Don’t fall in love with a specific Arizona wine—just as soon as you commit, it becomes so popular, it flies off the shelf and it’s on to the next vintage. That’s not a bad thing—each vintage seems to improve with age and winemaker experience. It’s delightful to discover a new one each time you make it to a tasting room in one of the three Arizona wine regions—Elgin/Sonoita; Willcox; and the Verde Valley. This week, I’m concentrating on the Verde Valley wine-finds discovered just a few weeks ago. If a wine I recommend is not available, don’t worry; these over-achieving winemakers never stop trying to compete for your palate.
The town of Jerome has no shortage of interesting tales, wines, and personalities. At the top of the list is creative Jerome Winery and Bitter Creek winemaker John McLoughlin. He wasn’t in town when we visited, but we were greeted by his sister, Melanie, in the Jerome Winery tasting room, where she is seven days of the week, while brother John minds the grapes and the business. She dances behind the copper counter pouring wines and sharing family secrets, often spurred by the individual wine labels depicting memorable family photos.
I most enjoyed the 2007 Jerome Winery Charbono, featuring aunt and uncle Paula and Hans Heinemann hugging next to their old automobile on the label; “Hug and Kisses” describes the tender scene on the back. Melanie shares a fond memory of the couple’s bakery in south Chicago. The unusual grape offered a grand fruity nose, nice fruit-driven tannins and acidity in the mouth, and a medium dry, almost cedary finish. This is a fine ‘sitting around sipping with friends’ choice, but I enjoyed a glass with my ginger-grilled salmon and cabrese.
Bitter Creek Winery
Our friend McLoughlin is supported by a cast of hard-working family characters that must make it delightful to ply his trade. A few hundred steps down from the Jerome Winery tasting room, we were greeted by Melanie’s husband and John’s brother-in-law, Isiah, who continued to entertain with even more family tales and camaraderie. While Jerome Winery wines are single varietals, the Bitter Creek wines are blends. Each bottle is named after a Tarot major arcana card—and, of course, each one sports characteristics of its own.
I previously reviewed The Fool by Bitter Creek Winery, so this time, I choose The Hierophant by Bitter Creek Winery—described on the label as a “Dogmatically Kind, Spiritual Leader, Speaking Truthfully.” (Isaiah hinted that the labels depict family members; is this one named for John? Ask Isaiah, the next time you stop in to see him in Jerome). This wine is a red blend of equal parts of Arizona-grown Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel—it just doesn’t get any fairer than that. The Hierophant delivers with plum and pomegranate flavors and smooth lingering finish…a simply yummy match to my St. Patrick Day-inspired corned beef and cabbage.
Arizona wines were launched steps closer to the forefront of national notice in 2007, with the coming together of Eric Glomski and Maynard Keenan. Glomski, formerly with David Bruce Winery, is the owner/director of winemaking at Page Spring Cellars; Keenan, owner of Caduceus Cellars, is the lead singer for a band called Tool, Pucifer, and others—together they sport the Arizona Stronghold Vineyards banner.
The majority of their quality fruit is grown in the Dos Cabezas Vineyard near Willcox, AZ. The core of the new plantings of Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese, Viognier, and Malvasia Bianca are now finding their ways into some of the most palate-pleasing wines in the state. Maynard’s own Merkin Vineyards is also just coming into its own with grapes raised in the high Jerome terroir.
I previously reviewed the Arizona Stronghold Nachise, a Granache-based Rhone blend. This time around, I was drawn to the Arizona Stronghold Site Archive wines that are sold only by Arizona Stronghold. The Arizona Stronghold Site Archive Lozen 2009 is named for a very powerful and skilled Apache warrior and prophet, the inspiration for this powerful yet feminine Bordeaux blend. Cabernet Sauvignon-driven dark blackberry and cassis with Merlot-enhanced aromas of dark fruits and green spices balance out into a lingering Cabernet Franc graphite minerality, smoke-like finish. Great pairing for lamb, pork, steak, or burgers; or for just total enjoyment.
Merkin Vineyards Shinola
I tasted (and bought) the 2008 Merkin Vineyards Shinola at Maynard’s Caduceus tasting room in Jerome. The wine is a Merlot, Cabernet, Sauvignon blend with a nose and notes of earth and vanilla, opening up to delightful flavors of oak and smoke, and finishing strong. I’ll enjoy sharing this with ribs or pork tenderloin on the grill. This is the final year for the California Shinola and it’s in short supply—however, the Arizona Shinola is bottling now. Only $25/bottle.
Wild Child Red
Pillsbury Wine Company is the evolution of a dream-come-true project by New Zealand film director and winemaker Sam Pillsbury. Sam flew into Arizona to shoot a pilot for Universal Pictures, fell in love with an Arizona girl, and the Arizona landscape at the same time.
Growing up in New Zealand Sam witnessed the phenomenon of growing classical wine grapes in unusual places. He thought he could try the same thing here. The location he chose was a high-altitude desert valley in Cochise County, 200 miles southeast of Phoenix. This all came from a desire to get away from mass-produced McDonalds-like wines and create a distinctive regional boutique wine that is 100% Arizona and 100% original. He gambled that the high-altitude, endless sunshine, sandy loam, and dry desert would make for a perfect terroir; in 2000 he planted 20 acres of Rhone varieties. It worked.
The Pillsbury crowd-favorite WildChild Red is an enchanting value wine at $18/bottle. 100% Arizona grown, this new release is a dry red from a neighboring wild vineyard found dotted with crop circles. It’s a field blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Zin, and Cabernet, to which the winemaker added more Zin from neighbor Golden Rule Vineyards. Red currant and cranberry on the nose with a hint of leather, this finishes with fruity red-berry, orange peel, velvety with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel, according to the tasting notes. I got a bit of smokiness on the finish.
So many Arizona wines, so many more to experience. If your only experience with Arizona wines was 10 years ago, it’s time to hit the trail again. If you’re already a fan, do not worry if a favorite is no longer available; there are plenty more to come, with 45 wineries now producing throughout the state. New varietals are being promised across the state for Spring release. And as they say at the Javalina Leap Winery, no matter what, “Love the wine you’re with.” Cheers!
Don’t miss upcoming chances to taste Arizona wines like the Tempe Art Festival Celebrating Arizona Wines this coming weekend and Tucson’s first ever Arizona Wine Tasting event set for Sunday, April 3 at the CataVinos Wine Shoppe & Tasting Room.