Arizona is too hot and too dry for viticulture. Or so you’d think until you approached the town of Sonoita, which rightfully calls itself the heart of Arizona wine country. Located some thirty miles north of the Mexican border, Sonoita is the last place you would expect to find vineyards. Thanks to its elevation (the town sits roughly 2500 feet higher than dusty Tucson), however, the area is friendly to warm climate grapes such as Tempranillo, Grenache, and Syrah.
Sonoita and the nearby village of Elgin have taken their serendipitous surrounds and run with them. The local wine industry is young even by American standards — many of the wineries were founded less than thirty years ago — but modern vintners weren’t the first to recognize Sonoita’s grape-growing potential. That honor goes to Spanish missionaries, who planted vines in the 16th and 17th centuries to provide the wine they needed for their religious rituals. Today what the Jesuits knew about Sonoita has been recognized by the federal government, which created the Sonoita AVA (American Viticultural Area) in 1985. Sonoita was Arizona’s sole AVA until 2016, when the Willcox AVA was established east of Tucson.
While Sonoita plays host to a collection of tasting rooms that make it easy to sample a wide range of the region’s wine without leaving town, it’s worth going a bit further afield and really getting in touch with the terroir. Elgin Road, which runs between Sonoita and Elgin, is lined with craft wineries and their in-house tasting rooms. Small, neat vineyards crowd in against the buildings, each one fenced off to distinguish it from the neighboring label’s stock. In all directions swell hills covered in pale vegetation that ripples gently when a breeze goes by. Here and there this bucolic sea of grass is broken by a square of darker flora where some other vintner has set up shop. It all looks so inviting that you wish you could walk through the fields to your next tasting instead of being restricted to the road.
Callaghan Vineyards almost makes you feel like you can. Their vines grow right up to the edge of the gravel parking lot that services their tasting room. The tasting room itself is small but bright thanks to the two large windows that look south. There’s no seating, but it’s no chore to stand by the glass, swirl a glass of wine in your hand, and wait for cowboys to appear on the horizon. They never do, but the landscape encourages such daydreams.
At $10 for five samples plus a souvenir glass, Callaghan is a deal. The glass is of good quality crystal, and well-shaped for getting the best out of a wide range of varietals. This is essential, as visitors to the Callaghan tasting room can request samples ranging from Grenache Blanc to a Cabernet Sauvignon dessert wine. Robert Parker and other industry superstars have given Callaghan copious praise, and visitors can’t argue once they’ve tasted one or two or the estate vintages.
There are many other tasting rooms in and around Sonoita — Flying Leap, Kief-Joshua, and Lightning Ridge being but a few of them — so prudent samplers will want to break for a hearty lunch during the afternoon. Sonoita has a number of eateries, among them a stereotypically Southwest-decored place by the name of The Steak Out. Nothing goes better with a meaty local Syrah than a thick steak, and The Steak Out delivers on its name. Almost as good as the food is a particular piece of artwork hanging over one of the corner tables. The painting features a horse of Goyaesque plumpness, the sort of mythologized Spanish-bred charger that one imagines the Jesuits who planted Sonoita’s earliest vines rode into the area on. It’s almost worth visiting The Steak Out just to view it.
Half an hour north of Sonoita, just on the edge of the designated AVA, sits Charron Vineyards. The experience at Charron is very different from the ones to be had at Callaghan and its brethren. To reach Charron you turn off of highway 83 and onto a bumpy earthen track that rollercoasters its way back into the Santa Rita Foothills. These aren’t the soft knolls of Sonoita, but wild, plunging ridges populated by distinctly Sonoran plant life. If your vehicle can handle the trail and you believe that vines can survive in this rugged terrain, however, the stagecoach ride proves worth it.
Charron runs their tastings like a restaurant. After passing through the combined store and lobby a server escorts you out onto a long covered deck furnished with tables and chairs. Depending on where you’re seated you may have vines growing within inches of your feet. The view beyond the vineyard proper is of the mountains, which look as though they’ve been lifted from the climax of a Wild West movie. It’s a panorama fit for those who find Sonoita’s idyllic vistas too tame.
After you’re seated you have a menu to peruse. Tastings at Charron are $7 for 6 samples. You can also order your wine by the full glass or the bottle, and picnic-style lunches are available in addition to snacks. Charron pours wine from a neighboring vineyard, Rancho Maria, in addition to their proprietary products. This allows visitors to partake of two different terroir profiles in one sitting. And don’t be fooled into thinking that a hill or two of distance doesn’t make a difference in wine. The Rancho Maria wines are clearly distinct from Charron’s offerings, and some visitors swear a strict preference of one group over the other.
It would be a joy to spend days tooling around the Sonoita AVA, enjoying easy-to-reach tasting rooms like Callaghan and searching out the further-flung ones like Charron. Although it isn’t yet as populated or popular as certain other western wine designations, some wine industry soothsayers are already calling Sonoita a new Napa. One can only hope that southern Arizona’s wineries will increase their success without adopting some of the other characteristics of California’s central coast. Part of the charm of Arizona wine country is its untamed flavor, its taste of the Old West. Something of that will be lost if the roads are all straightened and paved, the hillsides overrun with terracing, and the family-owned wineries bought up by conglomerates. Napa is fine, of course, as Napa; but Sonoita is something different, and it would be a great loss if fame swept in and obscured what sets it apart.