Anyone exploring Arizona wine for the first time will take about a year before they form their own opinions on who the “top” players are. But if you listen to the wino’s who’ve already spent the time exploring, you just might save yourself a bunch of money!
That’s what we did when we met Ken and Anita, who guided us on our first steps toward exploring the Arizona wine and food scene. We met them on a cool September afternoon at the Arizona Stronghold tasting room in Cottonwood Arizona, and ended up at the Page Springs Cellars Harvest party that evening!
Based on Ken and Anita giving us a push in the right direction, and the good experiences we’ve had with Arizona wines since then at incredible eateries like FnB (Scottsdale) & The Breadfruit (Phoenix), we’ve developed a fairly good understanding of who the best Arizona winegrowers and winemakers are.
Just to be really clear about this, there is no such thing as a legit “Top 10” list… its way too subjective, and the Arizona wine scene is evolving so quickly just when you think you have things figured out, everything changes! But that’s what makes it such an exciting time for Arizona wine makers, and wine drinkers.
After getting to know most of the more successful winegrowers in the state, and trying wines from all of them, we’ve come up with a short list of the “best”… in our opinion (my wife and I).
All of the wine labels I’ve listed below have earned industry accolades in national media from world renowned wine critics, local experts, and major wine publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
In fact, Rob and Sarah Hammelman’s 2013 Sand-Reckoner Cochise County Malvasia Bianca was recently voted onto the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 100 Wines” for a second time. So I’m giving you a head start on the current AZ wine scene (which changes daily), and you’ll need to do the rest of the work yourself by figuring out which of these work for you!
- Pillsbury Wine Company
- Dos Cabezas
- Sand Reckoner
- Page Springs Cellars
- Arizona Stronghold
- Caduceus, Merkin, & FOUR-EIGHT wine works (Maynard’s endeavor’s)
- Lawrence Dunham
- Keeling Schaefer
- Saeculum Cellars (boutique wines)
- Bodega Pierce
- Chateau Tumbleweed
- Dektown Cellars
- Burning Tree
- And our newest “fav”… Carlson Creek! (Met them at the Festival @ The Farm!)
That list just saved you two years and about $2500… you’re welcome! 🙂
Seriously though, there are a number of AZ wines we’ve not tried, and I know some of them have one or two gems in their repertoire. Check out the recent 2014 Arizona Republic Wine Competition to get a feel for the award winners we have amongst us!
I would however, like to make a point about “Top” lists and competitions like the one I linked you to above: There is always something missed that’s worthy of recognition! So in reality, all these lists or competitions can (or should) do is provide a starting point! Make sure to explore on your own, or at least listen to wine-lovers (a.k.a. winos) you know!
The Arizona wine industry is going through a revolution right now analogous to what Napa Valley went through in the 1970’s. But we have a huge advantage: Years and years of experience to draw from! For the first time, AZ winegrowers are producing wines that are on par with (and in some cases better than) similar wines produced in northern California, and even the south of France. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the experts and do some “research” on your own (drink it!), after all it’s about what you like, and nobody else!
As you do research, try to avoid “Top Ten” lists from the internet like the plague. They are usually cobbled together from 2nd hand experiences or worse, outdated sources originally published by people who are neither trustworthy, nor objective. Not to mention, “10” is a simple and arbitrary # used to catch the attention of readers… but in a world as complex as wine it’s impossible to come up with a top ten list and expect anyone to take you seriously. At any given time, there are at least 25 or 30 “top ten” wines floating around Arizona, so in the end you’ll have to either try them yourself, or take the word of someone you know and trust, like me! 🙂
The crazy thing about what’s going on in Arizona right now is the bar of excellence and success is being raised every year by leaps and bounds. This friendly competition between winegrowers and winemakers has resulted in the best wines we’ve ever produced, and an atmosphere of excitement for those of us who enjoy drinking what comes from our own back yard.
The term “localvore” was coined to describe a culinary and cultural trend of consuming things locally grown and sold through local farmers markets and restaurants… and the same thing is becoming a trend in the Arizona wine industry.
I jokingly refer to it as livin-la-vino local! (I know, it’s reminiscent of a bad Ricky Martin joke!) Now more than any time before, there are a plethora of fantastic winemakers and winegrowers in Arizona who choose to produce their wines exclusively from Arizona grown grapes & yeast sources (not all the winemakers and growers on my list do this).
Everyone agrees this results in a variety of tastes and experiences very unique to the Southwest. They call that local flavor terroir, which is a cool French way of saying the wine takes on characteristics reminiscent of where it came from, and the drinker can pick up on those nuances if they take the time to detect them: sniff, swish, swallow, repeat 🙂
There are 3 primary growing regions in Arizona, so make sure you visit all of them:
- Cottonwood (North)
- Sonoita (South)
- Willcox (Southeast)
If you decide to head South, check out this great website developed by a couple local Arizona residents dedicated to promoting wine, art, and commerce in the Willcox area. It’s the best map I’ve found that covers all the wineries and tasting rooms in the area, along with some landmarks and special galleries, etc. : http://www.willcoxwines.com
In addition, there are tasting rooms cropping up right in the middle of town (Lawrence Dunham) or tastings offered at a number of great local restaurants around the Phoenix valley who showcase Arizona wines. Make sure you find local places that serve Arizona wine, and let them know you came there to support the cause.
So go forth my friends, and start exploring the world of Arizona wines. The research is by far the funnest part! And in the process you’ll meet a lot of great people, make many new friends, and you will develop a deeper respect for the wines that come from your own back yard.
And if you aren’t from around these parts, welcome to the Wild-Wild West! Enjoy your journey through Arizona wine country!
Christian Burns McBeth Your Traveling Nerd…