Welcome to Arizona's northern wine country: A guide to wine tasting in the Verde Valley

Amelia Goe
Special for The Arizona Republic

There is a common saying among Arizona wine professionals when discussing the state’s wine production: “we are still in our infancy.” And honestly, that makes it a pretty exciting time.

Opportunities are ripe for experimentation because wine producers are still trying to figure out what grape varietals and growing practices make sense for the different terroir in Arizona.

As one of three different Arizona wine regions, along with Wilcox and Sonoita, the Verde Valley is home to several completely different terroir expressions.

Jeremy Weiss, the program manager for the Arizona meteorological network, said this is largely due to the variety of elevations within the region, as well as different soil types with different percentages of clay, nutrients, gravel deposits, organic materials, drainage and other components.

That means that even if one varietal grows marvelously on one plot in the Verde Valley, it might not do well on another.

While viticulturists are still hard at work trying to figure out the best growing practices for the region, another hurdle these winemakers faced, until recently, was recognition.

Local wine industry professionals waited years to become a federally recognized American Viticultural Area by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and their application was approved in Nov. 2021.

It's official!:The Verde Valley wine region officially earns AVA recognition

This AVA designation not only adds recognition to the area on a national level, but could go a long way towards increasing awareness and excitement around the wines made in the area.

To further understand the wild west that is Verde Valley wines, it's best to start by getting to know the boundary-pushing winemakers and viticulturists already making their mark. 

Orange wine at the Southwest Wine Center

The view at the Southwest Wine Center is a great backdrop to your wine education.

As of last year, there are twenty-four commercial vineyards and eleven different wineries within the proposed Verde Valley AVA along with the Southwest Wine Center of Yavapai College.

Operated by seasoned wine professionals, this teaching winery is home to twelve varieties and 12,157 vines, managed by Michael Pierce, a well-known Arizona winemaker and the school’s viticulture and enology director.

Lisa Aguilar, the tasting room manager, was an early graduate of the program and now uses her knowledge of the terroir and growing practices to guide guests through tastings at the center.

On a visit one rainy afternoon in the early days of this year’s harvest, the garage-style door to their tasting room was open, revealing a view of one of their vineyard plots that are operated in partnership with local winemaker Maynard James Keenan. The fresh smell of Arizona rain and rows of vines offered an ideal setting for tasting wine.

Aguilar walked us through 10 different wines, explaining the grape types, harvest, soils and winemaking practices — everything you could possibly wish to know about the wines being tasted.

One of the notable bottles was their 2019 orange wine. Many are only be familiar with white, red and rosé, but trendy orange wine is made by allowing white grapes to ferment while still in contact with their skins and seeds which creates a darker, orange hue and robust flavor.

Orange wine is increasing in popularity. Think of it as the savory sister of white wine. This particular bottle was made from 100% malvasia bianca and fermented with skin contact for ten days. 

As a learning winery, experimentation is highly encouraged and as the program churns out the next generation of winemakers, there’s hope that this level of creativity will feed back into local vineyards.

Their tasting room is open by appointment, which you can book online, and flights are $12 per person and feature 5 different wines (red or white categories).

Details: Southwest Wine Center of Yavapai College, 601 Black Hills Drive, Clarkdale. 928-634-6566, southwestwinecenter.com.

Tempranillo at D.A. Ranch Lodge and Estate Vineyards

The vineyard  at D.A. Ranch is picture perfect.

Located in Cornville, D.A. Ranch is perhaps the most picturesque of the Verde Valley tasting rooms and vineyards. Established in 2002, the family-owned vineyard provides a stunning backdrop against which to immerse yourself in the Verde Valley wine. 

Along with the vineyard's unique characteristics, such as a stunning water feature and grazing goats, the family only grows a handful of varietals including syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, tannat, seyval blanc and most recently, a tempranillo which they named Twelve Dog Tempranillo.

It’s full-bodied with a lot of leather and lower acidity —not a bad companion for cooler weather. 

Because the wines are produced in such small quantities, you can only try them in the tasting room and in order to purchase bottles, you need to sign up for their wine membership. If you’re a fan of bolder red styles or want to sit by a pond with a glass in your hand, this is the place for you.

Their tasting room is typically open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (unless booked for events) and tasting prices vary by flight and by the glass, but generally start at $15 and run up to $25.

Details: D.A. Ranch Lodge and Estate Vineyards,1901 Dancing Apache Road, Cornville. 928-301-0791, daranch.com.

Vermentino white at Page Springs Cellars

You can't talk about Verde Valley wine without talking about Page Springs Cellars, owned and operated by Eric Glomski who planted the first vines with his family in 2004.

As one of the most recognized and awarded wine producers in the state, and the first makers of Arizona wine I ever tasted, PSC has long been a key player in the local wine industry.

Home to four different estate vineyards, Glomski is known for producing Southern Rhône-style wines, growing petite syrah, grenache and rousanne to name a few of their varietals.

While French grapes are an important factor in their winemaking, so is sustainability. To minimize the release of carbon they opt for no-tilling vineyards, as well as minimizing transportation by keeping wine distribution in-state. As of last year, they also use 100% solar power energy for their electricity and started a fellowship called ‘Vin de Filles’ (meaning ‘girls/women of wine’ in French), where a subset of vines are specifically reserved for the creation of wines by women winemakers.

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Chateau Tumbleweed Winery & Tasting Room is located in Arizona's Verde Valley.

One of my favorite options is their 100% vermentino white wine grown on their Dos Padres vineyard. Aged in stainless steel, this underrated white varietal does very well in the mineral-rich, rocky slopes of the vineyard and produces a citrusy wine with moderate acidity and just a bit of bitterness at the end, like orange peel or over-steeped tea.

Chateau Tumbleweed, which has a tasting room in Clarkdale, sources their vermentino grapes from the Dos Padres plot. With the harvest from August of 2020, winemaker Joe Bechard was able to pick the grapes at an ideal sugar level (22.5 brix) before pressing the whole clusters.

Fermentation and initial aging of five months occurred in stainless steel before it was put in neutral French oak to age for a month. The end product is bright and balanced and clearly a varietal well suited to the Verde Valley. 

The Page Springs tasting rooms are open every day, Sunday–Friday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Flights cost $12 and include five tastes, plus a glass or you can pay $25 for a tasting set of five limited-edition wines. 

Chateau Tumbleweed offers tastings on their dog-friendly patio Sunday through Thursday from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Call ahead to reserve.

Details: Page Springs Cellars,1500 N. Page Springs Road, Cornville. 928-639-3004, pagespringscellars.com.

Details: Chateau Tumbleweed Winery & Tasting Room, 1151 W. State Route 89A, Clarkdale. 928-634-0443, chateautumbleweed.com

Guided tours of the Verde Valley

For those who prefer a guided tour of the Verde Valley, Wine Tours of Sedona and Sip Sedona both have customizable tour options led by approachable and well-connected Verde Valley wine experts. 

Details: Wine Tours of Sedona, 928-204-1473, winetoursofsedona.com

Details: Sip Sedona, 928-308-5166, sipsedona.com

Rows of vines  at D.A. Ranch in Arizona's Verde Valley.

Have a wine tip or question? Email wine@azcentral.com. Follow Amelia Goe on Instagram @agoewaffles.  

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