, where the kitschy ex-copper mining town turned artist colony Jerome is located, and the Mogollon Shelf that is Sedona’s backdrop. In between these mountains there is the Verde River, Oak Creek, and Sycamore Creek. This area has a higher altitude than Phoenix, and there is water in the rivers year round. The climate, while not wet in any way, is moderate and continental. The summers are hot, but not as hot as Phoenix, and the winters are sometimes cold enough for snow to stay on the ground. All of these things, plus some truly interesting soil types, stack up to mean the potential for good wine. I know, I know, you’re thinking what I was thinking, “How could there possibly be good wine in the US outside of California, Oregon, and Washington?” Well let’s think about that for a minute…
Here are some things we know about wine:
Good wine can be made between the 30th and 50th parallels north and south latitude. The Verde Valley lies on the 34th parallel.
Good grapes need to grow around water for climate moderation. See paragraph above about rivers.
Good grapes need lousy soil with great drainage. The soil in the Verde Valley is sandstone and limestone with calcareous marine sediment left over from when the area was an inland ocean. Grapes are planted on rocky hillsides just as they are the world over.
Good wine grapes need a large diurnal shift. Days that are warm and sunny help grapes develop sugar; nights that are cool help maintain acid levels. Grapes in these conditions ripen slowly and develop more flavors than grapes that ripen quickly in climates that are hot both during the day and at night. The diurnal temperature shift in the Verde Valley can be up to 50°. It is interesting to note that the diurnal shift in the Napa Valley is similar.
All these conditions point to the strong possibility that the Verde Valley could grow good grapes. There is one important question left to ask: will anyone there make those grapes into truly great wine? This I think remains to be seen. The wineries in the Verde Valley are still young and many are trucking grapes in from either Southern Arizona or California. I tasted at four wineries while I was there. Page Springs Winery, Oak Creek Vineyards, and Javelina Leap are along Oak Creek. Alcantara Vineyards is about 20 minutes away on the Verde River.
Page Springs Winery http://www.pagespringscellars.com/index.php seems to be the most established of the places I stopped. The majority of its grapes are already coming from Arizona vines. It’s best if you can go there with a friend since they have a bunch of different flights of wines. It would have been great to try two of them instead of just one. I loved their Viognier, called La Serrana; it was super floral with a wonderful viscous texture and white pepper spice on the finish. The grapes for this wine are coming from the Arizona Stronghold Vineyard which is in South Eastern Arizona and also owned by Page Springs.
Oak Creek http://www.oakcreekvineyards.net/winery_web_site3.htm is a good place to go if you want a slow tasting experience. The tasting room is lovely, and their staff seems to encourage you to sit on their bar stools all afternoon. They also sell cheese and other food items from their tasting room and the tables outside make a delightful place for a picnic.
Javelina Leap’s http://www.javelinaleapwinery.com/ tasting room is small and lends itself to chatting with both the friendly staff and anyone else who happens to be there. One thing I love about wine tasting is how, in the right tasting room, people quickly become your friends. Javelina Leap will begin harvesting fruit from their own estate in 2009 and I’m excited to see what winemaker and owner, Rod Snapp, will do with Northern Arizona berries.
I had a lovely intimate chat with Barbara Predmore, owner of Alcantara Vineyards, http://www.alcantaravineyard.com/index.html in her tasting room where she is often pouring her wine. The tasting room is very much like a Tuscan farm house, and she makes you feel immediately comfortable, sitting at the bar in her kitchen tasting wine. She is currently bringing grapes from California, as is Rod Snapp at Javelina Leap, but will also soon be producing wine from the 10 acres she has planted. Barbara has big plans for her 87 acre property. She expects to break ground soon on a bed and breakfast, and restaurant. She has a decidedly Italian bent to her winemaking, while most of the other wineries in the area are really sticking to Rhone varieties. I was impressed by the earthy quality of her Sangiovese.
There are a couple of morals to this story. First, just because you spent many summers someplace as a child, doesn’t mean that they don’t make good wine there. Second, and maybe more importantly, don’t write off wine regions because they haven’t made good wine in the past. Sometimes all it takes is some dedicated farmers and a couple of good wine makers. I’ll be back in the Verde Valley at the end of June, when I expect I’ll have even more to say about Arizona wine country.