Feb 05

Arizona Wine Country

The vines of Alcantara with the cliff dwellings across the river

The vines of Alcantara with the cliff dwellings across the river

Wine Country. The terms inspire all the senses. You expect to stand at vast rows of grapes and see them make their way over green, or maybe golden, hills. In the most distance horizon, you may see a mountain top barely discernible under a misty cloud. There can be a chill in the air or warm sun rays on your back. You can practically taste the lush fruit ready for harvest. Sometimes you hear live music or remember a great meal; it can be a party or an introspective time. You visualize charming structures in the landscape. You may even recall passionate business owners anxious to colorfully describe the tastes resulting from, literally, the fruits of their labor. You likely did not think of the desert state of Arizona.

It’s ok if you didn’t, I didn’t either. This is a lesson about taking the time to dig a little deeper when you travel. The natural splendor of the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon are unsurpassed and draw the highest numbers of tourists to the state each year.  It is protected National Forest and State land. It’s #9 on the Lonely Planet’s top 10 US travel destinations for 2013 and one of top in the United States each year. Verde Valley is the land of ancient peoples and now has over 40 wineries operating in the region.

The original Arizonans considered this area sacred. There is evidence of human presence in the Verde Valley as early as 4000 BCE. Two rare, natural, perennial streams, Verde River and Oak Creek, meet in this valley. As the original Arizonans knew, water is essential to life. Verde Valley provided them reliable water, abundant wildlife, and fertile soil. The valley walls provided shelter and distant views. The Hohokam are credited with developing irrigation canals for farming. The Sinagua (which means “without water”) designed cliff-dwelling masonry building techniques and successfully intermingled with the Hohokam. The petroglyphs revealing stories of these shared experiences are visible on the rocks today. It is believed the Southern Sinagua left the area in the 1400’s perhaps due to conflict with the Yavapai. The Yavapai remained until 1582 when the Spanish invaded the area.

So how has this ancient site evolved into a grape growing region? Grapes, after all, are an agricultural product and if the Hohokam could farm thousands of years ago, then why not today? If those “without water” can thrive, why not new agriculture? Any viticulturist will tell you that stressing grape vines makes for better fruit. This is a Semi-arid, steppe climate with warm, sun-drenched days and cool evening temperatures. The alluvial soils are deep, well-drained, alkaline soils with a good balance of both clay and sandy loams. The rivers merge together at latitude 34°N. Most famed wine growing regions of the world reside between 30 and 50 latitude in both hemispheres. Consider the regions of Palermo or Naples, Italy; Adelaide Hills, Australia; Andalusia, Spain; Napa/Sonoma, CA; Mendoza, Argentina, Bordeux or Champagne, France. Grapes like all these growing environments.

The picturesque nutmeg and cinnamon colored soil of Sedona transitioned to grey as our driver, Ron of Tours of Jerome, headed southwesterly along Highway 89A into Cottonwood, AZ. This is just one of the historic towns in the region. Most of them were built because of the land; the mining industry grew quite prosperous. Ironically, this area was the bootleg capital of Arizona during prohibition and now hosts several tasting rooms for the local wineries. At Pillsbury Wine Company, we discovered a “small world” connection with our delightful hostess. The wineries are producing award-winning wines here in Arizona wine country. The land, and the weather conditions, still determine the harvest each year.

The sun was lowering in the sky by the time we arrived at Alcantara Vineyards & Winery. It was the closest we had been to grapes all day. They did, in fact, march their way towards the horizon, row by row, up the ancient hills to the tops of the surrounding mesas and down towards the river bank. We sat on the tasting room’s deck, above the rivers. Looking across them, we could see the ancient cliff dwellings high above the river’s confluence. We had the opportunity to visit with the Proprietress, Barbara Predmore. She spoke passionately about loving life, living well, and wine. She told us of embracing the land and respecting the life-sustaining water of the rivers.

One of my favorite sayings about wine is an old French proverb that is written, “In water one sees one’s own face; but in wine one beholds the heart of another.”  Barbara may not have Sinagua, or Hohokam in her blood, but she had clearly channeled the ancient farmers.  It was while listening to her heart speak that I realized how perfect this day had been. I, too, felt connected to this beautiful, ancient land.  Wine Country – Arizona, I get it now.


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