Arizona Wine Revisited
Written by Mike Veseth Published on March 28, 2023 in The Wine Economist
It has been 15 years since our last visit to Arizona to check out the wine scene (our report appeared in an early Wine Economist column), so it didn’t take much to persuade us to go back to see how things have changed.
Our first trip was based out of Tuscon, near the main vineyard areas in the southeast of the state. This time we traveled up north to scenic Sedona to explore Arizona’s newest AVA, the Verde Valley. Our visit was interrupted by that big winter storm that swept across the country last month and threatened to block our way home. But all’s well that ends well — we were able to start our fieldwork in Sedona and end it in Old Town Scottsdale, which is home to many tasting rooms.
Here is our report, starting with some broad facts about Arizona wine and then drilling down a bit into specifics.
Bigger and Smaller
The Arizona wine industry is both bigger than you think and smaller than you might imagine. Arizona now has 108 wineries according to the January 2023 issue of Wine Business Monthly. That includes 90 bonded wineries and 18 “virtual” wineries. Virtual wineries? Yes, this is a growing trend. These are wine brands without vineyards or their own winemaking facilities. About 1000 of California’s nearly 5000 wineries are virtual operations. And virtual wineries account for almost 300 of the 900 total wineries in Oregon.
Arizona ranks #17 among U.S. states based on the number of wineries — bigger than you might have guessed. But the individual wineries tend to be small. Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, for example, is the largest winery in the state with an annual production of about 20,000 cases. Total production for the state is about 350,000 cases a year, we were told. If that’s correct, that means all Arizona wineries taken together make about as much wine as Daou Family Estates or JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery (data from Wine Business Monthly).
Latitude versus Elevation
One reason you might not expect Arizona to be a wine state is its latitude. It can indeed be very hot in Arizona, which is why snowbirds flock there in the winter. But elevation compensates for latitude in Arizona much as it does in Mendoza, Argentina.
Wine grapes grow well in Arizona at elevations between 3500 and 6000 feet. Most of the vineyards are in the southeast near Willcox and about 75% to 80% of the grapes are grown there. But other parts of the state have active winegrowing, too, including the Verde Valley near Sedona.
Arizona wine is a premium product — there is no such thing as Arizona Two Buck Chuck. Lack of scale is one cause of higher cost, of course, but basic supply and demand play an important role. The amount of vineyard acreage has not increased as fast as the number of wineries seeking grapes. So grape prices have risen and wine prices along with them. We heard several people talk about $3000 per ton grape prices, for example, and that means $30+ bottle prices.
The vineyards are smaller than you will find in many regions and tend to be planted with many different grape varieties, further limiting economies of scale. I don’t think Arizona has a “signature” wine grape variety, although Syrah and GSM-style blends seem to be on every tasting room list. One reason for the kaleidoscope of grape varieties is just that Arizona is a young industry still in the experimentation stage.
Free to Choose
Another factor, however, is probably that making wine in Arizona means being free to do what you like to a certain extent. In Napa Valley buyers expect to find Cabernet Sauvignon. Ditto Malbec in Mendoza. In Cottonwood or Jerome, on the other hand, you can follow your personal preferences.
One source of this freedom is the fact that a lot of Arizona wines are hand-sold direct-to-consumer. Arizona wine sales regulations allow small wineries greater freedom for direct sales, so many focus on tasting rooms and wine clubs. Several wineries, for example, have tasting rooms in Willcox, Scottsdale, and Cottonwood. Scottsdale is a big tourist destination and Cottonwood is just a short drive from popular Sedona.
Local Market Focus
In part because of the scale issues and local regulations, most Arizona wineries focus on in-state sales through their direct channels. There is a lot of work to do to make Arizona wines more visible within Arizona before taking on bigger markets. Sue and I thought that on-premise sales might be a good way to spread the word, but neither Sedona restaurant we tried had Arizona wines on their list.
One manager shrugged when we asked about the situation. Too costly, he said. I can appreciate that problem. Once you apply restaurant markups to Arizona wine that visiting diners might not have heard of, it could be a tough sell.
But not impossible, as we discovered at lunch at a great Mexican restaurant in Scottsdale. They featured Chateau Tumbleweed wines in their by-the-glass program to support local producers. We tried a Mourvedre-forward GSM blend called Dr. Ron Bot and it was terrific with our meals. We appreciated that the Arabella Hotel where we stayed in Sedona featured Arizona wine tastings for guests.
We enjoyed our brief visit to this part of Arizona wine country. Highlights included …
Arizona’s largest winery is small (by California standards) but mighty. The wines we sampled were delicious and we were very impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit. Arizona wines are relatively expensive for the reasons noted above, but somehow Arizona Stronghold manages to produce a good-value line of wines called Provisioner that includes “Float Tripper Sipper” canned sparkling wines that are a perfect complement to the Arizona outdoor lifestyle. Very impressive.
Page Spring Cellars
The Verde Valley is a great spot for outdoor activities and for wine tourists, too, with several wineries and even more tasting rooms. But with most of the vineyards down south in the Willcox area, there are not many classic destination wineries with vineyards, cellars, and tasting rooms. Page Spring Cellars has it all plus an outstanding restaurant. No wonder it attracts thousands of visitors each year for the wine, the food, and the experience.
Carlson Creek Vineyards
A winter storm prevented us from visiting the tasting room in Cottonwood, but we learned a lot about Carlson Creek Vineyards in an hour spent at the Old Town Scottsdale tasting room. The place was really buzzing on a weekday afternoon and the wines were among our favorites of this visit. If you visit Phoenix and don’t check out the wine scene in Old Town Scottsdale you are missing a bet!
Caduceus Cellars / Merkin Vineyards
Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards are projects of Maynard James Keenan, the frontman for rock groups including Tool. Some celebrity wineries are vanity projects or over-hyped branding exercises, but wine clearly is the central element here. We weren’t able to visit the winery in Jerome, but the Merkin tasting room in Old Town Scottsdale is a popular stop for both food and wine. Sue and I shared the signature charcuterie platter perfectly paired with Caduceus Nagual del Agostina, a white wine made from 80% Vermentino and 20% Malvasia Bianca from the Agostina block vineyard in the Verde Valley’s Cornville district. That’s a blend of grapes you might not expect to find in Arizona, or anywhere else, but it really worked. Arizona is full of surprises like this!
Cove Mesa Vineyard
Cove Mesa’s tasting room is in Cornville, with newly planted vineyards nearby. Cove Mesa is another example of a winery trying lots of different grapes, including a new planting of Assyrtiko.
The Arizona wine industry has come a long way in the 15 years since our first visit. It will be interesting see what the future holds. In the meantime, keep Arizona wine on your radar!