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90+ point rated wines under $20

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MARCH 2011 – Arizona Wine Country
A burgeoning scene that's trying hard to please.

daouview.jpgWhenever I get the chance to visit a new wine region, I take it. Wine is made in almost every state, for better or worse, and I just happen to live in the best one for it. (In my opinion.) However, there are thousands of people out there trying to get their state on the "wine map" so to speak, so why not see what they're up to? I wasn't expecting much. Arizona's wine industry and vineyards are generally quite young and it's a very hot place, which doesn't traditionally bode well for well-balanced wine. (See Temecula.) What I encountered was a lot of friendly, passionate people, comfortable tasting rooms and, like many wine regions, a mixed bag of delicious and not so drinkable vino.

The modern era of wine production began in 1973 and there are currently 45 bonded wineries in the state, the bulk of them in the Southeast. Most of the grapes, at least the ones that are grown in AZ, come from the oldest vineyards, which are located in the Southeastern section of the state around Willcox and Sonoita/Elgin (the only designated AVA in AZ). There are a smattering of vineyards in the Northeastern part of the state around Jerome and Sedona (the Verde Valley region), where we went, but these are all fairly new plantings. All are attempting to use higher elevations (3800-6000ft), which provide cooler nights to combat the hot days, to produce quality fruit. There is also a large amount of grapes being shipped in from CA, mainly Paso Robles, to fill in the gaps until the AZ vines mature. We mostly encountered Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel, with a smattering of Rhone and Italian varietals. The reds, about 90% of what we tasted, were way way way better than the whites. Almost all the wines were from the 2009 vintage, which was a surprise. Though more approachable than most other region's wines would be at that age, they were still a bit tight and tannic. I guess you have to pour something.

AZJeromeSt.jpgSurprisingly almost all the tasting rooms in the Verde Valley region were open daily, which was lucky for us since we were out and about on Wednesday and Thursday. Everyone charged for tastings (mostly $8-$10), so bring alot of cash, and almost all of them offered some form of food, from cheese plates to sandwiches (at an additional cost), which was a nice touch. Especially when you're in the middle of nowhere. The drive from the Scottsdale/Phoenix area was about an hour and a half and quite scenic. Since we were planning on visiting 8 tasting rooms over the two days, we decided to stay in Jerome, a small artist community with about 400-500 residents that used to be one of the state's largest mining towns with over 15,000 residents. Where they put everyone is a mystery. Unlike in its heyday, where it was known as "the wickedest town in the west", we found Jerome to be a quaint, quiet place to rest our heads. It was definitely a complete 180 degree turn from life in Los Angeles. We're not sure we'll be hurrying back or venturing to the Southeast region anytime soon, but it was certainly a fun trip and worth seeing how a new region is trying to break into the mainstream and make a name for itself.


AZAlcantara.jpgALCANTARA VINEYARDS: Tasting Fee – $10/5 pours/ 8 wines
This was our first stop of the day and one of the only wineries that had vineyards onsite (13,000 vines/12 varieties), which are 5 years old and just beginning to come online. Four of the wines being poured were from the estate, the rest of the grapes came from Paso Robles. Since we drink those all the time, we decided to try only the estate wines. They are currently producing around 1500 cases. The 08 Merlot ($26) and Mourvedre ($26) were a bit tannic and tart, showing the youth of the vines. Both had alcohol levels below 13.5%, which may be the winemaker's style or just what the site is giving them, but the wines didn't taste like the fruit was fully ripe. The 08 Syrah ($30) was much better and showed nice varietal characteristics, though I've had better for less money. The same goes for the 07 Cabernet Sauvignon ($46), which was the talk of the tasting room. It was definitely the most complex offering. The wines showed promise, but certainly weren't yet worth their price tags. It's a very nice, comfortable facility and the staff was very friendly and knowledgable. They are planning on become an event destination, which will certainly be a draw for the wedding crowd. A fruit and cheese plate is offered for $20. It will be interesting to see what happens once their vines get some age on them.
– For more information CLICK HERE. Twitter: @Alcantara_Wine

ARIZONA STRONGHOLD: Tasting Fee – $9/5 pours/4 different tasting menu choices
AZStronghold.jpgThis label brings together the talents of two of the states most vocal and well-known winemakers – Maynard Keenan (owner of Caduceus Cellars) and Eric Glomski (owner of Page Springs Cellars). They banded together in 2007 in an effort to create a label that will help Arizona wines garner national attention. All the grapes come from the Willcox area where they have 80 acres under vine, some as old as 30 years. They are currently producing around 15,000 cases, most of which goes into their 5 main blends, which all retail for around $20 and were quite good. They also offer a "Pure Flight", which are wines that are 100% of their varietal. While they make Sangiovese, Syrah and Grenache, I really prefered the Cabs and Bordeaux blends, a rarity for me. The wines were priced appropriately from $18 to $30. The standouts were the 09 Bonita Springs Sangiovese ($24), 09 Bonita Springs Cabernet Sauvignon ($28), 09 Nachise GSM blend ($20), 09 Dala Cabernet Sauvignon ($18 and a real steal) and 09 Lozen Bordeaux Blend ($30). There was a purity of fruit and balance to these wines that most of the other wineries we visited failed to capture. The tasting room is located in Old Town Cottonwood, an area that's being revitalized in an attempt to become a wine destination. I hope they succeed. This tasting room has a small bar, but you don't have to drink there. They have a cozy lounge to kick back in and cool tunes on the stereo. There's also a little sandwich/coffee shop right next door if you're feeling peckish.
– For more information CLICK HERE. Twitter: @azstronghold

AZJeromeWoutside.jpgJEROME WINERY: Tasting Fee: $6/4 pours/30 wines
John McLoughlin is the owner/winemaker/vineyard manager of Jerome Winery and Bitter Creek Winery. He's been making wine since he was 16-years-old, inspired after a family trip to the Mosel area of Germany where he had his first sip of vino. His vineyards are located in Willcox, AZ and have 100 acres planted of 52 varieties. Not all of them make it into the bottle, he's merely testing to see what will grow best in that locations. His sister, Melanie, has been running the tasting room in Jerome since 1999. It's a great spot, overlooking the town and the red rocks of the valley below. All the wine labels are old family photos they believe reflect the wines inside. While we had a great time talking with Melanie and getting the scoop on life in Jerome, the wines just weren't that impressive for the money (all the reds were $27). I understand that John's still experimenting with his grapes, but perhaps fewer wines might help the focus and quality. Enjoyed the 06 Cabernet Sauvignon (there IS a theme developing) and the 06 Barbera the most.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

BITTER CREEK WINERY: Tasting Fee: $6/4 pours/6 wines
AZbittercreek.jpgThis is the sister label to Jerome Winery. The wines offered here are made from the same vineyards, but are crafted as multi-vintage blends. Whereas all the wines at Jerome Winery were 100% of the various varietals. The hook behind these wines are the tarot card labels designed by local artist Rick Wyckoff. So far 9 wines out of a potential 26 have been crafted. These are all small lots utilizing mostly varying degrees of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon in the red blends and Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc in the whites (which were all sold out). I don't necessarily mind NV wines since they allow the winemaker to use the best grapes, over several vinyages, to craft the best wine. While a few of the wines had almost identical mixes with slightly varying percentages, they all did taste quite different. It was an interesting tasting experience at the very least. My favs were The Fool (33% CabSauv/33% Syrah/34% Zin) and the Knight of Wands (33% Petite Sirah/33% Zin/34% Syrah). Am not usually a fan of Zin blends, but these were better than most. I give him props for trying something different, but the QPR ($27 per bottle) is just not there yet.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

AZcaduceus.jpgCADUCEUS CELLARS & MERKIN VINEYARDS: Tasting Fee: $5 or $10/4 pours/$7 cheese pairings
Owned and operated by Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of the band Tool, this is problably the most well-known winery in Arizona right now. Not only because of his fame, but because of his, and his winemaker/business partner Eric Glomski's passion for wine and the region. They believe they can put Arizona on the wine map and though they've only been making wine since 2004, they sort of are. The first Caduceus wines were mostly made from CA grapes, but the percentage of out-of-state fruit has been dwindling every year since. Merkin Vineyards is their main property located just down the road from their Jerome tasting room in the Verde Valley. Planting began in 2005 and they now have 6000 vines of various varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Syrah, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Malvasia Bianca and Chardonnay. It's the elevation, all four sites are above 4000ft., and massive, daily temperature swings they're pinning their hopes on in the effort to produce high quality grapes. So far, the reviews claim they are succeeding.

AZCaduceus2.jpgIt was certainly the most traditionally classy tasting room we visited, all wood and brick with a nice long oak bar. The pours were a stitch on the short side, but I loved that they offered cheese pairings along with each flight. They really complimented the wines quite well and allowed us to take our time. The eight wines we tasted were all blends, with Cabernet Sauvignon playing a role in most of the reds. Of the Merkin Vineyards wines, I enjoyed the 09 Lei Li Rosé ($22) and 08 Shinola (a $25 Bordeaux blend from CA grapes) the best. All of the Caduceus Cellars offerings were quite good, but they should be for $40. While I liked the 09 Dos Ladrones (Chard and Malvasia), and 08 Anubis (another CA Bordeaux blend), the wine that knocked me out was the 08 Primer Paso, which is an AZ Syrah with a smidge of Malvasia Bianca blended in. This was the first wine they made in 2004 and is one of the flagships of the winery for a reason. Well worth it's price tag. They are trying to make world class wines here, and I think once their vineyards age a bit longer they just might succeed. They are certainly making the best wines in Northern AZ.
– For more information CLICK HERE. Twitter: @caduceuscellars

AZJavelinaInside.jpgJAVELINA LEAP WINERY: Tasting Fee: $8/4 pours
Day Two started with a visit to this 10-acre estate vineyard and winery that has been operating in Page Springs since 2003. Rod Snapp, along with his wife Cynthia, has been making wine in Northern Arizona since 1999, so I was curious to try his wines since he clearly had some experience under his belt. They are still sourcing some of their grapes, though they now have 4 acres of their property planted to Zinfandel, Barbera, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their tasting room was recently converted (it has partially their barrel room until last year) and it's large and spacious though still quaintly rustic. We were lucky to run into Cynthia, whose passion for their wines, the region and the winemaking process – she's started making her own blends – got us even more excited about tasting. While we had a great time chatting and they really knew their stuff, the wines didn't exactly bowl us over. They were some of the most well-crafted we came upon, but the palate lacked depth and persistance for the price. Out favorites were the 09 Merlot ($35) and 09 Zinfandel ($20), which was so dry compared to CA versions it made me like the varietal again. Was bummed to have missed their bottlings of Barbera, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc, all grapes you rarely see on their own, but they were sold out. Their vineyard is still quite young so will be interesting to see how it progresses over the next few years.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

OAK CREEK WINERY: Tasting Fee: $5/4 pours/8 wines/cheese plate & deli items available
AZOakCreek.jpgOur second stop of the day was this welcoming adobe-style tasting room that had a list featuring a few of our favorite Rhone varietals. Unfortunately it also had someone drowning in perfume next to us at the bar. Why, why, why do people do this? If you can smell your perfume how are you going to smell the wine? We tried to move as far away as possible and thankfully the bar was long enough to manage an escape. Am glad the tasting fee was only $5 because the pours were a bit skimpy. That being said, I'm glad I didn't have to drink more. Their wines were by far the most uneven of the trip. They have been around since 2002 and have around 4000 vines on the property, consisting of Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay. They also produce a Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and several dessert wines from grapes sourced from other AZ vineyards. Two of the wines we tasted, the 08 Viognier and 08 Syrah were either flawed or spoiled. They did not taste anything like they should, even if they do come from Arizona "terrior". The 08 Sunflower (a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Roussanne) was drinkable. The 08 Merlot was one of the best wines we had from AZ and quite a pleasant surprise after the whites. The young lady behind the counter was sweet and helpful, but am glad she was busy with other people so I didn't have to talk about their wines. Yelpers really seemed to like their Syrah/Shiraz so either they've never had good ones or this was just a bad day to visit. Winery staff members should always taste the wines before they pour them for the public. It may be wasteful to throw out an old half bottle, but it does the winery a disservice since visitors are going to think your wine sucks and thus not buy any. Or send any friends your way.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

AZPageSprings.jpgPAGE SPRING CELLARS: Tasting Fee: $8/5 pours/18 wines to choose from
This was my favorite winery of the trip. I may, of course, have been biased as they basically focus on Rhone wines and blends, but I don't think so. Their property is lovely with a spaceous tasting bar indoors and a big patio outdoors where you can catch a few rays while sipping their selections. Though they make quite a few wines, the list is focused and the pricing where it should be. We were bummed to discover that their mourvedre was sold out, but had a great time talking to the assistant winemaker and staff. While not all of the wines blew my socks off, they were consistently well-balanced with good depth of flavors and lovely aromatics. They were the most interesting wines across the board that we tasted. Owner/winemaker Eric Glomski is working towards using only AZ grapes from their Arizona Stronghold, Colibri and Estate vineyards. They get some of their grapes from the Ranchita Canyon, Shell Creek and Wirz Vineyards in central CA, but the amounts are waning now that their home vineyards are finally maturing. While I would have glady drunk all of their wines, the standouts were the 09 Colibri Grenache (which was as good as any CA version in the same $25 price range) and the 09 Norte Block Shiraz ($32) made from 10-year-old vines. The ECIPS and MSGP (both Rhone red blends) showed great craft as well. I will definitely be on the lookout for these wines in the future.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

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