I spent ten days in Arizona this month tracking the burgeoning wine and food scene there. Having lived in the state almost eight years, I’ve kept an eye on things for well over a decade curious to see how the quality progressed through the region. Though in 2012 I moved west to California, I’ve returned at least once, usually twice, each year since to check in on developments and see friends. In 2014, things in Arizona wine seemed especially exciting as the concentration of vineyards with quality viticulture was increasing and the quality of top notch wines were increasing too. This Spring I returned for a friend’s wedding and quickly made plans to come back this Fall to research the food scene as well as the wine as it was clear things were taking off in the state.
So, at the end of October I flew into Phoenix and took a week touring Arizona wine countries – Sonoita and Willcox in the southern part of the state, and Verde Valley up north – before then being part of a full day event in Phoenix hosted by the Arizona Vignerons Alliance. In the midst of checking out Arizona wine country I also checked in on the local food scene. It turns out Arizona grows top quality durum wheat, heritage grains, and some of the world’s best pistachios as well. Those plus locally grown produce and meats mean the local foods movement has taken over area restaurants for top quality local food – I got to visit several of those spots as well.
Following is the Instagram photo collection from my ten day intensive on the road throughout the state. It gives insight into Arizona grown grains, pistachios, the state’s wine regions, and restaurants.
Meet Pavle Milic. The first wine professional in Arizona to commit to an all Arizona wine list. He’d already worked in global wine and even succeeded in the Napa wine industry but figured if he was going to open a restaurant in Arizona it should focus on Arizona wine. Today, Seven years in, F n B Restaurant has just expanded into wines of the world but still likes to serve Arizona wines alongside comparable wines of the world. What struck me after very-many courses was how readily Arizona wine really did out match the food compared to the best of Italy or Corsica or France. Nice work, Pavle. Awesome dinner at F n B. #arizona @fnbrestaurant
And here stands the future home of Garage East, what will be a neighborhood winery in the Agritopia area of Gilbert, Arizona. Agritopia is a planned community designed to have whatever residents need within the community including community gardens, and a farm that serves the neighborhood restaurants. Garage East is part of a community for craftsmen built to house small businesses, each selected to be unique while also complementing each other with the idea that together they can grow new ideas and create solutions to issues that may arise for any one of them. Included will be a machinist, a brewery, a farm stand, florist, salon, letterpress and Garage East. Garage East has made wines from Arizona grown grapes and will also be experimenting with fermenting fruits from around the Agritopia farm. The focus is on making Arizona wines for Arizona with a central focus on the neighborhood community. #arizona @garage.east
This is Sonoran white wheat, one of the oldest varieties of cultivated wheat in North America, with its roots in Arizona. It had been essentially lost as newer, high yield varieties took over wheat farming in the last century. Then 20 years ago ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan inadvertently located it while speaking to a small-crop farmer in Mexico. She had a coffee can full of seeds Gary had never seen before so he traded her for them. The seeds were propagated in Arizona and studies of the straw in the state’s ancient adobe structures showed it to be the same variety. Today Sonoran white wheat is cultivated by a few small-scale farmers in Arizona where it is being used to make local, artisanal foods like heritage pasta, bread and even the pizza dough for Pizzeria Bianco. #arizona @pizzeriabianco @haydenflourmills
Jeff Zimmerman grows heritage grains in Arizona and mills them into flour, distributing it to artisanal food producers throughout Arizona, while also packaging and selling it throughout the United States under his label, Hayden Flour Mills. His work with Sonoran white wheat has helped make the heritage variety available to chefs and bakers throughout its home state. He has also helped keep durum wheat in Arizona. Arizona durum is considered the highest quality durum in the world with at least 90% of the state’s durum crop being exported for use in Italy. Farmer-millers like Jeff though have made it available for pastas, breads and pizzas here. In Phoenix, for example, Hayden Flours go into Pizzeria Bianco pizza dough and bread (Jeff started Hayden Flour Mills in the back of a Pizzeria Bianco restaurant), as well as FnB breads, pastas and grain salads. Jeff also makes him own durum pasta sold to restaurants throughout the state. Here we caught him in the midst of his weekend Flour clean up. #arizona @haydenflourmills @pizzeriabianco @fnbrestaurant
Tasting with Kelly and Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas in Sonita, first from barrel and tank and then across current releases in can and bottle. The wines across the board have a pleasing freshness coupled with generous flavor but most of all they taste completely of Arizona. The fruit notes changes but a kiss of agave nectar, a sprinkle of cocoa powder, flavors of molé and even the dusty red earth of the desert appear throughout. These are very much wines of place. The Bostocks are also doing exciting things making fresh wines with Brian Ruffentine for Garage-East that are breaking the mold by exploring making refreshing and charming young wines ideal for quick release as a thirst quencher for life in the hotter parts of the Arizona desert. Cool stuff. #arizona @doscabezas @kellybostock @garage.east
Surprising and special. Callaghan’s 2009 Caitlin’s Red opens with aromatics of flowered herbs that roll seamlessly into a palate of mixed blue and purple fruits sprinkled with iron and gunmetal. The trim focus and firm structural spine married to mouthwatering acidity are refreshing and surprisingly reminiscent of classic Bordeaux (a comparison I am loathe to make because it can so easily seem trite but nevertheless there it clearly is in the glass). This wine will age a good long time and is delicious now. Happy to find it. Thank you for opening so many back vintages, Kent! #arizona @kentcallaghan @callaghanvineyards
If you want a wine that can tell you the story of Sonoita, start here. Dos Cabezas El Campo is made only in the best vintages as growing conditions in the region can reduce yields significantly but those same conditions also create a natural concentration and density in a wine with abundant acidity and a distinct skeletal core. The iron rich soils are also full of calcium and the combination creates an utterly distinct dusty iron almost-chalky earth minerality that tastes of this desert. This is a wine to buy and hold onto. It wants time in bottle and air to open but there is plenty here to wait for and enjoy. #arizona @doscabezas @kellybostock
Arizona pistachios are regarded as some of the most flavorful, high quality in the world, packing in both darker color and more flavor than many other regions. Much of the crop is exported to Europe and Japan. Here, Cochise Groves has been growing Arizona pistachios for 35 years and last year produced 10% of the state’s crop. They were kind enough to show me the orchards and talk me through how all the harvest equipment works (so cool) then send me home with a bag of fresh harvest. Unreal how good these are. #arizona
Golden Rule Vineyard is the only site growing on the western side of the Willcox Playa. The site focuses entirely on red varieties planted in decomposed granite topsoil with a layer of decomposed limestone just 2 to 2 1/2 feet below the surface. The wines retain a unique mouthfeel and not-quite-nervy verve that moves through plenty of flavor on a light frame. Really nice freshness throughout the 2013 reds. #arizona @goldenrulevineyards
I really love these wines – absolute stand outs – full of flavor, palate enlivening energy, and truly all about freshness. Super impressed by Sand Reckoner wines – here the core line-up across multiple vintages with a focus on estate fruit. Good values here too. Get on these wines. #arizona @sandreckonervineyard
Morning on the Willcox Bench. Walking the historic Buhl Vineyard, the first vineyard planted in the region in 1984, with site manager Jesse Noble. Here beside 2001-planted Grenache, one of the most site responsive varieties in the vineyards. The Grenache does well here, grown in gravelly sandy loam at 4300 elevation. #arizona @puscifer
Clay heavy loam in the Deep Sky Vineyard further west on the eastern side of the Willcox Bench, further from the mountains, closer to the Playa. Here after the first pass of tilling the soil to break up clay pan in a three pass cycle, the third of which will include adding gypsum to help lighten the soil and rebalance mineral uptake for the vines. #arizona
Agricultural innovation coming out of Arizona vineyards – n.io Software integrates vineyard tracking data (water systems, sap flow, respiration, temperatures, etc) into one system accessible both by computer and mobile phone. All together it’s a tool for tracking and improving vineyard health. Here in Deep Sky Vineyard looking towards Dos Cabezas Mountain. #arizona
Pretty killer though not commercially released Tempranillo (here both 2014, which is holy heck lord delicious, and 2015, a totally different vintage expression – remarkable – good while also still finding its feet) from Bloomoon Vineyard, a 1-acre organically farmed Tempranillo vineyard in the Turkey Creek region. #arizona
And here grows Vitis Arizonica, a wild North American grape vine growing all over the creek beds through these high elevation slopes in southeastern Arizona. For anyone that doubts viticulture in the region, this stuff grows as high as 7000 and 8000 ft (here 5000 ft along the sides of Turkey Creek) and people have begun experimenting with using it as high elevation desert rootstock. We hiked down into the creek bed and sides along Turkey Creek hugged up against the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico and Mexico borders to find it and it was growing all over, climbing trees with a vine trunk as thick as two thumbs. #arizona
Enjoying pretty killer Syrah from Red Tree Ranch with these guys. At times like this I can’t tell you why I don’t live in the middle of no where at high elevation in the mountains of southeastern Arizona because the truth is it’s most of everything I want. #arizona @sandreckonervineyard (from left: Bobbie Dodd, Rob Hammelman, me, Brad Swepson)
Really cool to see how the Arizona food scene has developed in the last fifteen years. Phoenix has become a hot bed for quality restaurants, several even considered among the best in the country. Here, Southern Rail brings together a southern-US food influence with a commitment to supporting other independent local businesses through every facet of their company from linen supplier to water systems to local farms. Their award winning wine list includes Arizona wines held alongside world wines. #arizona @southernrailaz The chicken and dumplings (shown here) is a pretty killer lunch.
Experimental fermentations at the Southwest Wine Center using pottery custom made for the center by Tom Schumaker. This year they made carbonic macerated Cabernet Sauvignon in it (shown here) that they will sterile filter (no ML) and release as a fresh, light style red through the SWC’s tasting room and wine club. #arizona @southwestwinecenter
Meet a brand new wine project launching tomorrow – the Oddity Wine Collective (here from left: Aaron Weiss, Bree Nation and David Baird) are a small production winery making smashable, fresh wines washed through with flavor and the brightness to shine along food. Their first release of three 2015 wines includes a crisp, dry, high acid Riesling from the oldest vineyard in Willcox, 1984-planted Riesling, accented by Viognier; a Rhone red with just a touch of Zinfandel; and a Sangiovese-Petite Sirah blend full of well wed flavor from both varieties. Congratulations, you three! Have a great celebration at your release party tomorrow! #arizona
Mind blowing to see the incredible growth of the food and wine scene in old town Cottonwood thanks to the growth of the wine industry here. Just four and five years ago this area had numerous empty store fronts and had a hard time supporting local food businesses (a killer cheese shop came and went in a mere six months here back in 2011 or so). Tonight multiple restaurants are full, several tasting rooms are open and hopping and a moderately steady stream of cars keeps rolling down Main Street. The area is apparently packed on weekends full of people driving up from Phoenix and down from Sedona. #arizona
This spot is going to be killer. Merkin Vineyards & Osteria opens Tuesday in downtown Cottonwood. They’ll be pouring Merkin wines but also serving a menu made from all Arizona sourced ingredients including produce primarily grown in Merkin gardens as well as pasta and bread made on site using Hayden Flours grown and milled here in Arizona (including Arizona heritage grains). The inside space here looks killer – awesome details throughout including an open kitchen and visible produce storage plus interiors designed and made by local independent designers, builders and artisans. Two years ago I got to see some of the pasta prototypes and this space before all the current innovations. It is really awesome and inspiring to see the development of those early ideas into the current form. #arizona @puscifer @haydenflourmills
Here grows one of the rarest varieties on the planet. It was found growing feral in Jerome years ago by Maynard Keenan and his team then propagated and established in the Verde Valley. DNA testing returned without a match – some long lost variety brought over centuries ago from Europe and then lost to time. Its closest known relatives are Seneca and Lulilenga, two also obscure varieties. Keenan has since named it Agostina in honor of a number of friends and family. Its only known location is here in Northern Arizona. Tasting it this week was lovely – nice acidity and freshness with a mix of tropical fruits that avoid cloying or sweet notes and push to hints of agave. #arizona @puscifer
One of the most special spots I have gotten to spend time in any where, my second time visiting the 5000 ft elevation, steep slope terraced Judith Vineyard in Jerome. Last time we were able to follow it up with a vintage vertical back to 2008, including barrel samples. This time we followed up on a few of those vintages and tasted some of the newer varieties too, like this Nebbiolo planted in absurdly rocky, shallow soils of volcanic and caliché rock (read calcium, i.e. Limestone) – its first fruit vintage, 2015, is distinctive and delicious from barrel, super energizing and fresh. The site shows a totally unique dusty, almost chalky, glittering minerality across varieties, including the Malvasia. #arizona @puscifer
Special sites show in the wines. There is a common thread through these even though 2011 Judith comes primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon – a distinctive, high elevation, desert Cab, really special – and the 2013 comes from Tempranillo. The Cabernet was unfortunately hit by Pearce’s disease so the site was replanted to Tempranillo, one of the varieties showing its chops in Arizona. #arizona @puscifer
Blind tasting Arizona wines alongside wines of the world with Pavle Milic, wine director of FnB Restaurant. The Reveal: Sand-Reckoner 2013 Malvasia Bianca and Edi Kante 2013 Malvasia Bianca; Callaghan 2013 Grenache and Durban 2013 Gigondas; Dos Cabezas 2012 Aguileon and Aragon 2011 Rioja. #arizona @sandreckonervineyard @callaghanvineyards @doscabezas @arizonavigneronsalliance
Oh, you! Sacrisassi, you already know you just get better with age, of course you’re still pretty. #arizona So good every time to check in on Pizzicletta here in Flagstaff, one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. I forgot to take a photo of the killer pizza but we enjoyed one of my long standing wine loves – Sacrisassi, a Refosco, Schioppetino blend from Friuli with a bit of age on it. I love what Caleb is doing with Italian wine in Flagstaff. Yum. @pizzicletta
Filling the need. #arizona @firecreekcoffee (that guy right there used to be my DJ. A few years ago one of my best friends unbeknownst to me lied to he and his DJ brother saying it was my birthday. Suddenly I had magical powers. If I called out a song they played it. We started with Prince and worked our way to AC/DC. I had no idea why the hell people kept bringing me drinks, asking me to dance and smiling at me until the DJ’s opened my favorite song with a HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ELAINE!!! and I got excited to find out who the other Elaine was. Our faux-birthday dance party successfully filled the bar and the dance floor, got my other friend asked out on a date, and got me into one of my only bar fights. The guy was three times bigger than me and I made him scream like a hyena (don’t mess with a woman’s hat) then they kicked him out. All thanks to that guy. Marty. He used to be my DJ.) for anyone curious, I ordered an almond milk mocha and it’s the most bitter awesome thing ever. (Also, I only ever get in bar fights in Alaska or Arizona. You know how it is.)
Life is so very full of blessing when we open to it. I just spent 45 minutes listening to a Hopi man named Elgean as he shared with me his people’s religion, his clan’s belief system, what family means for him and how his name means he always has somewhere to go, people who love him. Elgean is from the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America with structures carbon dated to the 12th century. He taught me how to read Hopi painting and kachina – here a mural I have walked by so many times and never understood and others here in Flagstaff too. Here in Flagstaff I am not truly part of this Native culture but because of how I grew up it has been as if I see into two worlds. It has sometimes meant being called to intervene on others’ behalf only from being willing to interact calmly with Native people and because I am also non-threatening for non-Natives since for most I pass. One of the worst situations I broke up a fight provoked by a non-Native and helped the Native man home to a safe place again. The teaching “for the grace of god go I” was really driven home for me living here in Flagstaff – seeing that it is merely coincidence that makes my life easier than many people that are mistreated by prejudice. Today Elgean shared so much time with me, it turned out, simply because I smiled and was willing to listen. His teaching me to read the murals and telling me about his clan’s history and values was his way of thanking me even though all I gave in return was a willingness to listen. Before we went our separate ways he prayed a blessing for me, taught me the words for it and gave me prayer corn to make my life stronger. We can be as angels to each other. May we all continue to rise again and again to the occasion and listen, show gratitude and in that way love. #arizona
Really special kachina. I got to meet the artist, Philbert Honanie, who has helped revitalize traditional styles of Hopi carving returning to the more compact style of form and all natural pigments original to the craft. Here in Flagstaff, Winter Sun sells jewelry and art made by traditional indigenous artists. In doing, economic resources become more available to the region’s reservations and indigenous artisans. #arizona
Got my Blundstones shined up waiting for the plane. Spoke for a while with the shoe shine man. He and his wife moved to the USA one year ago this week from Ethiopia. He has been working in the airport shining shoes ever since. He was glad to hear of my daughter but then also wondered if surely I want more babies, then was surprised to hear my age but reassured me I am very young. There is time. #arizona Shiniest dang work boots I ever seen.
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Thanks for this, great read
Outstanding coverage and insight into what is happening TODAY on the Arizona Wine and food scene. I found it most informative and I like your casual style.
Any particular reason that a little town called ‘Tucson’ was not included? Yes, we eat and drink here, also…
Thanks, Craig. It was a wine trip focused on the wine regions of the state, but I added in food stuff along the wine trail and then tagged on Flagstaff at the end to visit friends. Tucson has so much amazing food heritage work happening these days that I would love to see. The UNESCO food city designation is really significant and should be celebrated.
Not to mention, that Tucson is home to one of the original Arizona wine Pioneers, Dr. Gordon Dutt.
[…] handed me my second espresso. To meet, I woke before dawn and drove over two hours across the Arizona desert. The town where he lives is […]