Arizona may not spring to mind when considering a trip through wine country, but it is more than worth the trip. The number of Arizona wineries grows every year — and so does the quality of the wines they’re producing. Vineyards are spreading across the state, and the Sonoita AVA, in particular, offers a perfect day of wine tasting and scenic landscapes.
Tucson, the home of the University of Arizona, provides a wonderful base for exploring Sonoita AVA. The small city teems with fantastic hiking and wonderful dining, including many authentic Mexican restaurants. You can stay in the lively neighborhoods near the University of Arizona or tuck away on the edges of town immersed in natural areas.
An hour’s drive south through the craggy Santa Rita Foothills brings you to rolling fields dotted with cattle, pronghorn antelope, and vineyards. The Sonoita-Elgin area sits at 5,000 feet in elevation, which means cooler temperatures than the Phoenix valley while still getting a large dose of sunshine. Temperatures only reach the 80s in summer and remain pleasant for most of the year. When I visited in mid-November, the sun quickly warmed up the cool morning and made for a glorious day.
The desert environment prompts the owners and managers of vineyards to choose their locations carefully and adopt sustainable practices. Insects and molds do not proliferate here, allowing a greatly reduced need for pesticides. Many varietals grown in more famous vineyards around the world thrive in this area, adopting a distinct Arizona flavor due to the particular minerals in this soil. With almost 20 wineries in the area, plenty of choices for wine tasting await.
Note: Most of the wine tastings I enjoyed were provided by the vineyards. All opinions are my own.
1. Los Milics Vineyards
On my visit, Pavle Milic joyfully related a fateful encounter he had with a couple of diners at his downtown Scottsdale restaurant, FnB.
Speaking with Mo and Stephanie, his obvious enthusiasm for wine and dream of owning a vineyard convinced them that they had found a great partner for their own dream. They scoured Arizona for the ideal location and found it at the base of the Mustang Mountains. Pavle began the Los Milics wine label in 2014 and received the James Beard Nomination for Outstanding Beverage Program at FnB in 2017.
The vineyards quickly took shape and have grown to produce 13 varietals of white, red, and rosé wine. One of my favorites was a rosé, which I typically would not choose. The pale ruby rosé, Sandra’s 2021, contains petit verdot and Montepulciano grapes, which give it a unique complexity.
Some of Los Milics’ wines are aged in ceramic, cement, and steel containers to impart interesting flavors. Tasting the sample made with the same grapes but in different containers emphasized the crispness of the wine from the ceramic urn and the oak tones of the one from the wooden barrel.
Tommy and Patricia of Chen + Suchart Studio designed a stunning tasting room to fully showcase the beauty of the vineyards and mountains. The soaring metal walls contrast the neat rows of vines outside and the comfortable elegance within the room. The far end of the triangular space opens to a fantastic view of the Mustang Mountains and “the biscuit” formation at its top. Plans are in the works to add casitas and a commercial kitchen to enhance your visit.
Tastings are available Thursday through Sunday, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.
2. Sonoita Vineyards
As a soil scientist at the University of Arizona, Dr. Gordon Dutt experimented with growing grapes in Southern Arizona. He was pleasantly surprised with the flavor and acidity of the red wine created. He started planting a vineyard in 1979 and opened a winery in 1983.
Sonoita Vineyards remains in the family, with his granddaughter, Lori Reynolds, at the helm. Her warm welcome greeted me and she proudly described each wine in my tasting.
In the past 40 years, the vineyards have grown to over 30 acres, producing 11 varietals of grapes. The initial 300 gallons of wine has increased to 10,000 gallons produced annually. Each batch, however, is small and contains mainly homegrown grapes, with some added from other Southern Arizona vineyards.
The mountain ranges of Santa Rita, Huachuca, and Whetstone surround Sonoita Vineyards, providing protection from harsh weather. An outdoor patio provides ample space to lounge and enjoy the view of rolling fields extending to the mountains. Lori recommended visiting during monsoon season to watch the storms gather and move through. They offer campsites for those wanting to enjoy their visit thoroughly without having to worry about driving.
Indoors, a long bar for tastings is surrounded by memorabilia and wonderful gifts for wine lovers. My favorite wine, the 2014 MeCasah, is a red blend with a bold, smokey flavor. I bought a bottle to enjoy while sitting by a fire and remembering the gorgeous landscape of the Sonoita wine country.
Tasting hours are 10:00 am to 4:00 pm every day of the week except Tuesdays.
3. Arizona Hops And Wines
When entering AZ Hops and Wines, the spirit of adventure and enjoyment is evident. Fun artwork and a multitude of gathering spaces welcome visitors to relax and experience the joy that led Megan Stranik and Shannon Zouzoulas to create a vineyard. These two sisters dreamed of owning a winery and made it a reality.
Megan worked at Sonoita Vineyards and other vineyards in the area to gain experience. Shannon decided to move to Arizona, and they joined their families and set to work.
For the tasting, each wine is poured into a small cup in a cupcake tray and paired with a small bite of sweet or savory food. Each description helps you learn which food would perfectly accompany each wine. I enjoyed The Aviator, a 2018 cabernet sauvignon with a woody flavor and tones of dark cherry.
AZ Hops and Wines hosts live music out on the patio most weekends. The atmosphere is excellent for gathering with friends with a backdrop of the surrounding hills and vineyards.
The tasting room is open every day at 11:00 am. Closing time is 4:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 6:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
As the shadows lengthen and the sun descends, Rune offers a peaceful setting to wind down the day. The off-the-grid winery concentrates on sustainable practices and taking full advantage of the natural beauty. Comfortable chairs are arranged in small groups and provide a spectacular view. A small path leads across the grounds so visitors can wander with their wine further away from the road to feel more connected to the land.
The small building offers a short bar to chat with the server and learn about the wines in the tasting. I ordered the burrata with roasted cherry tomatoes and settled into a chair overlooking the countryside in the late afternoon light. My server kept a close eye on me and brought out the next selections of my tasting. I lingered over the 2019 cabernet sauvignon at the end of the path, gazing back on the sun setting behind the hills beyond the tasting room.
Founder James Callahan lived in an Airstream trailer while starting the vineyards. He produced his first vintage in 2015 and continues to expand the winery. Each vintage sports a unique label that is a work of art and reflects a storyline over the years. As he expands his varietals, he incorporates grapes from other Arizona vineyards to maintain the taste of the local terroir.
Stop by the tasting room Monday–Wednesday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Thursday–Sunday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. The kitchen offers sandwiches, charcuterie, and other small bites to gird you for your ride back to your lodging.
While in your home base of Tucson, many activities offer a way to enjoy the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert.
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Sabino Canyon Recreation Area lies at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, at the north edge of Tucson. Several trails take you through desert scrubland and along a stream or deep into the canyon, with stunning scenery in every direction. A large parking lot, restrooms, and a bookstore provide a great starting point. An open-air tram carries visitors through the canyon for a 30 or 60-minute ride for around $15. There are also shuttle stops along the way for hopping on and off. Purchase the visitor fee online to speed your entrance.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
On the west side, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum combines a zoo, a botanical garden, and a natural history museum. You can watch prairie dogs dart in and out of their tunnels at the Desert Grassland exhibit or an ocelot chase a bug on the Cat Canyon trail. Wander among native plants in the Desert Garden or hike the half-mile-long Desert Loop Trail past javelina and coyotes. You can also explore a realistic cave and marvel at an array of colorful minerals.
The rugged and scenic landscape of the desert instills a passion into its inhabitants that shines through in their work and play. The rolling hills and ample sun create a perfect environment for growing grapes, and the unique soil conditions imbue a taste of Arizona in the wine. Winemakers here must know their land well and are increasingly discovering what works well for magnificent wine. When exploring the Sonoita wine country, the stories and scenery leave their mark on your memory.