It’s no secret that Arizona wineries are making waves in the wine world, but you don’t need to be a sommelier or have a rock star’s budget to enjoy the state’s wine experience.
All you need is some curiosity, a map and a carload of friends — particularly in August when harvest festivals and grape stomps are plentiful in southern Arizona.
Characterized by rolling grasslands and vast cattle ranches, the Sonoita-Elgin wine region is an easy 2.5-hour drive south. It’s a day trip worth taking, as much for its panoramic scenery and cool weather as its youthful, fruity wine and neighborly vintners.
The 10 or 12 wineries of the region are sprinkled along a 20-mile stretch of Highway 83 (Exit 281 off I-10) and its ancillary roads. Most wineries are open on the weekend, but only two — Sonoita Vineyards and Kief-Joshua Vineyards — are open daily, year-round.
Sonoita Vineyards is Arizona’s oldest existing winery and was founded in 1973 by Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist at University of Arizona. Tasked with the assignment to improve Arizona agriculture, Dr. Dutt believed certain areas in both northern and southern Arizona could successfully produce wine grapes, said Fran Lightly, Sonoita Vineyard’s winemaker.
“Doing what soil scientists do, Dutt decided to get soil analysis of other wine areas,” Lightly said. He discovered that the Elgin soil was comparable to the Burgundy wine-growing region of France.
Sonoita’s plentiful rainfall also makes it hospitable to wine grapes, Lightly said, as does its higher elevation and cooler climate.
“High heat cooks out the acidity in the grape, which is critical for making wine,” Lightly said. “Table grapes are more forgiving and you’re not looking for complexity of flavor. With wine grapes, you are looking for complexity.”
That flavorful complexity impressed Chandler residents Lisa Bednar and her husband Burt, who recently visited Sonoita Vineyards’ tasting room on their family’s summer vacation.
Open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., year-round, the Sonoita Vineyards tasting room offers guests a sweet or dry flight of six wines in a souvenir glass for $8. The glass can be used again at the other wineries for a discount on subsequent tastings.
“I thought the pricing for the tastings was pretty good and I liked the glass idea, as far a good neighbor discount,” said Bednar. “I thought Sonoita Vineyards was the best one by far, but Kief-Joshua Vineyards was beautiful. They were both really knowledgeable and had a nice selection.”
Kief-Joshua Vineyards, started by Kief Manning and his family in 2003, is a much younger vineyard, but as Bednar pointed out, the picturesque Tuscan villa housing the winery, tasting room, and the family’s living space is impressive.
Manning, a graduate of Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, studied wine marketing and viticulture in Australia, earning a bachelors and masters degree before coming back to Arizona to start his winery. His professors Down Under emphasized the importance of creating an enjoyable, pleasing atmosphere, he said.
The tasting room, open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., is often manned by Kief’s mom, Charlene, and offers six wines for tasting. The tastings are $3-$5 a piece, depending on if you come with or without a glass.
Kief-Joshua wines can also be found at Whole Foods Markets and online at www.kj-vineyards.com.
Sonoita Vineyards wine can be found at the Sphinx Date Ranch Gourmet Gift Market, located at 3039 N Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale.
Harvest Fest 2012: Enjoy wine and food pairings, winery tours, a grape stomp and vineyard tours by horse drawn carriage throughout the day. DETAILS >> 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4 and Sunday, Aug. 5. Sonoita Vineyards, 290 Elgin-Canelo Road, Elgin. $15 admission includes tastings and tour. (520) 455-5893 or www.sonoitavinyards.com.
Magdelena Bash: Help Kief Manning honor his grandmother, Magdelena, who turns 93 this month, with a day of wine tastings and new releases, live music, sandwiches and wings from Locally Arizona. DETAILS >> 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25. Kief-Joshua Vineyards, 370 Elgin Road, Elgin. $5 for tasting and souvenir wine glass; lunch is $8. (520) 455-5582 or www.kj-vineyards.com.
Meteors and Wine: Relax beside a campfire with s’mores and a glass of wine while meteors race across the sky. The Perseids meteor show produces up to 60 meteors per hour, starting around midnight. Families are welcome. DETAILS >> 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11. Hopes and Vines, 3450 Highway 82, Sonoita. $50 for adults, includes wine tasting and s’mores; kids are free. (888) 569-1642 or http://azhopsandvines.com.
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