Sideways in the Desert

imageThere is a restaurant in the wine film Sideways, called the Hitching Post II, where Paul Giamatti’s character embraces both the laid-back vibe and the sophistication of a staff who know the intricacies of the best local producers.

On a recent trip to Sedona, we found the Arizona desert’s version of that restaurant, and discovered a pioneering wine scene that is producing some excellent wines.

There are three primary wine growing areas in Arizona.  Two of them are south of Tucson – Willcox and Sonoita. The other, which we visited, is the Verde Valley, just minutes from Sedona.

In a small Verde Valley area town called Cornville, you can turn north up Page Springs Road and find several wineries in the valley carved out by Oak Creek.  Noteworthy tasting rooms are Page Springs Cellars, with high quality wines and a surprisingly varied food menu, and Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery, where your wine tasting may be accompanied by a description of the Javelina and its physical traits.

Beyond the wineries is an old country restaurant called Up the Creek.  Behind the bar we found Mario Aguilar-Aello, a partner in the restaurant who moved from California not long ago.  In his short time in Arizona, he has gained a deep appreciation for Arizona wines, and shares it via tastings in the restaurant.

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Mario Aguilar-Aello of Up the Creek

If there is a center of gravity to Arizona wines, it’s around Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.  But growers and winemakers are trying everything from Tempranillo and Barbera to Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay.

Mario pointed out the back window of his restaurant at vineyards on the hill owned by his neighbor, Dancing Apache Ranch, or D.A. Ranch.  He then gave us a thorough review of the D.A. Ranch wines, including an excellent Petite Sirah, which made it’s way home with us that evening.

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Emblematic of the independent winemaking spirit in Arizona was a rather obscure grape grown at D.A. Ranch named Tannat, which is a deep colored and tannic French varietal.  D.A. Ranch transformed it into a complex, age-worthy red with tobacco and leather notes that we enjoyed with an excellent mushroom bruschetta.

If you make it to the Sedona area, and you love wine, then pay Mario a visit.  You’ll come away with a genuine respect for Arizona winemaking, and he’ll make sure you won’t leave thirsty.

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