Captured in a bottle: In the Verde Valley winemaking is still an art

This article was originally published in Flag Live May 14, 2017.

Nestled between Arizona’s Mingus Mountain and the Mogollon Rim, the Verde Valley was at one time a sleepy region bisected by Interstate 17. Today the Valley is finally being recognized for one of its most delicious — and unexpected — exports: wine. Both tourists and locals are more likely now than ever to stop in the small towns on the banks of the Verde River, seeking the wine the region is quickly becoming known for.

Arizona is an unlikely destination for connoisseurs. It lacks the thick coastal fog of Napa Valley, eliminating the possibility for deep Pinot Noir varietals. The weather is a little more unpredictable — monsoon rains threaten even the most bountiful harvests in August and September.

“I’m a big believer that when the right person is introduced to struggle, things are actually, genuinely created,” says David Baird, the tasting room manager for Four Eight Wineworks, a winemakers’ cooperative and incubator. “We have a totally different set of obstacles in Arizona that other wine regions don’t have. It’s that friction and stress that makes it so people can taste our hearts in the final product.”

There’s a precarious balance required in growing vitis vinifera, the common grape vine. There has to be enough water to prevent the soil from drying out completely, but too much water causes the grapes to lose flavor.

“It’s always a gamble,” Baird says. “Can we get enough hot sunlight? Can we get this whole vineyard harvested before the rain?”

However, if one were to draw a horizontal line across a map, they will find Arizona resides along the same latitude as Southern France, parts of Italy, Spain and Portugal — places historically known for their wines. The Verde Valley is a surprisingly accurate replica of some of these Mediterranean climates, making it perfect for Spanish and Italian varietals.

The varying elevations — ranging from the banks of the river and the gradual climb to the Coconino Plateau — offer a variety of growing options. Baird adds the alkaline soil is ideal for encouraging root growth in grapevines.

After enrolling in Yavapai College’s Viticulture and Enology Program, Baird immediately saw potential for the small towns in the Valley — Clarkdale and Cottonwood — to finally make a name for themselves.

“Old Town Cottonwood has exploded with restaurants and wine tasting rooms,” Baird says. “[Tourists] love the walkability of the area — you could easily hit four or five tasting rooms.”

Baird credits an increasing desire to drink and eat local for bringing more tourists to the now-bustling hubs.

“When you’re a tourist, you want to try what the area has to offer and wine is the truest form of farm-to-table,” Baird says. “Having an appreciation for wine means having an interest in where it comes from.”

Baird has played an important role in supporting the local wine movement, from promoting small-batch artisans to having a passion for wine himself. At Four Eight Wineworks, independent winemakers have the opportunity to start their own businesses. Tenants can pay a small fee and have access to the equipment and support needed to kick-start their own vineyards and wine brands. Currently, there are four winemakers’ products for sale in the tasting room, two more are in progress.

There’s a mutual partnership between winemakers in the region rarely found elsewhere. If one vineyard is succeeding, it means more Arizona-made labels on the shelves — more wine drinkers become aware and everyone benefits.

Baird adds that buying Arizona-made wine has an immense impact on the local economy. Even though the bottle might be more expensive than your $8 Ménage à Trois, buying it has a direct effect on the industry. And it’s probably going to taste better.

“The reason that drinking local is important to me is when someone comes into my tasting room and buys a bottle, that actually feeds my children,” Baird says.

There’s a certain care given to each bottle of local wine. It was likely given personal attention all the way from the vine to the barrel — actual human hands worked the way through the process. It’s a far cry from enormous wine corporations who depend on machinery, exporting labor and making a profit. For winemakers in the Verde Valley, their practice is still an art.

“When you drink that wine, you aren’t just drinking something that will give you a buzz,” Baird says. “It’s a time capsule because the wine holds the moment of the growing season. Once you drink it, that growing season has come and gone.”

Just as tourists visit Sedona to marvel at the towering red rocks, or people stop in Flagstaff for its proximity to the Grand Canyon, the Verde Valley is quickly becoming a wine destination in Arizona, and the Verde Valley Wine Festival, in its second year, offers the perfect opportunity to explore what local wine makers are creating. A belief in wine’s ability to boost the local economy propelled Baird to organize this weekend’s Verde Valley Wine Festival, where a wide variety of local winemakers, breweries, distilleries and restaurants will all be present.

“My main goal is to showcase what Arizona has to offer, with the Verde Valley as a hub for that,” Baird says. “I want to turn the town upside-down, have a weekend of foot traffic, and have people see how beautiful Clarkdale is.”

The Verde Valley Wine Festival takes place on Sat and Sun, May 13–14 from 1–5 p.m. both days at the Clarkdale Town Park, 1001 Main Street. One-day tickets are $35 ($45 at the entrance) or $55 for the full weekend, and includes 10 libation tickets (more can be purchased on-site), unlimited food sampling, a wine glass, and a chance to enjoy live music and art. VIP tickets are also available. Children’s tickets are $10 the day of the event only. Ages 3–18 must be with a parent or guardian who has purchased an adult ticket. Ages 3 and under enter for free. For VIP prices and info, a full list of participants and to learn more, visit www.verdevalleywinefestival.com.

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