Wine and Other Surprises in the Sonoran Desert

Working as a travel guide has taken me to some far away places; from California wine country to Italy, France, Spain, Croatia and Costa Rica. Most recently though, it has taken me to a place much closer to home. When I saw Arizona on my schedule I pictured a flat and dry desert landscape and inescapable heat. Despite its close proximity to Colorado, I really hadn’t spent much time in the southwestern Grand Canyon state. Big mountains, lush forests, snowy fields and vineyards were the last things I expected to see.  I just love when new places take me by surprise.

I was excited to explore the deep southwest (where I live in Durango lies just at the northeastern tip). Upon arriving to Tucson, the first thing I did was hop on a bike and explore on two wheels.  I quickly found wide bike lanes and a nicely paved bike path that circumnavigates the city. A road runner led the way for a stretch, before darting off the path to safer ground.  As I took in my surroundings I saw that it was not barren at all; The Sonoran Desert in the springtime is full of color! The majestic saguaros and blooming Ocotillo with orange caps caught my attention right away. There are also cacti of every shape and size with unique, colorful fruit and flowers.  The Palo Verde, Arizona’s state tree proudly showcases its bright yellow blossoms that contrast their smooth green trunks. The color and diversity of plants and cacti really make the desert landscape come alive.

The quintessential road runner


The Ocotillo have a Dr. Seuss-like presence that you can’t help but gaze at with wonder

Barrel Cactus with yellow fruit

The Palo Verde in full bloom


St. Phillip’s Plaza, Tucson with flowers, trees and fountains

Yucca plant, Sedona, AZ

The colorful and prickly land may be dry, but it is an oasis for wildlife, including the pig-like Javelinas, coyotes, lizards, scorpions, snakes and my favorite, which sounds made up; the Gila monster.

One evening on a trail run near Dove Mountain Resort, my co-leader and I spotted something with bright yellow and black stripes. At first glance, it looked like a snake and it stopped us dead in our tracks. Upon closer inspection we saw that this “snake” had 4 legs and looked more like a giant lizard/miniature dinosaur, measuring two feet long from head to tail. It was a real Gila Monster! They do exist! I was both excited and nervous with our sighting.  I recalled reading that when Gila Monsters bite, they latch onto their prey with a lock jaw that chomps down repeatedly to release venom. Apparently it’s quite difficult to unlatch their jaws.  We scrambled off trail to go for the bypass from a safe distance. It turned out to be too close for the Gila Monster’s liking because as we tiptoed past he hissed at us like a cat, causing me to scream and my 6 foot tall co-leader to jump at least 3 feet in the air!

Borrowed image of the Gila Monster

Another big surprise was how mountainous it is in southern Arizona. Mount Lemmon towers above Tucson, reaching 9,159 feet with a little ski resort at the top. Who knew?! Upon hearing that this is a popular ride among cyclists (including Lance Armstrong), I took the opportunity on a day off to try it out. It took 4 hours to ride the 26 miles to the top, where the elevation is 7000 feet higher and the temperature 20 degrees cooler. This is officially the longest sustained climb that I have ever done. It was stunning to see the landscape change from desert Saguaros to grasslands and up to more lush pine trees and Conifer forest where there were still patches of snow.  The little town of Summer Haven at the top welcomes visitors with cooler temperatures and a cute little cafe serving burgers, fries, pies and beer on tap. The best part of course, is the descent (officially my longest descent ever). Twenty-six glorious miles down, down, down with gradual, perfectly winding roads and views as far as the eye can see. It felt like I was descending down from the heavens.

The climb up Mount Lemmon

Bicycle parking at Sawmill Run in Summer Haven

My. Lemmon Ski Valley

Our bike tour takes guests nearly all the way down to the Mexican boarder, and we frequently pass through border patrol check points, which causes one to question if we accidentally crossed into Mexico. At times it feels like it, as we follow quiet two lane roads past grazing cattle and road markers in kilometers, rather than miles. The dusty little towns of Arivaca, Patagonia and Sonoita make you feel as though you have gone back in time. The presence of the Pima Indians and the first European settlers can still be felt, with places like the Tumacacori Presidio well-preserved.

Church at Tumacacori

Gift shop in Tubac

On our first night of the trip we stay in the artsy town of Tubac, which was Arizona’s first European settlement in 1752. It was the launching point of the 1300 mile expedition to found what is now San Francisco in 1775. Today, San Francisco has over 860,000 residents, while Tubac has under 2000.

Not far from Tubac is Sonoita, another historic town with an even smaller population of around 800. Soniota was settled by cattle ranchers, despite conflicts with the Apaches. Once the railroad passed though, it became one of the biggest hubs for shipping cattle, with as many as 3000 a day shipped to the east. Today it is a quiet, dusty town and to my delight, a budding wine region!

Soil scientist Dr. Gordon Dutt from the university of Arizona was the first to propose that the area around Sonoita would be an ideal grape growing region. He planted his first grape vines in the 1970’s and Sonoita subsequently became Arizona’s first AVA (American Viticultural Area). The limestone/marl soils are similar to the soils of the famous Burgundy region of France. The elevation is also higher than neighboring Tucson, 50 miles to the north, which keeps the hot temperatures at bay. The climate is hot and dry, similar to southern France and Spain. Not surprisingly, French and Spanish grape varieties grow well in this region. You can find spicy and robust Cabernet Sauvignon, Sarah, Petite Syrah, Merlot, Chenin blanc and Viognier, among others.

Backroads picnic at Kief Joshua Vineyards

There are about a dozen wineries producing fantastic wines and refreshingly don’t take themselves too seriously. We visit Kief Joshua vineyards with our guests, which is run by the young and outspoken Kief Joshua, who studied viticulture and enology in Australia. He often throws huge parties with live music, games and debauchery, sometimes lasting multiple days. With dirt-stained hands and faded jeans, he nonchalantly recounts stories of reckless abandon to us as we indulge in his organic wine and smoked meats from the food truck parked right next to the vines.

After having my first taste of Arizona wine, I set out to discover more, visiting Wilcox, Arizona’s only other AVA where most of the grapes are grown, as well as Verde Valley, a soon to be AVA up near Sedona. What I found were delicious, well made wines that are balanced with fruit, tannins and acidity. I also met the laid-back, Arizona winemakers, who seem to just do what they love without comparing themselves to the rest of the wine world. I was surprised to see wines with Nebbiolo, a native grape to Piedmont Italy that is extremely difficult to grow. These winemakers really know what they’re doing and they do it well.

Wine tasting Arizona’s reds at Enchantment Resort

Keeling Schaefer Winery, Wilcox

Aridus Wine Company

Syrah vines at Page Spring Cellars

Thank you, Arizona, for surprising me with your big mountains, abundant color, interesting wildlife and laid back wine scene!

Sunset hour at Saguaro N.P. West

Sedona, AZ

Bear Mountain, Sedona

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One Comment

  1. Love this! I want to go biking and wine-sipping in Arizona with you someday:)

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