Five things I learned during a weekend of Arizona wine, where I visited six wineries and spoke at regional meeting of the American Wine Society:
• The technical quality of the wine was impressive, especially given how young the Arizona wine industry is. Allowing for the small sample size, the wines were clean, without flaws, and varietally correct. This is not often the case with regional wine, and that producers in Arizona are already able to do this speaks to how far they have come in a short time.
• The best grapes seem to be planted for the state’s terroir and climate, which is warm and mostly dry. This means Mediterranean varietals and not chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, something it took us more than 20 years to figure out in Texas. In this, many of the wines reflected the terroir, which surprised me based on what I’ve tasted in the past. Those had been hot, heavy, and not all that interesting. Especially impressive: the Caduceus Shinola ($25, sample, 13.4%), a red blend with tart cherry fruit and dusty tannins; the Stronghold chenin blanc ($20, sample, 13.5%), a little oily and with pear fruit; and the Fire Mountain Sky ($24, sample, 13.7%), a white blend that was fresh, simple, and enjoyable.
• The catch? The prices, of course, since the state doesn’t make enough wine to enjoy economies of scale. I love chenin blanc, but $20 is a lot of money for chenin. This is something everyone there knows, and say they’re working on.
• Having said all of that, Arizona faces tremendous challenges. First, it grows grapes at altitude, often more than 3,000 feet. There are only a handful of places in the world where this is done, and so there is little information or historical data about how to do it well. The growers are truly pioneers. Second, the state suffers from every problem imaginable, whether the dreaded Pierce’s Disease or late and early freezes. Deer eating grapes (also a serious problem in California) is common, too.
• Consumers want to know more about wine, and are happy when someone talks to them in language they understand. The 40 or so people who heard my speech were appreciative when I pointed out the emperor’s new clothes as it relates to wine, and the idea that we can buy quality for much less than $25 was a big hit. We bought five cheap wines and served them after dinner, and that there was tasty $10 Provencal rose was a revelation much appreciated.