While the sunny state of Arizona is most often associated with jagged red-rock formations, cacti and tumbleweeds, it has garnered quite a bit of attention of late for its wine. The state is home to three official AVAs. The first two, Sonoita and Willcox, are both near the Mexican border in the south. Meanwhile the Verde Valley, which received its formal designation in November 2021, is in central Arizona’s Yavapai County, about an hours’ drive southwest of Flagstaff, near Sedona.
For years the Verde Valley was a sleepy part of the state, often overlooked by travellers on their way from Phoenix to Sedona, but the growth in its wine industry has seen a significant uptick in tourism, ushering in a revival for communities such as Cottonwood, Clarkdale, Cornville and the historic mining town of Jerome.
The Verde Valley boasts high elevations averaging 1,200m and a diurnal temperature variation that can be more than 25°C in the middle of the summer growing season. The area receives good rainfall, with the summer rains fed in on tropical currents from Mexico. These dramatic monsoon rains are marked by lightning, thunderstorms, wind and torrential downpours – a significant challenge during harvest.
Relatively small compared to better-known growing regions in the US, the Verde Valley has about 40ha under vine. The free-draining soils are volcanic and sandy loam, with layers of calcium-rich caliche – a defining characteristic of the subsoil here, believed to bring particular minerality to the wines.
Verde Valley, Arizona: wineries to visit
Showcasing premium fruit primarily from the Verde Valley, the wines of Caduceus Cellars offer an authentic taste of Arizona. Owned by Maynard James Keenan, one of the state’s leading industry champions and the lead singer for Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, the winery sources fruit from the eight vineyards that Keenan manages throughout the state (seven of which are in Verde Valley).
Single-varietal favourites include the Nagual del Agostina Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre) and the Nagual del Judith Tempranillo, as well as blends like the Nagual del Sensei, a combination of Sagrantino and Souzão. Keenan’s other winery, Merkin Vineyards, champions the wines of the Willcox AVA but also has a tasting room in the Verde Valley city of Cottonwood (see ‘Where to eat and drink’, below).
- Address: 158 Main St, Jerome, AZ 86331
- Open: Daily 11am-6pm
- Contact: (928) 639 9463
This whimsical brand is a partnership among four friends, each with previous experience from Page Springs Cellars, Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards. The concept initially launched as one of the projects at the Four Eight Wineworks incubator but in 2015 the brand had grown to warrant its own facility in Clarkdale.
Laidback and casual, Chateau Tumbleweed’s tasting room reflects its wine: fresh, creative and youthful. Rhône and Italian varieties take centre stage, with Grenache, Sangiovese, Vermentino and Picpoul among the standouts.
- Address: 1151 West State Route 89A, Clarkdale, AZ 86324
- Open: Daily 12pm-7pm
- Contact: (928) 634 0443 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Page Springs Cellars
Founded by one of Arizona wine’s trailblazers, Eric Glomski, Page Springs Cellars is one of Verde Valley’s top tasting room visits. Here you’ll find wines focusing on Rhône varieties, including Grenache, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Vermentino (Rolle) and Roussanne.
Glomski has taken a particular interest in different Syrah clones, cultivating plantings in both the Verde Valley and in the southeastern part of the state in the Chiricahua Mountains. Reservations recommended.
- Address: 1500 North Page Springs Rd, Cornville, AZ 86325
- Open: Sunday to Friday 11am-7pm, Saturday 11am-9pm
- Contact: (928) 639 3004
Southwest Wine Center
Part university course attached to the Yavapai College and part full-scale winery, the Southwest Wine Center is an essential player in Verde Valley. In 2010, the syllabus was launched to offer a formal wine education modelled after the University of California Davis viticulture and oenology programmes.
The building includes a state-of-the-art winery, cellar and a modern tasting room for guests to sample students’ efforts – many award winning. One-hour tastings are by advance reservation only, via the website.
- Address: 601 Black Hills Dve, Clarkdale, AZ 86324
- Open: Thursday to Sunday 12pm-6pm
- Contact: (928) 634 6566
Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery
Founded in 1999 by Rod and Cynthia Snapp, today Javelina Leap is a key player in Verde Valley. Though winemaking was virtually non-existent in the region at the time, the Snapps were convinced they could make it work.
Named for a small, native wild boar-like creature, Javelina Leap is a 4ha estate vineyard overlooking the Oak Creek greenbelt, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Barbera. Try the Legacy Zinfandel and rustic, tobacco-scented Tempranillo.
- Address: 1565 North Page Springs Rd, Cornville, AZ 86325
- Open: Daily 11am-6pm (Tuesdays to 5pm)
- Contact: (928) 649 2681 or email@example.com
Established by the Petznick family in 2002, DA Ranch is a family-owned estate vineyard. Original plantings on the high-desert property include 2.8ha of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Tannat and Seyval Blanc.
In 2014, the Petznicks partnered with Chateau Tumbleweed (above) to help manage the vineyard and produce their 100% Verde Valley wines. With production of just 750 cases annually, the wines are worth experiencing at the property – particularly the earthy Tannat, savoury Syrah and floral Seyval Blanc.
- Address: 1901 Dancing Apache Rd Cornville, AZ 86325
- Open: Select days 11am-6pm, check website for details
- Contact: (928) 301 0791 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Verde Valley, Arizona: where to eat and drink
Merkin Vineyards Osteria
Employing a traditional farm-to-table mentality, this Cottonwood eatery offers a true taste of the region, using locally grown produce from Verde Valley orchards and farms along with house-made bread and pasta and sustainably sourced meats and fish. It also doubles as a wine tasting room for Merkin Vineyards. Try the creamy cavatelli pasta shells with ricotta, goat cheese and seasonal pesto. Weekend brunch is a must, especially the duck-egg quiche and seasonal veggies.
- Address: 1001 North Main St, Cottonwood, AZ 86326
- Open: Monday to Saturday 11am-9pm, Sunday 10am-9pm (brunch 10am-2pm)
- Contact: (928) 639 1001
Located in a former 1920s theatre, this casual, neighbourhood restaurant in Cottonwood serves up classic American fare with everything from Buffalo chicken wings and spinach-artichoke dip to hearty cheeseburgers, meatloaf and a generous serving of slow-roasted prime rib with mashed potatoes and gravy.
- Address: 914 North Main St, Cottonwood, AZ 86326
- Open: Daily 11am-9pm
- Contact: (928) 634 6669
Fans of haunted experiences will want to book a room at the historic Jerome Grand Hotel. Only hotel guests are allowed a guided tour but dining at the restaurant can be just as fun. The limited yet flavourful menu includes creamy crab-artichoke dip, cheeseburgers and grilled ribeye steaks.
- Address: Jerome Grand Hotel, 200 Hill St, Jerome, AZ 86331
- Open: Wednesday to Sunday 11am-9pm
- Contact: (928) 639 3197
The Flat Iron
The Flat Iron in Jerome is the place for delicious single-origin coffee and satisfying brunch fare. For breakfast, try a Mr Egg Sandwich: fluffy scrambled eggs and cheese on a toasted bagel. Lunch sandwiches are big and range from roast beef and horseradish aioli to chickpea and roasted veg, or tuna salad on whole-grain bread.
- Address: 416 Main St, Jerome, AZ 86331
- Open: Thursday to Monday 8.30am-3.30pm
- Contact: (928) 634 2733
Arizona wine: a brief history
The history of Arizona wine dates to the 16th century when Spanish missionaries planted grapevines for sacramental wine purposes. And though some wine production surfaced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the advent of Prohibition in the early 20th century halted any significant production.
The first licensed wineries in Arizona arrived following the 1982 Arizona Farm Winery Act, which ushered in wineries such as Dr Gordon Dutt’s Sonoita Vineyards, the first of this modern era.
In the ensuing decades, a proliferation of vineyard planting took place, particularly in the southern parts of the state. The first official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) included Sonoita and Willcox, home to more than 75% of vineyard plantings. In central Arizona, two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, the Verde Valley officially received its AVA in November 2021.
While the industry remained small throughout the ’90s, it experienced another surge in the early 2000s. Plantings expanded in all three AVAs, and wines now have better precision and sense of place.