Indulge in northern Arizona's wine country.
Photo creditPhoto: Kerrick James
Photo creditPhoto: Patrick Coulie
Legend has it 17th-century Spanish occupiers called Northern Arizona’s Verde Valley the “valley of the grapes” because native grapevines choked the banks of the Verde River. They still do. These were not wine-producing grapevines, but their abundance hinted at a reality that wouldn’t bear fruit — literally — until 2003. That’s when the Wahl family’s vines began sprouting merlot, zinfandel, syrah, and chardonnay grapes on a steep hillside above Oak Creek in Cornville, near Sedona.
It all started when Deb Wahl was on a hike in Sedona with her teenage son, Florian. Noticing the red, rocky soil when they stopped for a picnic, she turned to him and said, “I could grow grapes here.” She had spent most of her life in Italy, Germany, Australia, and her native South Africa — which all have robust wine regions — so she knew wine-friendly soils when she saw them.
Rod Snapp had the same idea even before he sold half of his 21 acres on that steep hillside to Wahl. By the time he and his girlfriend, Cynthia (they’re now married), started planting, Wahl had opened the Verde Valley’s first tasting room next door called Oak Creek Vineyards. Snapp’s slow start wasn’t due to any lack of passion or skill for winemaking. The zinfandels from the Javelina Leap Winery have won the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, one of America’s most prestigious, for the past two years. “Each of the 11 known soils are found here,” says Snapp, a former chef and horticulturist who grew up riding his bike through vineyards in Northern California’s Livermore Valley. “I knew this could be a wine region.”
He was right. Along with bustling Page Springs Cellars — also nearby on Cornville’s Page Springs Road — Oak Creek Vineyards and Javelina Leap ushered in a Verde Valley wine culture and an explosion of wine tourism.
Verde Valley's Wine Towns
Old Town Cottonwood, a row of spruced-up Roaring Twenties buildings that initially served as a rowdy hub of Prohibition-era whiskey bootlegging, has rebounded thanks to a different beverage. Wine-tasting rooms, sprinkled in with galleries, shops, and restaurants, have transformed it over the past six years into a destination for wine tourists. Arizona Stronghold opened first, followed by Pillsbury Wine Company, Burning Tree Cellars, Fire Mountain, and Winery 101. While visiting, expect to enjoy affordable tastings (typically $10 for five wines), chocolate pairings, small plates of cheeses and charcuterie, comfy seating, a relaxed vibe, and local art on the walls.
In quiet Clarkdale, right next door to Cottonwood, are three tasting rooms that all opened in 2015: Chateau Tumbleweed (operated by two married couples), Four Eight Wine Works (wines from five small-batch winemakers poured at an antique teller counter), and the Southwest Wine Center. This last one is unique in Arizona, as it’s on the Yavapai College Verde Valley campus in a new hillside building where students earning viticulture and enology degrees learn the wine trade by tending the vines grown right outside the building and pouring the wines they make for visitors, Thursday through Sunday afternoons.
Jerome, the historic, cliff-hugging former mining town up the hill from Clarkdale, has been popular with visitors for decades, but tasting rooms have added to its appeal. Passion Cellars and Salvatore Vineyards are just down the street from Cellar 433, which has a commanding two-level view and voluminous art on display. Further up the hill is rock star/wine devotee Maynard Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars.
Camp Verde’s only tasting room, Rio Claro Wines (also called Clear Creek Vineyards), opened last December. Yavapai College viticulture students assist owners Ignacio and Sue Mesa in the vineyards, as do 28 geese that eat the bugs when they aren’t entertaining guests in the tractor barn-turned-tasting room. Five tastes are $7.
Splash, Sweat, Swirl, Sip
Wine tasting doesn’t have to be sedentary, and some fun activities exclude wine altogether.
Water to Wine is a beginner-friendly inflatable-kayak trip (offered Wednesdays to Sundays from March to October) on the Verde River through limestone canyons and alongside riverbanks lined with willows, maples, sycamores, cattails, and, yes, native grapevines. As the clever title suggests, you end up at a tasting room — Alcantara, near Cottonwood — with the trip fee including a tasting on the winery deck overlooking the vines.
Wine can be paired with the outdoors in other ways, too. Horsin’ Around Adventures offers Vino Vaquero rides with tastings at all three Cornville wineries. If hiking is more your thing, pack a picnic and head to Cottonwood’s Dead Horse Ranch State Park trails or any of the popular red rock trails in nearby Sedona.
If You Go
What else to do: Even non-wine drinkers can have tons of fun in the Verde Valley. Besides all of nearby Sedona’s attractions (red rocks, spas, Jeep tours, hot-air ballooning), you can visit Clarkdale’s outstanding Copper Art Museum or Jerome’s Mine Museum; head for the verdant hills on the Verde Canyon Railroad; admire the cliff dwellings at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument in Camp Verde or the ancient pueblos at Tuzigoot National Monument in Clarkdale; zipline above or ride an open-air safari bus beside lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) at Camp Verde’s Out of Africa; visit Jerome’s 30 eclectic galleries and gift shops; or watch the cowboy-music dinner show at Cottonwood’s Blazin’ M Ranch.
Getting around: Verde Valley tasting-room info can be found at vvwinetrail.com, but if you want to do several tastings, avoid driving and stay at an inn in Old Town Cottonwood or Jerome. The tasting rooms in each of those towns are all within walking distance of each other. Another good option is the Wine Trail Wagon ($50: thevineyardsbandb.com/wtw), with van service connecting five Cottonwood and three Cornville tasting rooms.
This article was first published in Arizona Highroads in September/October 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.