If you are reading this magazine, then I can bet that you enjoy discerning the subtle distinctions of the wines that you taste. And I would also wager that you are the type of person who is up to a taste bud challenge wherever you might find it. On my last getaway to Sonoita/Elgin wine country, I found three authentic taste bud challenges that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. I made the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa in charming Tubac, just 40 miles south of Tucson International Airport, my launch pad for the wine country tour. In this tiny town — first settled in 1691 as a Spanish mission farm and ranch — I found three experiences that exercised my taste buds and pushed them to a new level.
Tubac lies in the pastoral Santa Cruz River valley surrounded by the Tumacácori and Santa Rita mountains. In the late 1600s it was a perfect place to plant fruit orchards for the mission just down the road at Tumacácori. Later during the “Cowboy and Indian” phase of Arizona history, it turned out to be a prime spot for grazing cattle. Not much has changed since then, so no wonder this special place is the chosen subject matter of artists and poets, and is a hideaway for Hollywood stars. During my own weekend escape, I discovered Tubac Olive Oil Company near the plaza of the artisan village.
If you like to pay attention to what you are tasting when sipping wine, then Tubac Olive Oil Company will open a whole new world to your taste buds. Owner Rocio Patel led me through the tastings and taught me how to assess the fine distinctions between olive varietals grown across the globe.
“Moroccan olive oil is very buttery and picks up the hints of flavor and aromas of the infusions better than others,” explained Rocio who buys pure oil directly from olive growing regions in Greece, Spain, Italy, Morocco and California. We started with pure olive oils and then went onto to taste the infused olive oils that her husband Sunil blends in Tubac. One of my favorites was their infused Parmesan and Garlic Olive Oil.
“The citrus habanero is very well received,” stated Rocio offering another taste that fired up my taste buds. “We’ve turned down the heat with the citrus.” The couple travels and enjoys cuisine from all over the world.
“If we find a food that we really enjoy in a restaurant, we’ll incorporate it into the oil,” said Sunil. The duo also develops an ever-changing menu of infused balsamic vinegars that include infusions of cucumber-melon, garlic-cilantro, mango or prickly pear. The Pomegranate Balsamic Vinegar tempted my taste buds but I finally decided to take home the lively Espresso Balsamic Vinegar to use as a steak marinade or base for barbeque pork.
Like wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar offer health benefits. “Butter or bacon infused olive oils deliver the flavor but not the cholesterol,” Rocio revealed.
The second taste bud challenge that I found in Tubac was at the upscale Elvira’s Restaurant and Bar. There Chef Ruben Monroy presents five types of mole sauce. “The word mole comes from the native language and means mixture,” enlightened Chef Monroy, while serving me the dark Mole Atocpan over white chicken breast meat. Later he put down on the black table cloth a plate of his famous Mole Negro which is known as the “king” of mole sauce because it has so many ingredients – 34 ingredients, to be exact.
“I like the Atocpan better, but I don’t know why,” I told him. Vagabonding Lulu’s taste buds were just learning how to discern the different varieties of chile peppers, fruits and spices and chocolate in the rich sauce. Yes, I’d had mole before, but Elvira’s dreamy mole made all others before, simply the Boone’s Farm of moles.
“I know why,” coached Chef Monroy who earned his stripes at Le Cordon Bleu Mexico in Mexico City. “The Atocpan is lighter and spicier than the Negro, which is heavier, thicker.” I tried to taste the banana in the Negro, but it was as elusive as “cut grass” in a Sauvignon Blanc.
Chef Monroy has brought an urban, upscale vibe from Mexico City to this adobe village and he has garnered quite a following… from as far away as Hollywood.
“Every dish that I create is always in the Mexican way. There may be hints of Thai, Spanish or French cuisine. The cuisine is a total fusion,” explained the restaurateur who catered meals for the cast and crew of the movie Traffic while it was filmed in nearby Nogales. That helped spread his reputation and since then, guests to this restaurant have included Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.
The dreamy experience at Elvira’s went further than just tasting. The live music of a Cuban guitar romanced me from the corner while a profusion of colored lights enlivened the dark walls and ceiling. “The eclectic décor reflects the fusion of the food,” I thought, nibbling the cuitalcoche tacos made of corn truffles. I enjoyed the exotic Mexican delicacy that is actually fungus found in corn husks.
I scored my getaway, a “Triple Crown winner,” after dinner at the stately Stables Restaurant at Tubac Golf Resort and Spa. My taste buds did back flips over the flavor combination in the Arugula Compressed Salad: sweet dried cherries, apples, candied walnuts and bitter arugula, of course. The pork schnitzel with warm German potato salad complemented by lemon caper butter and green beans was an unexpected culinary delight in the “Deep Southwest.” Locals at a nearby table toasted the pink alpine glow on the Santa Rita Mountains as the sunset over the golf course’s “Island Green.” This spectacular view from the 200-year-old renovated stable must be one of the reasons that Bing Crosby made this resort a favorite hideaway.
From Tubac, Dos Cabezas WineWorks — my first stop in Sonoita/Elgin wine country — was an hour drive. If you stay at Tubac Golf Resort and Spa, ask Guest Services to pack you a wine country lunch. Or better yet, reserve a personalized wine country tour. Armor Todd of the Tubac Golf Resort has over eighteen years of professional guiding experience. You’ll get roundtrip transportation from the lobby of the resort, lively conversation about the rich history of the area, a wine-country boxed lunch and tastings at three to five wineries. “If you’re having a really good time at Dos Cabezas, I’m not going to rush you out,” laughs Armor. “We stop next at Lightning Ridge Cellars and then have our lunch at Keif-Joshua Vineyard.” Canelo Hills Winery and Callaghan Vineyard are also on the list, if time permits during the seven-hour tour that starts at 10 am. Cost $119.
Elvira’s Restaurant and Bar
2221 E. Frontage Road, Tubac
Tubac Olive Oil Company
2 Plaza Road, Tubac
Tubac Golf Resort & Spa
1 Avenue de Otero Road, Tubac
By Stacey Wittig, Travel Writer
Stacey “Vagabonding Lulu” Wittig is a freelance travel writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona who enjoys food and wine. Enjoy this article? Follow her escapades at www.vagabondinglulu.com.