Magazine article Sunset

Southeast Arizona: Pinots and Burros

Magazine article Sunset

Southeast Arizona: Pinots and Burros

Article excerpt

When the Apache warrior chief Cochise envisioned the destiny of his homeland, he probably wasn't imagining it as wine country. But the parched, blindingly bright high desert of southeast Arizona has indeed been so transformed. About 20 miles from the Mexican border, the villages of Sonoita, Patagonia, and Elgin are sprouting the improbable: small green vines that clutch the earth with true-grit tenacity. (Yes, John Wayne westerns were filmed here.)

Desert beauty aside, the first thing a visitor notices about this corner of the West is that it doesn't seem even remotely suitable for grape growing. Daytime temperatures can hover above 100 [degrees], plunging the vines into drought shock. The elevation - around 5,000 feet above sea level - virtually guarantees a high risk of killing springtime frosts. In early summer, torrential monsoon rains can pelt the grapes with ferocious power. Then, of course, there are the coyotes that not only adore grapes but also possess a special fondness for the flavor of irrigation hoses, without which no Arizona winery could survive.

It's enough to dissuade any but the most resolute - and clever - winemakers. Which Arizona seems to have its share of. By finding the best patches of ground and by farming the grapes with extraordinary care, these winemakers intend to make wine an Arizona reality.

That said, finding Arizona's wineries can be an odyssey all its own. Although there are now 12 of them in the state, all are tiny and only a scant few are open to the public. Luckily, most of the wines are easily found in local (and very loyal) restaurants and wine shops. And if you don't find yourself in southeast Arizona, don't worry. Many hip Tucson and Phoenix restaurants also now carry the state's best wines.

Given the small size of the Arizona wine industry (with just 300 acres, the state has less than 0.1 percent the vineyard acreage of California), it's perhaps surprising to discover that grape growing here may well have predated vineyards in California. The first Arizona vines were planted by Franciscan missionaries in the late 17th century. Thanks to severe climate conditions, however, a viable wine industry didn't emerge until the 1980s, when Gordon Dutt, a Ph.D. in soil science at the University of Arizona, planted grapes near Sonoita. Today, Sonoita Vineyards sits atop a knoll, giving wine tasters a breathtaking 360 [degrees] view of the majestic landscape while they sip. …

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