Myth-busting the taste of Arizona wine

The co-owner of Arizona Wine Collective, Jeanne Snell, pours a glass of 2015 Graciano from Callaghan Vineyards located in Elgin, Ariz. (Photo by: Reed Wallace/ Arizona Sonora News)

If you think Arizona wine doesn’t compare to wine made in Sonoma or Napa Valley, you’re right.

Arizona wine doesn’t compare, but not for the reasons you may think.

Robert Leopardi, Southern Arizona director of sales for Quench Fine Wines, has been working his way up the wine industry for 40 years. In his current role, he represents wines from around the world, including Arizona.

“I think you have to understand what Arizona wines are, what their history has been and how young the industry is,” said Leopardi. “And rather than compare it to someplace like Napa or necessarily the old world, you compare it to places like maybe the Pacific Northwest.”

The craft of winemaking is as old as history, but fairly new to Arizona.

Within the past 40 years, Arizona wine has slowly started to make a name for itself. However, when compared to the Napa wine industry, which was pioneered in the mid-1800s, some still have their doubts.

Arizona is usually stereotyped as being dry and extremely hot. But many forget about higher-altitude towns south and east of Tucson — such as Willcox, Sonoita and Elgin — which have the terroir, or environmental characteristic, needed to make wine. 

“The reality is that Arizona is actually a really good place to grow grapes. Places in Arizona like Willcox grow grapes really well,” said Leopardi. “If you look what the soil composition is in the Willcox area, that’s basically an old lake bed and seabed if you go back millions of years, so the soils are good.”

The flowers at Charron Vineyards in Vail, Ariz. are just beginning to set and make grapes on March 1, 2018. Vineyards in Arizona wine country are more worried about the freeze at the beginning of the season killing their crop than the heat in the summertime. (Photo by: Carly Oseran/ Arizona Sonora News)

The grapes grown to make wine in the U.S. were brought over by early settlers from Spain, Italy and other European countries. These grapes all originate from the Vitis vinifera family of grapes, not native to American soil.

The Vinifera family includes many different types of grapes that grow well in different climates. For instance, cabernet sauvignon, which originates from southwest France, grows well in Napa Valley because the weather conditions and soil support its growth. While Rhone varietals from places like Spain grow well in Arizona wine country’s soil and climate.

Susan Craig, co-owner of Charron Vineyards & Winery in Vail, Arizona, said the original owner bought the land because it reminded him of when he worked at vineyards in Spain.

“Spanish varieties especially tempranillos do really well here because they like the heat,” Craig said.

Arizona wine isn’t only heating up from the warm temperatures. Arizona wine industry’s economic impact has increased by $18.6 million since 2011, according to a 2017 survey by the Arizona Office of Tourism and Northern Arizona University.

And the attention is beginning to spread nationally. Arizona is one of only 25 states with federally recognized wine regions, known as American Viticultural Areas.

AVAs set standards for wines, “So that is important within itself because that means people are taking Arizona wine seriously,” Leopardi said.

So if Arizona vineyards are nationally recognized for their winemaking, where is the negativity coming from?

The answer: You must understand what Arizona wine flavors are meant to be. Each type of wine is unique and subjective to the drinker, especially the flavors found in Arizona wines.  

Jeanne Snell, co-owner of Arizona Wine Collective, said that many of her customers come in with a preconceived idea of what wine should taste like.

The owners of Arizona Wine Collective, Jeanne and Pete Snell, have been wine tasting around the nation and world. Arizona Wine Collective in Tucson, Ariz. officially opened on February 6, 2018. (Photograph by: Reed Wallace/ Arizona Sonora News)

The tasting room does a blind taste test comparing a specific wine varietal from a wine region in Arizona, California and France. Participants get to guess which wine is from which region and pick their favorite before the answers are revealed.

“It’s interesting as they start the challenge,” Snell said. “They’re thinking, ‘No way Arizona is going to be good,’ so they pick the one they like the least and assume it’s the Arizona wine.

“You’re always going to be dealing with the factor that people shy away from the unknown,” Snell said. “Arizona wine is different; it’s just not the same as other California wines.”

It’s easy to get caught in the repetition of buying the same bottle of wine, but Arizonans have more local options now.

“Like any new burgeoning wine region, it’s sort of slow-coming,” said Gina Hamadey, a writer for Wine Enthusiast Magazine. “You have to look to the places that are doing it right, that are doing their homework and have put the years in.”

Hamadey said Arizona wines have potential, with passionate people in the state’s wine industry who know what they’re doing and are teaching others how grapes grow.

Craig and her husband worked with the previous owner of Charron Vineyards for a year before taking it over.

“Apprentice first. Get as much experience as you can working for someone else,” Craig said. “Pick a good winemaker and get as much experience as you can before doing it.”

As with anything in life, there is the good and not-so-good. The same concept applies to winemaking. The terroir and winemaker are both important factors to consider when determining the quality of a wine. Remember to keep an open mind and take the time to find the places and people who are doing it right.

“Arizona is a really good place because it’s such a young industry, but it’s getting a tremendous amount of attention within my industry because a lot of people truly feel that Arizona has a really strong future for growing grapes,” Leopardi said.

Carly Oseran and Reed Wallace are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at coseran@email.arizona.edu or elizabethwallace@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a word version of this story and high resolution photos. 

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