The Verde Valley in Central Arizona is the home of communities including Cottonwood, Clarksdale, Jerome, Cornville, Sedona, Page Springs, Camp Verde, and a few smaller ones. It is the domain of the Verde River, flowing year-around, joined by Sycamore Creek, Oak Creek of Sedona fame, Dry Beaver Creek, and assorted smaller streams. With summer temperatures cooler than Phoenix and in warmer than Flagstaff in winter with only an occassional touch of snow and freezing temperatures, the Verde Valley creates a happy medium for many people, not very urban, highlighted by the scenic Red Rock country of Sedona, the old mining town ambiance of Jerome on the slope of Mingus Mountain, and the ancient Anasazi ruins at Tuzigoot and Montezumas Castle National Monuments. The artist community exists not only in Scottsdale, but has a long-term and growing presence in Sedona, far smaller Jerome, and other communities.
One of the many relatively unknown features of the Verde Valley is that it is “Wine Country”. A dozen or more wineries are scattered from Camp Verde through Cottonwood and Page Springs to Jerome, often with tasting rooms and with producing vineyards at elevations between 3000 and 5000 feet above sea level.
Arizona has not been known historically as a remarkable wine appellation and “word of mouth” tends to lag far, far behind contemporary developments. In addition to the Verde Valley, a more sizable wine growing and producing area exists in southeastern Arizona, centered around Sonoita and Willcox in an ecosystem more often associated with viticulture than a central Arizona usually equated with the hot, hot Sonoran Desert encompassing Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa, the “Valley of the Sun”.
However, quiet and determined advances have been improving the rising fortunes of Arizona Wines, particularly with those wines that are being produced from Arizona-sourced grapes. Quality and recognition is steadily improving, although many opine that the area is perhaps 20 years behind Washington State in both regards.
Many of the wineries have limited access to locally (Estate) and Arizona grown fruit due to the currently small extent of vineyards, varietal selections and competition. As many wineries began, waiting for their own vines to mature, they often (and still) source fruit from wherever available in the state, and from California – often the Salinas Valley and Santa Barbara County areas – to perfect winemaking skills, support the expensive investment and wait for production of local fruit in Arizona, and to serve customer desires by providing a wider range of varietals than local climate and availability may support. All of the places we visited have local owners fully immersed in the entire operation, from planting and harvest to wine making, marketing and shipping. Hard, hard work!
We recently enjoyed a brief sidetrip through the Verde Valley while on a longer journey, with only enough time to visit four fairly closely spaced wineries identified only through on-line research. We learned that we had missed some very interesting properties in the area while having a very worthwhile eye-and-palate opening experience at the pre-selected four. Life is an adventure!
The wineries we visited in September 2010 all had on-site tasting rooms open when we needed to scoot by, are adjacent to or very near Oak Creek itself, and have a portion of their production sourced from Estate grown grapes. In order of visit, we experienced the environment, people and wines of:
Alcantara Vineyards (between Cottonwood and Camp Verde/I-17 on the Verde River at its confluence with Oak Creek) www.alcantaravineyard.com. A “white road” (think Tuscany) winds through desert scrub-covered hills until, suddenly, vineyards appear, and soon Alcantara’s villa appears down by the River. The interior is very welcoming, with broad windows opening across a shaded deck to views of the Oak Cree/Verde River confluence. Our server was very welcoming and informative. We began by choosing wines to taste, selecting several whites (Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc) made from grapes sourced in Santa Barbara County California. After a Merlot, we tasted two Estate red blends, NV Confluence II and NV Harvest Blend. All were nicely done, and the two Estate reds were delightful, though pricey at $30-35 (like many wines in the area, as it turns out). Confluence and Harvest Blend show great promise for the future, too, as the vines continue to mature.
Page Springs Cellars (like the two below, near the Page Springs Fish Hatchery on Page Springs Road) www.pagespringscellars.com. With its tasting room, offices and the winery itself housed in a regionally accurate agricultural structure, Page Springs produces wines from its adjacent Estate vineyards along Oak Creek and from some varietals sourced elsewhere, and apparantly also produces wine for other vineyards not yet ready to invest in or open their own winery. The grounds were tree-shaded and well-equipped for special events. A crowd descended upon the tasting room just after we arrived, lending an unfortunately stressful air to our experience that was unfair to our judgment of the experience. The reds were young but again with great promise for the future. Whites were generally produced from Paso Robles-sourced grapes.
Oak Creek Vineyards (in Page Springs) www.oakcreekvineyards.net. The staff was wonderful and their young Zinfandel quite nice. A “Sedona Woman” reserve Zinfandel was also available, as was a quite nice Port and several whites and other red varietals. Again, new releases were generally good now, with promise of more to come in the future. As with all of the wineries visited, production is very limited and sells out quite rapidly.
Javalina Leap Winery (in Page Springs) www.javalinaleapwinery.com. A newly upgraded tasting room in Western Saloon style fronts the winery amidst its Estate Zinfandel vineyards. Zinfandel is the only Estate produced wine for Javalina, but again they offer other reds and whites produced on-site from out-sourced grapes to round out their offerings. Harvest and crush were in full swing, allowing an experience of the critical harvest season to the experience there.
All in all, a nice day of new discovery, very worth repeating with the added consideration of some of the wineries that we missed this time through. The experience was very reminiscent of “years ago” Washington State wine country and offerings, a hopeful harbinger of even better things to come in Arizona. Several bottles of wine were “liberated” from the wineries for later revisiting, to help validate or refute our original impressions.
When you are “out and about”, don’t just do the same old comfortable things – no matter how traditional and/or wonderful they have been in the past. Pick something new (even safe!), and take a little time for a new experience. After all,
Life is an Adventure !