When we left Long Beach at the end of last week, headed toward Arizona, there was a light drizzle that became a torrential downpour, then a hailstorm.
By the time we reached Flagstaff, it was snowing. As we headed down into Oak Creek Canyon, a sheen of ice clung to the higher stone ledges. Beautiful — heartbreakingly, soul-liftingly beautiful.
We were on our way to Sedona where I was to teach a writing workshop. Paul found us a room at an inn atop a tall mesa, next to the small regional airport and the Harmonic Convergence. After the workshop, dinner conversation was all about Arizona wineries. Arizona wineries? Puhleeze.
To begin, as any Californian can tell you, wineries suck up a lot of water. In Arizona (the name derives from what two words?) where would vintners get enough water for their vines? Besides, what could possibly be coaxed out of the thin rocky soil of the Sonora Desert that would be, by any standard, drinkable?
Confession before we go further. At out house, we favor California red wines. There are some absolutely delicious Washington and Oregon wines we will condescend to serve to special guests from time to time, or order to accompany a lovely restaurant meal. And I freely admit that Virginia is producing some really fine whites that we deign to have shipped in.
But because of the sweet swill we have sampled at wineries around the country, and there are wineries in all 50 states, we tend to cleave to the Left Coast, thank you very much, when we stock up.
If for no other reason than to prove our California prejudice correct, when we left Sedona headed toward a book event in Scottsdale, we detoured toward Cottonwood to sample that which we were told were some of the best examples of the local swillable plonk.
As you walk among California vineyards, if you squint a bit to avoid the newness of things, you can easily imagine that you are in Province in Southern France. When we drove into our first Arizona vineyard, we might as well have been among the rocky hillsides of Greece or Southern Spain.
Okay, on first impression, I will concede this: the setting of the vineyard was beautiful, heartbreakingly, soul-liftingly beautiful. Carved out of the stark stone face of a desert mesa, it runs along a curve of the Verde River. I cannot call it an oasis of green because in autumn it is not. I doubt that in summer it would be, either. But if it is true that good wine comes from vines that have to struggle against the environment, then these should be good wines indeed. And, oh my, good wines, I confess, they are.
A caveat: Of the 17 wines produced at that vineyard, seven are made from grapes or grape juice imported from Paso Robles. We ignored the imports and only sampled from the estate-grown wines.
What we tasted was more similar to European-style wines than their California neighbors are. The reds are drier, less jammy than California reds and have the mineral finish typical of good cotês du Rhônes. The whites are lighter, more subtle — no oak — that their western siblings. But their California roots — and rootstock — are evident, nonetheless.
The water? At the winery we visited, water comes from a deep well, and not out of the managed resources of the Verde River. I don’t know where other Arizona vineyards get their water, but I do know that water is as big an issue next door as it is here.
And that the wine is every bit as good. But don’t say I said so. Maybe the stuff at other Arizona wineries is, indeed, undrinkable plonk. We’ll go check out a few more on our next trip and let you know.
Wendy Hornsby is a mystery author and history professor at Long Beach City College. Her most recent book, “The Hanging,” is available now.