VERDE VALLEY -- The Verde Valley Wine Trail began as an idea with a line on a map to show where visitors might find and sample wines from the growing Verde Valley culture. But the wine trail has branched in new directions and is producing new and varied fruit.
Lana Tolleson of the Cottonwood Chamber recalls the early days of the wine trail not so long ago.
"The Verde Valley Wine Trail is a marketing concept obviously for the wine. But it also was to use the wine industry to gain more attention for the entire region; for everything that we do here. That was the focal point: to bring them here because people are asking about wine, and then they learn about all our scenic beauty and activities, biking and hiking trails, Out of Africa, the Verde Canyon Railroad and more.
"Initially in 2009, the Cottonwood Chamber branded the Verde Valley Wine Trail, which secured a matching grant with the Arizona Office of Tourism. We partnered with the Cottonwood Economic Development Council. That matching grant went away after the first year, and since then it has been the Chamber and CEDC."
After the Wine Trail was under way, local businesses that don't make or serve wine in their operations wanted in on the publicity. Along came the Painted Barrels, combining the culture of the wine industry with art. Most of the proceeds were used to help Yavapai College with instruction. That began as a non-credit process and has grown into something more substantial with bricks and mortar.
Outside the state, Tolleson admits there is still a persistent doubt about the grape viability in arid Arizona.
"You have to tell people, because so many of the articles still ask: 'Wine in Arizona?' with that big question mark. People outside of Arizona are still shocked that there is good wine in Arizona, and even more so, that it is a great place to grow grapes and make wine. The wine here is unique because of the our terroir, because our soil, elevation and climate goes into our wine."
Like the cheese of Camembert or the tea of Darjeeling, the special land from which our grapes are grown lend a special character Many people want to compare Arizona wines to Napa and other California valleys.
Plant scientist Jesse Nobel, who we found in Passion Cellars in Jerome, says Arizona is really more old worldly. He cut his teeth on the 20-acre vineyard at Cal Poly. Passion now acquires grapes from growers, but Jesse is planting grapes now in Willcox that will become the vineyards for the Jerome tasting room.
"Arizona wines have more of an old world style. They have less of the big 'jammy' fruit that you get out of California.
"We produce more nuanced wines with a different character. California wines seem to be all pepper and alcohol and fruit. Here it is less alcohol, less fruit, more of a complexity of spices, more of an Italian style."
Owner Jason Domanico has Italian family roots and prefers the Italian style. Domanico also has a winery in Seattle.
Next door to Passion is the Echo Canyon Tasting Room with wines of the Verde Valley's first modern winery at the top of Page Spring down a scary winding road into the canyon. Nobel says those are the last of the winery's bottles, an orchard that went fallow when owner Jon Marcus had an accident and became sick for a long time.
"Once those bottles are sold in six to nine months, Salvatore vineyards will offer a top-of-the-line wine selection there.
The Verde Valley Wine Trail connects four wineries: Alcantara, Page Springs, Cellars, Oak Creek Vineyards and Javalena Leap Vineyards and numerous tasting rooms: Cellar 433, Passion, Arizona Stronghold, Burning Tree, Fire Mountain and Pillsbury Wine company.
But, beyond the fruit and the wine, Tolleson says, "One thing that we [Verde Valley] have to offer is the infrastructure of hotels, Old Town and other attractions than just tasting wine. The other Arizona wine-growing areas have great wine, but not the infrastructure. It is the whole experience that we get and can offer through the Wine Trail. You can come up here and relax, float the river, go hiking, there is bird-watching, go to Old Town, there are great restaurants. There are all kinds of things to do that just taste wine, and you don't have to drive great distances to enjoy the other attractions."
In the future, Tolleson says, the Wine Trail is working with the Verde Valley Wine Consortium to expand its reach regionally.
Down the hill in Clarkdale, for example, the 48 Wineworks tasting room, operated by Maynard James Keenan, is offering wares from various winemakers, including Micheal Pierce, Tim White, Keenan, and Joe Bachard and the Kindred Project of four winemakers. The Wineworks is the first cooperative winery in the state. It would allow small batch growers who don't have a lot of capital to produced bottles of special wines.
After originally launching the barrel concept, that project is following the Verde Valley Wine Consortium and the Friends of the Southwest Wine Center and Yavapai College to continue to benefit its educational program.
The Chamber became the first donor from those auction proceeds to be listed on the Founders Wall of the Southwest Wine Center at Yavapai College.
Plot your own map at http://www.vvwinetrail.com/