Not our first trip, and definitely not our last, we visited Sonoita Wine Country in July, just as the monsoon storms were beginning to hit Arizona. We gathered three couples together to enjoy the best of Sonoita for a fun weekend of conversation, laughter and, of course, wine!
Our friends and fellow Arizona wine enthusiasts, Todd Cassatt and Valerie Paxton, along with aspiring winegrowers, Todd Myers and Michelle Minta, joined us for our adventure. We all met through our love of Arizona wine so it seemed an appropriate group to travel through wine country together.
We left Phoenix early Friday afternoon because we wanted to visit Charron Vineyards in Vail on the way to Sonoita. Just off Hwy 83, it’s only a half mile down a dirt road to the winery, and it’s definitely worth it. The storm clouds were gathering just as we arrived. Milton and Susan Craig have done a really nice job improving the property and the vineyard since they purchased it almost three years ago. They’ve added a beautiful wood wrap-around deck overlooking the vines and the valley below. It was the perfect viewpoint to watch the flashes of lightning and the rain pouring down over the horizon. Charron Vineyards was originally known for their singular wine, a sweet White Merlot, but they have since added quite a few new wines to the lineup. We sipped through the tasting menu and decided we should probably get down the road before the storm really hit.
When we arrived in Sonoita we headed straight for La Hacienda de Sonoita Bed & Breakfast. Owned by Tom and Cheryl Rogos, it is one of Sonoita’s most popular lodging choices, and one of our personal favorites. Breakfasts at La Hacienda are the best around and the property is beautiful! They have four rooms, three with queen size beds and a fourth with two twin beds. There’s a main house with a large common area that includes a dining room table, game table, a comfy overstuffed leather couch and views of nearby vineyards. On this visit, Tom and Cheryl were on a much needed vacation, but Sandy was there to greet us along with the friendly “guard” dogs. With wet noses and a wag of the tail, it was the greeting we were looking for.
Once we settled in, we realized we were starving! We headed over to Sonoita’s newest restaurant, Santa Rita’s Table. Owners Art and Linda Donatelli ran a successful restaurant in the area years ago, and now they’ve returned to do it again. While they are applying for their liquor license it’s BYOB, so bring your favorite Arizona wine from the area. Todd and Val brought a Dos Cabezas Pink and we contributed a 2010 Pillsbury Roan Red. Once they receive their license, they plan to stock the best of the local wineries alongside notable favorites. The menu changes daily featuring fresh seafood, prime beef and house favorites like wild boar or elk. We enjoyed the Roast Choice of Prime Rib of Beef, perfectly prepared to a medium rare and served with straight horseradish (very hot, just to Josh’s liking), as well as the Sea Bass Vera Cruz. They also offer packaged lunches so plan ahead for your wine tasting day trips and pick up a picnic to-go.
After our tummies were sufficiently filled, we were ready for some fun. We headed over to Callaghan Vineyards for a special, impromptu blind tasting. Always a gracious host, Kent shared several wines from his cellar. As we playfully discussed the nuances of the wines, it was nice to get to know Kent a little better. Although he has an experienced palate, I really appreciate his patience with those of us that are learning, and that he finds our perspective interesting, whether our palate is trained or not. It was an educational and fun evening, for sure. You can enjoy a similar experience by attending one of Callaghan Vineyards’ events throughout the year.
Back at the Hacienda, we stayed up late playing games, laughing and drinking yet more wine! Needless to say, we all slept like babies in our comfy beds. Saturday we had a chance to sleep in and enjoy a lazy morning. We devoured a wonderful sausage, egg and cheese casserole, freshly prepared by Sandy. A successful new recipe for her, we all grabbed seconds.
Knowing that we were going to visit many wineries, we decided to play it safe and hired Sonoita Limo to be our designated driver. It was a fun bonus that we were able to travel in style and luxury. Dirk, our friendly and professional driver, helped us load up the car at around noon and we were on our way.
First stop, Sonoita Vineyards. We received a special tasting tour through their wines from winemaker Fran Lightly. Perched on a hilltop, overlooking the vines, you can enjoy a picnic lunch on the green grass, or in our case due to the monsoons, we enjoyed our packed cheeses and charcuterie on a picnic table safely tucked under the covered patio. For a champagne toast in the limo, we picked up a bottle of their award-winning Sonoita Peach Sparkles, to toast our trip through wine country.
Next up, Canelo Hills Winery. They had released some fun summer whites about a month before and we picked up a few more for our cellar. If they have it, I always get their estate Tempranillo, too. It’s a reserve wine so not available for tasting, but it’s really good. You’ll just have to take my word for it!
Then back to Callaghan Vineyards. This time with a packed house (it’s a packed house every time), Kent and Allie poured us through the tasting menu. A new white on the list, Goldie’s (named after the vineyard dog), was very nice and refreshing. We purchased some crowd favorites, such as Buena Suerte and Padres.
Dos Cabezas, here we come! We were delighted to see our friend Patty Coughlin at the tasting bar, manning the helm while owners Todd and Kelly Bostock were visiting Oregon wine country. Always fun, Patti shared nuances about the latest Dos Cabezas releases and fun stories in general. Dirk brought out some cheese and crackers complimentary from Sonoita Limo. At this point, we were in need of some extra sustenance. Good call, Dirk. As we were finishing the menu, a bus with about twenty people stopped by. Our timing couldn’t be better. Bye Patty, we’re off to Hops & Vines.
Last winery stop for the day, Hops and Vines. Owned by sisters Megan Haller and Shannon Zouzoulas, and friend Summer Cantu, these ladies know how to have a great time. Yes, the wine is taken seriously but the atmosphere is all about fun! Megan, the winemaker, has apprenticed with the best… from Sonoita Vineyards, to Lightning Ridge and Callaghan Vineyards. Their wines have playful names like “The Fluffer” and “Imbibe” and you won’t find stale crackers here… oh no, how about Cheetos or barbecue chips? We were happy to be joined by Patty who closed up at Dos Cabezas and Kent from Callaghan Vineyards. Hops and Vines is open until 6pm so it’s the perfect wrap up to your day. For added entertainment, there was joke telling and tarantula petting. Hops and Vines has fun events throughout the year, so check their calendar (or ours) for upcoming events to enjoy on your wine tasting tour to Sonoita.
Now it was time for some grub. One of our favorite Arizona steak places is The Steakout. We enjoyed our service by Toni as well as the live music from the stage. Josh’s favorite is the prime rib and I enjoy the filet. Known for their in-house cut steaks cooked on a mesquite grill, the preparation is always flavorful. We enjoyed more local wine from their menu and decided we’d better call it a day.
We got a slow start on Sunday morning and really enjoyed our coffee. Sandy offered up scrambled eggs, bacon and fresh baked blueberry muffins. We slowly packed up our things and prepared for our final round of wine tasting. We enjoyed our stay at La Hacienda and highly recommend it for your next Sonoita wine tasting adventure.
First stop today, Rancho Rossa Vineyards. We were greeted by their basset hound, Shadow, one of two official Rancho Rossa greeters. Today we were hosted by Sarah Hamilton. Sarah and her husband Chris own and operate Rancho Rossa, the “rock and roll” winery. They are also big supporters of animal charities.
If it is Sunday in Sonoita, that means you have to stop at Kief-Joshua Vineyards for brunch. I recommend getting there for the omelets and get one with everything. They are so good and perfect for a groggy head and rumbling tummy. In addition to omelets, we were treated to pan-fried pizza and chicken wings. For our tasting I was excited that Kief Manning had released his 2011 Chenin Blanc, one of their most popular whites. Get a bottle while you can. He sells out every year. We also got to meet Kiah, the baby wallaby. Todd and Michelle were excited to meet Kief’s resident sheep who work in the vineyard, helping with weed maintenance.
One of the most beautiful vineyards and wineries is Lightning Ridge Cellars. They are little further out, but should not be missed; take the extra five minutes and drive to visit Ann and Ron Roncone. Showcasing their Italian heritage, you will find only Italian varietals growing on their estate. Ann’s wines are also an expression of that love for Italy. Looking for something extra fun to do? They are putting in a bocce ball court. Maybe it will be completed by your next visit!
One more stop and then we’ve done it! Greeted by Chance, the friendly family Wiemaraner, we were very excited to catch Karyl Wilhelm at Wilhelm Family Vineyards. Always engaging and entertaining, Karyl is happy to share the stories behind each of their extensive selection of wines. We chose to sample the dry flight and tasted through some of their classics and as well as a few new releases.
You may not have the endurance to hit ten wineries in one weekend, but we are highly trained professionals (wink wink). Instead, maybe plan a couple of trips (or many) to Sonoita. It’s enchanting wine country with rolling hills, vast ranch land and abundant vines. If you’re looking for the perfect getaway accented with delicious wine, nice conversation and friendly smiles, this is the place you’ve been looking for.
Editor’s Note: Canelo Hills Vineyard was purchased after the publication of this article and is now Flying Leap Vineyards.
By Josh and Rhonni Moffitt
Originally Published in Arizona Vines and Wines Fall 2012 Issue