Driving up Interstate 17 from Scottsdale, the road to Cornville flattens out over arid, vast distances where, seemingly, not much grows beyond cactus. But that vision of Arizona as a sun-baked no-man’s land is far from true. In Northern Arizona’s Yavapai County, the story is, in fact, much colder and wetter. In late March, the sunset had soaked the sky orange. There was no breeze, but continue north, and that might change. At a roadside BBQ house in Black Canyon City, the waitress told me a blizzard blew through a week before. “You’ve got good timing,” she winked, while my boyfriend and I shared a slice of homemade blueberry pie, and breathed a sigh of relief.
The Verde Valley is on the periphery of Grand Canyon National Park, a place known for extremes. The valley floor feels boundless and sprawling, but the surrounding Black Hills mountain range give it shape, and two main waterways, Oak Creek and the Verde River, keep it arable.
On this stretch of Arizona’s wine trail, a largely experimental and free-spirited vineyard scene is growing more serious by the minute. While only three vineyards existed here in the early 2000s, the Verde Valley Wine Trail today includes two dozen venues, spread over 450 square miles.
Northern Arizona’s wine country generally has smaller vineyards than the two other main grape growing regions to the south, in Willcox and Sonoita, near Tucson. Yet because of its proximity to Sedona, a perennial tourist favorite, wine making and wine tasting are big business in Verde Valley.
“We can’t stay on top of all the new tasting rooms,” said Tambrala Shurman, co-owner of The Vineyards, a relaxed B&B in Cornville surrounded by almond trees. “New people are always popping up, but that’s what makes it exciting.”
Fifty thousand visitors come each year to Javelina Leap, one of the longest-running wineries and vineyards in Verde Valley. In late summer, it’s possible to sit and watch the grapes get passed through a 1945 German steel press, made from salvaged Soviet tanks. But this was late March, so rather than seeing the machinery in action, I quizzed 26-year-old head winemaker, Chris Whitehorn, about the joys of harvesting grapes in the high desert.
What, for instance, is his favorite thing about the growing cycle out here? “The smell of the first rain in the desert,” he answered. Sage, wild mustard and orange globe mallow, he said, invade the air. “If you’re from around here, that first rain comes, and you just say, ‘Oh god, thank you.’ It smells all clean and fresh.”
The complexity of Arizona’s natural topography, a hot region with cold nights, is something I heard again and again on our visit.
“Most people don’t understand how diverse Arizona is,” said Eric Glomski, founder of Page Springs Cellars, half a mile down the road from Javelina Leap. “If you travel from Yuma, which is close to the Gulf of California, up to the San Francisco peaks in Flagstaff, that’s a 13,000 foot change in elevation. The number of different ecosystems between those two points is staggering.”
Mr. Glomski, who hosts bingo night amid stacks of oak barrels, is a nature lover with shaggy gray hair. He bought this property in 2002. Its delicate rows of T-shaped vines, with grapes ranging from Roussanne and Voignier to Syrah, run to the edge of the property’s tasting room, and there a trellised stairway winds down toward the creek. Brick-oven pizza ($12) and roasted vegetable towers ($14) are served on the second-floor patio, but if that feels too bustling, guests can take their charcuterie boards to-go, and eat picnic style on stone benches opposite the flowering fields.
Formerly a cattle ranch, Page Springs Cellars sits along an aquifer, and the resulting artesian springs, which flow at a rate of 2,000 gallons per minute, help irrigate the vineyards and wash the machines in the cellar. The springs also give the place a wild, luxurious beauty.
Page Springs puts out 75 labels each year, which is remarkable for a winery of this size. As a result, the wine menu changes a lot, and that’s what makes a visit to the tasting room so exciting.
The afternoon we stopped in, the flight menu contained a delicious 2017 Dos Padres Barbera, produced from a single patch of grapes, grown 100 yards from the patio where we sat. There was also a 2017 Gewürztraminer, sourced from a neighbor’s vineyard. It had a sweet aroma of pineapple juice, but was subtle and clean on the palate, and paired well with the spicy mustard that came with our charcuterie plate. (We fought over the last sips.)
Sitting across from us on the patio, Mr. Glomski held two wine glasses full of dirt. Both had been dug a quarter mile from the winery. He held them just like he was about to take a sip, but instead, he asked us to sniff them.
“We grow Grenache in this,” he held up the glass with light brownish sand, which had the scent of stale ginger and warm rock. “But we also grow Grenache in this,” he said, raising a glass with tart-smelling chunks of what looked like potting soil. “And they’re very, very different. I’m not saying other wine regions don’t have that, but it’s definitely a huge part of who we are. We have crazy diverse lands out here. We look at is as a blessing.”
When it comes to finding the“perfect” Arizona grape, Mr. Glomski said, Verde Valley is still very much in its experimental phase. So far, earthy red Mourvedre and rich Roussanne have proven themselves hardy enough to put up with the state’s late April frosts and unrelenting summer rains.
But grape growers like Mr. Glomski are still figuring out what’s possible to make in the region, and in Mr. Glomski’s mind, this willingness to invent only helps their cause. “One of the cool things about this phase of restoring the wine history in Arizona,” he said, “is that everyone is passionate and proud, and everyone wants to make a unique expression.”
Part of the fun of wine hopping in the Verde Valley is that it doesn’t come with the prestige of wine epicenters like Napa, Sonoma and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Verde Valley doesn’t have federal recognition as an American Viticultural Area (its petition is pending for that designation recognizing the area’s distinct growing conditions). As a newcomer to wine tastings, I was freed from any preconceived notions of what a wine tour should look like, or how I was supposed to act.
The other good news for travelers: how convenient everything is in the valley. Its three main wine towns are Cornville, Clarkdale, and Cottonwood, and they sit next to each other in a row. From Page Springs Cellars in Cornville, our drive was a straight shot on Highway 89A to Sedona for a change of scenery and lodging on our second night.
The hotel was Orchard Canyon on Oak Creek, a 1940s miners’ retreat that’s been reimagined as a rustic boutique lodge. To get there, you have to cross a small ford about six inches deep in your car. At the top of a hill, 12 stand-alone log cabins are staggered along the ridge overlooking Oak Creek, making you feel like you’re tucked into the canyon.
After a full day of wine tasting, we were worn out — not to mention, still full from the two charcuterie plates we’d consumed. So halfway through dinner at the hotel (rack of lamb with white bean purée and sautéed Russian kale), we sneaked out. Captivated by the bright stars in the dark sky, we opted to sit out by the fire pit in the middle of the lawn. Everybody else was still inside eating, and the empty yard felt like our own private mountain retreat. We threw another Juniper log on the fire, and watched the smoke pluming near the tree tops.
On a clear day at Four Eight Wineworks in Jerome, once a booming copper-mining town built atop a 1,500-foot cliff, all of Verde Valley, with its reddish, naked plains, can be glimpsed through two enormous square windows. Standing opposite the bar, sipping a full-bodied, zesty Syrah, I felt like I was in a castle, peering out over a kingdom of green scrub and white cloud.
The tasting room is on Main Street. To get to it, my red Mazda snaked cautiously up several hairpin bends, before we were deposited in a bustling downtown, where crumbling brick hotels sit side by side with New Age crystal shops and what was touted as the world’s largest brick-and-mortar collection of kaleidoscopes from artists worldwide (it’s called Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes, and yes, you must go).
Opened last fall, Four Eight is an unpretentious yet eccentric space that’s putting a fresh spin on the state’s wine experience. Run as a cooperative, all of the wines on display come from tenants, who share a winemaking facility in nearby Camp Verde. Each of the members — Oddity Wine Collective, Heartwood Cellars, Bodega Pierce — are distinct brands, and in exchange for membership, get to have their wines featured on the menu. It’s minimum overhead with maximum exposure.
“We trust that our wines are being represented here,” Valerie Wood of Heartwood Cellars said of the co-op model, which promotes a “very hands-on approach” to winemaking and has been a driving force behind the region’s upstart wine industry. Ms. Wood and her husband, Daniel, graduated in 2015 from the oenology program at Yavapai College just outside of Clarkdale, but they’ve already won two gold medals at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, for their 2016 Tannat and 2016 Syrah blend. (Now, after a recent trip to Portugal, they’ve set their sights on the sweeter taste of fortified wine.)
When Ms. Wood, a composed woman with twinkling eyes, makes her monthly visit to the tasting room to drop off a new batch, she likes to mingle with the customers. On a recent visit, a Michigan couple was enjoying a glass of Heart, the couple’s pronounced, smoky Petite Syrah-Syrah blend. “What do you think?” she asked, curious to hear their unfiltered criticism. “Fantastic!” the couple replied. When Ms. Wood then revealed herself as the maker, it left the couple in shock. “I love what I do,” she said with a grin.
In recent years, Old Town Cottonwood, a 25-minute drive from Sedona, has become a main stage for the valley’s most noted wineries. You can’t feasibly plan a wine trip to this part of Arizona without hitting the four-block stretch of Main Street, where Burning Tree Cellars, Pillsbury Wine Company, and Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria (the flagship restaurant run by Maynard Keenan, a wine entrepreneur and former lead singer of the alt-metal band, Tool) share real estate with a rock shop, a biker saloon and a 1940s service station repurposed as a diner.
For a break from ingesting wine, the nearby hiking trails show off how radically different the landscapes are. In the high desert at Sycamore Canyon, just north of Cottonwood, the hiking route follows perennial streams under a canopy of big, gnarled deciduous trees. Over at Woodchute Mountain, tucked behind Jerome, expect Ponderosa pine and expansive views over Prescott National Forest. And at Brins Mesa, one of Sedona’s less trodden hiking routes, you’ll cut through amazing red rock geology, treading high above lands that are essentially a precursor to the Grand Canyon.
On our last day, we pulled into the dusty parking lot of the roadside bistro Up the Creek, which was recommended by fellow guests at our B&B the first night of our three-day trip. A cozy spot with low timber ceilings and two polished oak trunks guarding the front entrance, it’s exactly the kind of hideaway you’d expect in low-key wine country.
We were seated at a table next to the window, and the backdrop to our meal was memorable. Arizona sycamores hung over the creek, which gushed 40 feet below. We could glimpse the vineyards of D.A. Ranch across the creek. Hummingbirds darted spectacularly in and out of our view.
One of the bottles that Mario, our server, placed in front of us for a $12 flight tasting — a tasty 2015 Seyval Blanc with a hint of fresh sliced apple — came from vines at D.A.Ranch, which locals refer to as the prettiest in the valley. It was an unhurried, splendid tasting, with Mario frequently stopping by to educate us on what we were drinking.
Another standout was the 2017 Cousin Idd, a velvety, complex red with hints of red licorice and chocolate. On the bottle, each grape type was listed, along with the date it was harvested, and the elevation of each vineyard. It struck me that nobody pours their heart and soul into their wine quite like these Arizona winemakers.
“The style of Arizona wine is old-world,” Mario said, referring to the European way of picking grapes. “We have to pick our grapes early in Arizona. If you don’t, the monsoon will ruin them.”
Verde Valley might be considered the most upstart of the state’s wine-growing regions. And its grape growers possess a freewheeling attitude that seems attuned to the philosophy of Gordon Dutt, the now retired soil scientist who founded Arizona’s modern-day wine industry outside of Tucson in 1975. It was Mr. Dutt who first drew a connection between the soils found in certain parts of Arizona and those of southern France.
One of the lessons Mr. Dutt imparted to prospective winemakers in Arizona was that they must be adventurous. Don’t haphazardly plant grapes, he said. Instead, seek out the parts of the state that yield the best wine. There is a parallel, too, for travelers who hear about the wonders of California wine country and Bordeaux. Expand into a newer landscape, and you might be surprised at how well the vine takes root.
Alex Schechter, a writer based in Los Angeles, is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.
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