COWBOY WINE TRAILS IN ARIZONA

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Arizona with its swath of Sonora desert, iconic saguaro cactus and searing summer heat seems more like a place for cowboy tales rather than wine trails.

Arizona with its swath of Sonora desert, iconic saguaro cactus and searing summer heat seems more like a place for cowboy tales rather than wine trails. However with almost 100 wineries, some which make remarkable wines, a trip to the vineyards is a rewarding experience with plenty of Wild West flavour to boot.
I went there this August, landing in Phoenix when the thermometer read 42 Celsius. Heading south towards the Mexican border and wine country, past endless varieties of cacti, once the road started to climb in elevation, the temperature dropped noticeably. Most of the vineyards in the Sonoita/Elgin region in southern Arizona and the Cochise County/Willcox area in the southeast are at 4,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level which brought cool nights and the day temperature to a more reasonable 30C or so while I was there.

My first stop was Willcox, population 3,300, a tiny town with a railroad that runs through its centre. Once the cattle capital of America, this was the depot where cattle were herded to be loaded onto trains and delivered to their final destination. The “Five C’s” of Arizona’s economy are cattle, copper, citrus, cotton and climate. However today Willcox has progressed to pistachios (the world’s second largest producer), chili pepper seeds (The Curry Seed & Chile Company) and vineyards (75% of Arizona’s grape growers are in the Willcox area).

The trains are still frequent and at close quarters to the houses so most of the buildings in town are commercial enterprises, most notably winery tasting rooms. That made sampling simple. Flying Leap Vineyards was in the former Brown’s Saloon where Warren Earp (Wyatt Earp’s younger brother) was shot and killed. Owners are ex air force military pilots. Their Spanish Fly, a smooth, fruity blend of Grenache and Graciano grapes was my favourite in their line-up.

A few houses down, in a 1917 former bank with its original tin ceilings, Keeling Schaefer vineyards was pouring excellent well priced wines such as Partners Rhone Blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), Two Reds Grenache (which they called the ‘pinot noir’ of the desert) and my favourite for value and taste Three Sisters Syrah. Winery owner Jan Schaefer (with husband Rod Keeling) said that while there are about 99 wineries in Arizona now, they were number nine.

Across the road on Railview Avenue, Carlson Creek Vineyard tasting room was in a charming former family home. The Carlson family grows eleven grape varietals. At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine competition their Chenin Blanc 2011 earned a gold medal and their Merlot 2011 and Sauvignon Blanc 2012 took silvers.

I then paid my respects at the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum that honours one of the last singing cowboys of western movie fame in the fifties and lunched on wood smoked brisket at Big Tex BBQ housed in a former rail car, for real home-grown flavour. Dinner that night was at the Aridus Tasting Room, catered by La Unica Tortilleria, a local Mexican eatery.

The next day just outside of town I stopped at LDV Winery in the Chiricahua Mountain Foothills of Cochise County to sample their Rhone style reds grown in volcanic soils at 5,000-foot elevation. At Coronado Vineyards, opened in 2006 on a former golf course, I had tasty tapas of grilled quail and flatbread pizzas and a memorably bold, chocolatey Syrah.

Then further up the mountains I went to Bisbee, founded in 1880 and known for its copper and ghosts. This former Old West mining camp was once one of the richest mineral sites in the world, producing nearly three million ounces of gold and more than eight billion pounds of copper. At the Victorian style Bisbee Grand Hotel, you can get thirst quenching local brews and possibly a ghost visitation if you stay overnight. (The hotel keeps a file of ghost sighting testimonials from guests.)

The Copper Queen Hotel and Saloon is also said to host ghosts. And like the Grand it’s chock full of the historical and quirky. In fact the whole town, population 5,000, would fit that descriptor. The local Saint Elmo’s bar which opened in 1902 is the oldest in Arizona in continuous operation. The night I went in, Molly (a Pitbull), had her own chair at the bar along with other very colourful regulars.

On the way to Elgin the next day I made a detour to Tombstone, the most unabashedly Old West of all towns. Horse drawn stagecoaches clatter along the streets, a daily shoot-out is staged, people in the period dress of outlaws and lawmen saunter about and western shops are a-plenty. On Allen Street I moseyed past Big Nose Kate’s, the Birdcage Theatre and the OK Corral following the footsteps of Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday.

Nearby at Kief-Joshua Vineyards in the Sonoita/Elgin vinicultural region winemaker Kief Manning uses organic and bio-dynamic practices to give real life and intensity to his wines such as his Chenin Blanc, Estate Mourvèdre and Estate Viognier. His farm has a menagerie of animals: the sheep to keep the weeds down between the vines but others such as his house-pet wallaby are just for the fun of it.

You just can’t take the Wild out of this part of the West.

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