Visitors to southeast Arizona can count on us for two things: plentiful sunshine and really, really good authentic Mexican food. It may come as a surprise, then, that we can also boast being home to several wineries that produce award-winning wines. Arizona’s only official American Viticulture Area is located about an hour south and east of Tucson in what would otherwise be strictly a ranch town. The Sonoita/Elgin area is home to ten tasting rooms–some of which, unfortunately, offer visitors a better tasting experience than others. As a frequent visitor to Sonoita’s tasting rooms, I’m here today to help steer you towards the Sonoita wineries that I’ve found to be the most consistent in both quality of wines and friendliness of tasting room attendants. These wineries, I believe, represent the best wineries in Sonoita.
Callaghan Vineyards – 336 Elgin Road, Elgin, Arizona
No tasting trip along Sonoita’s wine trail would be complete without a stop at Callaghan Vineyards. The first time I visited the region (in 2011) one thing was made clear: Kent Callaghan’s colleagues credit him with establishing Sonoita as a wine destination. Since his vineyard was first planted in 1990, Callaghan’s wines have gone on to earn accolades on both a state and national level. So notable are his wines, in fact, that they’ve been poured at three separate White House dinners.
What you need to know: The tasting room is open from 11-4 Thursday through Sunday and tends to be quite crowded. During our most recent visit, a tasting was priced at $10 (or $5 if you bring your own glass) and included five pours.
Tasting room tidbit: Visitors are encouraged to add a pin to a map on the tasting room wall to represent his or her hometown. If indeed all of the pinners have been honest, Callaghan’s guests have traveled far and wide to visit his tasting room; there’s even a pin on Antarctica! I’m not sure that one passes the tipsy test, but it’s a fun aspect nonetheless.
Dos Cabezas WineWorks- 3248 Highway 82, Sonoita, Arizona
This is a tricky one. Unlike the other tasting rooms I’m going to recommend, Dos Cabezas is located in what–from the outside–appears to be a rundown strip mall. Not to worry, that all changes once you walk through the door. The space is tastefully decorated with upscale features including exposed stone, a copper bar and a colorful collage of prints displayed on the back wall. They also have a really cool barrel room and yes, they will let you in for a closer look if you ask nicely. It’s all very well and good, but if what you’re really interested in is wine, I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed. We’ve never had a bad experience (with the wine or attendant) at Dos Cabezas. Their wine is exceptionally good. You’ll want to leave with a bottle or four.
What you need to know: Tasting room hours are 10:30-4:30 Thursday through Sunday. During our most recent visit a tasting cost $15 with a logo glass or $9 with a glass from another local winery.
Tasting room tidbit: Dos Cabezas’ tasting notes are, shall we say, creatively written and offer readers a good laugh you won’t even need to be tipsy to appreciate.
Lightning Ridge Cellars – 2368 Highway 83, Elgin, Arizona
Lightning Ridge is located just a bit off the beaten wine trail, but worth the trouble to visit. Hailing from the 7.5 acres of vineyards Ron and Ann Roncone have in production, their estate wines can be characterized as dry Italian reds. My husband and I recently visited and fell in love with their 2011 Montepulciano for its fruit-forward flavors and spicy finish. While Lightning Ridge’s wines stand alone as reason to stop by for a tasting, I would be remiss not to tell you what more you can expect. One of the things I love most about Lightning Ridge is that they are–hands down–the friendliest folks in the game. When they say family-owned and operated, they mean it; they always have at least one family member behind the counter to greet and pour and answer any questions their guests might have. Of all the tasting rooms in Sonoita, this one seems best to understand that wine tasting is an experience that is enhanced with engaging conversation and a friendly smile. Do yourself a favor and stop here soon.
What you need to know: Tasting room hours are 11:00-4:00 Friday through Sunday. During our most recent visit, tastings were priced at $9 or $5 with a glass from a neighboring winery.
Tasting room tidbit: Even if dessert wines aren’t normally your thing, don’t skip the final selection on the tasting menu; the late-harvest Zinfandel paired with dark chocolate is the perfect note to close on.
Flying Leap Vineyards – 342 Elgin Road, Elgin, Arizona
In the space formerly occupied by Canelo Hills, three Air Force Academy graduates opened Flying Leap Vineyards. Of all the wineries in Sonoita, I most prefer the set-up here. You enter into a large warehouse type of space. The bar is to the left while to the right, stacked wine barrels separate the front of the house from the back, where the magic is made and bottled. In recent years, we’ve found the tasting rooms to be more and more crowded. Crowding seems less an issue here than at some of their neighbors; they have the space to accommodate comfortably. During our most recent visit, both founders were on hand, mingling with guests in front of the counter while attendants stayed behind to pour. It’s a subtle gesture, but one that this particular wine enthusiast appreciated. It just made them that much more approachable. As for the wine, a standout for me was the 2012 Grenache.
What you need to know: The Elgin tasting room is open Wednesday-Sunday from 11:00-4:00 and on Mondays and Tuesdays by appointment. A tasting costs $7 with a glass from a neighboring winery.
Tasting room tidbit: Located right next door to Callaghan Vineyards, you might consider visiting these two tasting rooms consecutively.
Arizona Hops and Vines – 3450 Arizona 82
If I were in the business of awarding winery superlatives, I’d have to name Arizona Hops and Vines “Most likely to marry someone from the other side of the tracks and embarrass mom at parties.” Is that harsh? I don’t intend it to be and if you visit I think you’ll see what I mean. The sisters (Megan & Shannon) behind Az Hops & Vines have built for themselves what they refer to as “cheeky little winery.” The grounds most definitely have a farm feel while the décor might leave you wondering whether Day of the Dead is a year-round celebration. Here, wine is paired with chips–anything from a Cheetoh to a flavored potato chip–and is served without even a hint of wine snobbery. Families are encouraged to visit and stay awhile, gathering near the fire pit or Cornhole game set. The winery holds special events throughout the year that draw big crowds–and for good reason; Megan and Shannon know how to put on a party.
What you need to know: Tasting room hours are 10:00-4:00 on Thursday and 10:00-6:00 Friday, Saturday & Sunday. During our most recent visit, we paid $5 for a tasting with a glass from a neighboring winery.
Tasting room tidbit: Make a wish and ring the bell for a fun group toast to wishes coming true!
I have no doubt that after reading this you’re going to want to experience Arizona wine for yourself, right? Swing by and pick me up when you go; I’m on the way. Cheers!