Friday, March 11, 2011

Sonoita: Arizona Wine Country

Posted By on Fri, Mar 11, 2011 at 7:52 PM

Story by Melanie Huonker

Videos Produced by David McErlean

Surrounded by picturesque views, grazing cattle, and open fields, I found myself forgetting I was in Arizona. Gone were desert plains and cactuses, I was surrounded by vineyards.

Just 60 miles southeast of Tucson in the Sonoita and Elgin area is home to 10 different vineyards surrounded by scenic views of mountain ranges.

“They are starting to make some really good wines here,” said Cindy Carlson, a frequent visitor to the area. “The fact that it’s growing like it is [here] is very nice to see.”

The wineries were a product of a research initiative in the 1970’s conducted by Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist from the University of Arizona. Dutt was asked to examine the soils, terrains, and climate around Arizona to see if agriculture could be increased.

“[Dutt] chose to use wine grapes as his target crop, “ said Fran Lightly, winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards. “He felt areas in Arizona would be appropriate to be growing those.”

This project led to the discovery that the grapes grown in the Elgin area consistently scored the highest in his trials.

“As a result Dr. Dutt decided to make the transition from being a college professor and researcher to winemaker and grape grower,” Lightly said.

Today, Dutt is known as the father of the Arizona wine industry.

“Most of the people that are coming here are coming for the wine tasting and tours,” said Fazila Keenun, manager of Sonoita Inn. “How busy we are depends on what’s going on with the wineries here.”

Both people from Arizona and as far as Canada come here to sip wine and unwind.

I decided to check it out for myself.

I began my day of wine tasting at the first vineyard started by Dutt in Arizona, Sonoita Vineyards.

After a tour of the winery from Lightly, I began my wine tasting. My first sip was a “porch” wine called the Cochise County Colombard. Lightly said this wine and the Sparkles Peach, a crisp sparkling wine, are the winery’s most popular wines.

After 10 more tastings from the wine list, I headed to Village of Elgin/Four Monkey. This winery was much smaller and low key. I did pick up a great bottle of wine, Bisbee Copper, a very sweet white wine.

My last stop was Dos Cabezas WineWorks. The atmosphere was up beat and more crowded as it grew later in the afternoon.

The only downside of Sonoita is the lack of restaurants.

“We had a hard time finding a place to eat last time we were here,” said Blake Rayhons. “By the time we got done with our tasting and before we got to our [bed and breakfast], the only thing that was open was a sports bar on the corner.”

Overall the day was a great escape to the countryside. I even took home a couple souvenir wine glasses. If you are looking to save some extra cash on a wine bottle, make sure to bring a wine glass to each winery. Wineries offer discounts for guests who bring in their own.

Sonoita also features a Wine Country Tour. For the tour, a bus picks up guests and ferries them from one winery to the next. The tour first began as a way for tourists to enjoy the area’s wine without worrying about driving.

If you don’t have enough time to make a trip to Napa Valley, make the Sonoita and Elgin area your next stop for wine tasting.

“It’s only 45 minutes from Tucson. I used to live in Northern California and have to drive farther,” said Carlson. “So this is like heaven.”

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