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Vineyard Adventures

Arizona's growing wine country offers a good time for vino lovers both new and advanced

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"If you're wine virgins, this is a great place to be," said Andrea Frederickson, a Phoenix-area resident who was celebrating 18 years of marriage to her husband, Brett, by touring the vineyards dotting the Sonoita countryside.

A wine virgin is definitely what I am. Sure, I've enjoyed the stuff--occasionally to excess--but I couldn't tell you much about the difference between a cabernet sauvignon and a merlot. When others taste asparagus or passion fruit or okra, I taste ... wine. Call me a casual imbiber, someone who prefers sweeter varieties to their drier cousins, which, in my opinion, often strip the taste buds from your palate.

Frederickson was right--Sonoita's wineries are a great place for vino virgins. But even wine sluts would probably enjoy their easygoing atmosphere, full of affable vintners and chatty tasters. It's a fun place to swish some wines over your tongue and perhaps go home with a bottle or two.

This was my first visit to the Sonoita area (which includes nearby Elgin) after hearing about its vineyards for years. Situated at the crossroads of U.S. Highways 82 and 83, about an hour southeast of Tucson, Sonoita is a charming town of just more than 1,000 residents. Chris Hamilton, the proprietor of Rancho Rossa Vineyards, said the population waxes and wanes depending on the season; winter is the busiest time for wineries, he said, as snowbirds flock to the area from colder climes.

The countryside surrounding Sonoita was beautiful on the warm, dry summer day Jim Nintzel (our designated driver), Carrie Stern and I visited--and it became even more beautiful the more I drank. Gently rolling hills carpeted with thick, straw-colored grass and the occasional deep-green mesquite gave way to soaring mountains in the distance.

Elgin Road, which heads east from Highway 83, connects all the wineries. Signs point the way, although it's sometimes confusing which dirt roads lead to a winery and which lead to a private residence (signs declaring a road to be private property abound, perhaps because tasters barrel down driveways in search of their next sip).

We first stopped at Rancho Rossa Vineyards, 32 Cattle Ranch Lane, which held its grand opening June 3. Chris Hamilton's establishment is a rock 'n' roll winery, with posters featuring musical groups like Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead and Van Halen adorning the walls.

Chris and his wife, Sarah, both have full-time jobs, so working 17 acres of land and producing wines is a labor of love, even though making booze is something Chris has been doing since he was a young lad.

"When I went to college, I had to make my own beer--I was a couple of months too young to buy it," he said. From that beer, crudely made in a sink, Chris went on to produce blackberry and other fruit wines, and the rest is alcohol-steeped history.

"This is really the first grape wine we've made," he said. "It's a lot of work for two people. It's fun, but you've got to like what you do. If you look at the hours you put in, you've got to."

Sarah chimed in: "It's nice that it's finally open, and we finally have some money coming in."

I particularly liked the '04 grenache. Described on the Rancho Rossa Web site as "a monster of a wine with just a hint of residual sugar," Chris said it was the perfect accompaniment to all things chocolate. I'm no expert, but I could see where that would be the case. A bottle costs $20.

Next, we stopped off at Callaghan Vineyards, 336 Elgin Road, where we ran into the Fredericksons, whom we first spotted at Rancho Rossa.

"We're getting drunk!" Brett Frederickson exclaimed with a mischievous grin as our group walked through the door into the cool, white interior of the Callaghan warehouse. We eventually learned that Andrea and Brett had been enjoying themselves so thoroughly that they'd bought about $300 worth of wine.

"We have it all in our trunk. We keep packing in boxes, which is really nice," Andrea said, adding that it was a pleasure supporting Arizona businesses and culture.

Speaking of supporting Arizona business, the state's wineries got a boost by recent legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Janet Napolitano at the beginning of June. Lisa Callaghan, who was pouring our samples and is the wife of owner Kent A. Callaghan, said her husband and other vintners had formed a coalition to rally support for Senate Bill 1276. She estimated they spent more than $50,000 on legal fees in order to get the bill passed, which will allow Arizona wineries to ship to customers who order remotely--whether through the Internet, over the phone, by fax or mail. People currently have to place orders in person; the law will go into effect in September.

Callaghan and Chris Hamilton both warned us to check bottle labels thoroughly. Some wineries in the Sonoita area (Hamilton didn't want to name names) actually don't grow their own grapes; they only bottle the wine on location. Don't be afraid to ask questions, they said.

"The label really tells you a lot," Callaghan said. "I've been looking at labels a lot closer." She volunteered that their petite verdot grapes weren't grown in Sonoita, due to a bad harvest, but estimated that about 80 percent of their grapes came from their land.

As with Rancho Rossa, it cost only $3 to sample all the Callaghan wines. By this time, I was feeling slightly tipsy, so I can't tell you which wine I enjoyed most. I do remember thinking I could taste a hint of delicious olive in one red variety, however. That made me quite proud of myself, as I thought it might be a sign I was developing my palate. Bottles run from $14 to $30.

Our trio stopped in at the Village of Elgin Winery, 471 Elgin Road, but there was too much of a crowd. The place also smelled like mildew, and Carrie and I had a buzz that needed to be maintained. So we continued on to Sonoita Vineyards, 290 Elgin Canelo Road--our last stop of the day. We were greeted warmly by Fran Lightly. He had recently taken over bottling duties, allowing Dr. Gordon Dutt, the vineyards' founder, to concentrate on tending 35 acres of vines.

"We're a little bit concerned about being at the end of road, that people might miss out," said Lightly, who had relocated to Sonoita five weeks ago after working for a decade as a winemaker in California. "People might buy too much or drink too much, but I guess we'll take our chances."

I saw evidence of what Lightly was talking about when he took us up to gaze at the scenery from the winery's terrace. A woman stumbled out of the passenger side of a car below us, wandered aimlessly in the dusty driveway for a few minutes and, while my attention was diverted, disappeared. I'm not sure if she made it inside for a tasting. It's a shame if people miss the place, because Lightly is a fellow who obviously knows a lot about wines; the semi-sweet whites were crisp and fruity; and the view from the terrace was spectacular. There's also a large room on the second floor that can be rented out for weddings or other gatherings.

I liked the Cochise County colombard so much, I bought a bottle. Also try the Angel Wings variety, which is made from mission grapes; Lightly said it's used by five Arizona congregations as the blood of Christ.

Feeling pleasantly inebriated, and with my purchase concealed in a tasteful floral-patterned paper bag, Carrie, Nintzel and I started off on our drive back to Tucson.

A wine virgin I am no more.

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