Key to the Good Life: Sideways in Sonoita
Frontdoors publisher and editor tap Arizona wine country, glass by glass
While we love to travel, 2020 didn’t offer many chances to get away. So after downing some delicious bottles during lockdown without a sommelier or bartender to guide us, we decided to hit the road for an overnight jaunt to Arizona’s own wine country, Sonoita.
While the I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson is pretty mundane, once we turned off the highway to head to Sonoita, the two-and-a-half hour drive made for an easy wine-tasting adventure.
Sonoita is located in the high desert grasslands of southeastern Arizona. Its higher elevations mean cooler temperatures, perfect for growing grapes. Sonoita became Arizona’s first AVA, or American Viticultural Area, in 1984, which means the U.S. Government recognized it as a distinctive grape-growing region, similar to an appellation of origin in other countries.
With a dozen tasting rooms throughout the region, Sonoita’s vineyards and wineries offer a perfect way to take a sip of the state. Here’s what was on our itinerary.
Our first stop was Rune Wines, an off-grid winery owned by Scottsdale native James Callahan.
We settled into the outdoor tasting room — really, low-slung chairs set up for a socially distanced view of endless foothills in the distance — and let the world fall away as we enjoyed some delicious wines.
Andrea: The tasting included six wines in all and a
lovely progression from white to rosé to red with tasting notes from the staff while we sat out in the sun. My favorites from the tasting — and what I brought home — included
the 2019 Rosé (Willcox) and the 2018 Grenache (Willcox).
Karen: These wines were unique, and I loved the spirit of the place. The labels are drawn to look like woodcuts, and each one tells a portion of a story. “It’s like a very expensive comic book,” the tasting-room attendant told us. It’s clear that James Callahan is writing some enticing stories with his wines, and I’m looking forward to what comes next.
Our Favorite Pour:
2018 Grenache (Willcox); $32 bottle // runewines.com
Next, we visited Kent Callaghan, who planted a vineyard in Elgin, Arizona, with his parents in 1990. A pioneering sort, he’s all about experimentation. Over the years, he’s planted what he thought would do best at his vineyard, but if it doesn’t work, out it goes.
With the region’s extreme weather, making a consistent style can be difficult. Spring frost, monsoon rains (or lack thereof) can make wine making a hit-or-miss experience. In fact, hail storms this summer wiped out about 70 percent of his crops. Still, Callaghan Vineyards wines have racked up awards over the years and been served at the White House.
Tasting under the large shade structure overlooking the dried vineyards at Callaghan felt utterly normal and pre-COVID. You could tell the spaced-out tables were filled with regulars and newcomers like us enjoying the sunny day.
Andrea: This tasting was unlike any I’ve experienced before. We each picked four wines from a list of 17 that ran the gamut from sparkling to port. Each taste was labeled, numbered and poured in tiny plastic cups served on sturdy paper plates so we could manage the process on our own with a copy of the tasting notes from the winery.
Karen: There’s nothing pretentious about the tasting experience at Callaghan Vineyards; we sat under a pergola and slurped up some wildly adventurous wines. “We try to make wines that aren’t cookie-cutter,” Callaghan told us, and he’s succeeding in that.
Our favorite pour:
2019 Love Muffin Red; $28 bottle // callaghanvineyards.com
Dos Cabezas WineWorks
Our last stop was Dos Cabezas WineWorks, conveniently located at the intersection of Highways 82 and 83. Dos Cabezas has been making wine in Arizona since 1995, but its current owner and winemaker, Todd Bostock, bought the winery in 2006 and moved it from Willcox to Sonoita.
“It’s like ‘Northern Exposure,’” Bostock said of the eclectic people that call Sonoita home. His tasting room has become a mecca and grown increasingly popular since he and his wife, Kelly, made COVID-inspired pivots such as expanding the patio behind the property and adding something new: a pizza truck. “Business has been up,” Kelly said. “Folks are coming because of the food and now they’re buying glasses and bottles.”
Another attraction at Dos Cabezas is their lodging. The Bostocks bought the property next door to their tasting room to provide on-site accommodations for guests. There are two options: the Casa, which sleeps six, and the smaller Casita.
Andrea: We tasted the full menu and agreed that this was the perfect way to end the day. The progression from a white blend to deep and rich red blends was delightful and perfectly paired with the pizza. My favorites included the 2019 Meskeoli white blend (the story behind the name is fun to ask about when you go), the 2019 Pink wine (which can be enjoyed anytime at Pizzeria Bianco) and the 2016 Toscano, a beautiful 44% Cabernet Franc and 36% Sangiovese red blend.
Karen: What a find! Not only did we chill on the patio with some delectable wines, but we also enjoyed one of the tastiest pizzas I’ve ever had — slathered with pepperoni, salsa macha and honey. Then we holed up for the night in the adjacent two-bedroom Casa, replete with a Wolf range, pool table and turntable. It was the ideal end to our excursion, and I’ll definitely be back!
Our favorite pour:
2016 Toscano; $30 bottle // doscabezas.com