The Wineries of Southern Arizona - by Stephen Browning '70

Article by Stephen Browning
Originally published in Catalina Foothills Lifestyle

You may not know your Gewürztraminer from your Liebfraumilch, or your Bordeaux from your Shiraz, but that’s not important. Experience one of life’s greatest pleasures, sampling and tasting the endless varietals and blends of wines available. Time to let your palate wander!

Here in Arizona, we’re bless with weather and terrain that supports the growth of many types of grapes. Our key Southern Arizona wine regions of Willcox and Sonoita/Elgin alone supply close to three-quarters of all the wine produced in the state, with emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot varietals.

In fact, this past year, The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (SFCWC), one of the world’s most highly publicized and well-respected wine contests, presented awards of excellence to several of our fine local wineries, raising our region to world-class status. It’s that kind of visibility that created the long-established iconic wine regions in neighboring California and we’re well on our way to joining their prestigious ranks!

So where to start? That’s a question I hear often from friends and visitors on how best to tackle a visit to the region’s abundance of established wineries. Can we do it in a day? Is there a cost? How many wineries can we expect to visit with limited time? It’s overwhelming!

So, here’s my suggestion. Sign up now for the Arizona Wine Trail Passport, sponsored by the Arizona Office of Tourism. It’s a portal to over 120 wineries in the state, with an updated, fully interactive map included. Use the site to check in at each winery for discounts, specials and VIP treatment. Once you visit a winery in all three of our close-by Southern Arizona regions, you’ll be automatically entered to win an Arizona wine themed gift tote that includes: an Arizona t-shirt, logo wine stopper, Arizona logo wine glasses (set of 4) and seasonal local products from Arizona producers. Great wines and valuable swag to boot. Cheers to that!

Then you might want to consider taking one of the myriad of group and individual guided wine tours available from the Greater Tucson area. There are many to choose from, but one of the best, consistently recommended for their service and value, is Arizona Winery Tours. Owner Karen Hinderberger has put together some of the most informed and personable guides in the industry. Read up on some of their reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor and you’ll see for yourself.

Want to check out some of the area’s finest wines without leaving town? Check out the Off the Wine Arizona Wine Festival, held in annually in February, hosted by the Arizona Wine Growers Association (AWGA) at the historic Steam Pump Ranch in Oro Valley. Over 30 Arizona wineries participate, as well as a variety of local eateries, mixed-media artists and live music.

And if you are one of those who just likes to hop in the car with no agenda other than to see and do whatever comes your way, consider making a day trip to the Sonoita and Elgin wine region on your own. You can get down there in less than an hour, climbing up to a 5,000-foot elevation through grassland and ranching areas that have been in production for thousands of years. Here you’ll find the days may still be warm in spring and summer, but running a good 10 degrees cooler than Tucson, with delightfully pleasant evenings. Sonoita boasts a full-time population of under 1,000, while Elgin comes in at less than 200 residents. The area offers shops, restaurants, B&Bs, and natural wonders like the Patagonia Mountains, so you’ll have plenty to do between visits to the 16 local tasting rooms.

Sonoita Vineyards, the oldest winery in Arizona, was founded by a University of Arizona soil scientist in the 1970s after an extensive visit to France’s Burgundy Region. Their large, modern tasting room and retail shop are open every day from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. every day, except for Tuesdays and major holidays. Getting to Willcox will take you about 80 minutes. With a population of over 3,000, Willcox is the big city of our Southern Arizona wine country, with many food and hospitality options.

Now you know how to get started, make it a point to plan a visit soon to our verdant and charming Southern Arizona wine country.   

The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (SFCWC), one of the world’s most highly publicized and well-respected wine contests, presented awards of excellence to several of our fine local wineries. Go get some.