Story and photos by Adam Centamore.

Last autumn I received an email from a food writer and sommelier in Arizona. She complimented me on my blog post about pairings, which she had used for a client tasting. Elizabeth Krecker, it turns out, is also one of the owners of Twisted Union Wine Company, a small producer in Santa Cruz County.

Her email closed with the message, “If you are ever in Arizona, it would be a pleasure to spend a day with you to introduce you to the best of our wineries.” Admittedly, my initial reaction to her invitation was dismissive. Trying wines in a neighboring state a few years earlier turned out to be wildly disappointing. It was hard to be enthusiastic about what I perceived to be a potentially similar situation. A few Zoom calls and some research convinced me this would not be a repeat of my last visit to the southwest. I booked the trip.

Now, walking through the automated doors of Sky Harbor Airport into the intense Phoenix sun, I reflected on why I was there. The wine was the impetus, but there was another reason. My initial reaction to the idea of Arizona wine bothered me. As a food and wine educator and writer—with an anthropology degree to boot!—I had committed the cardinal sin of jumping to conclusions for which I had absolutely no evidence. I let my past experience color my expectations, and that embarrassed me. Arizona deserved the chance I should have given it from the start.

That evening, Elizabeth and I met for dinner. The sling encasing her right arm turned out to be a blessing in disguise; being unable to physically help at the winery rendered her free to show me around. She shared her plans for my visit. I started jotting down notes in my travel notebook. The more I wrote, the more I was intrigued.

I’d be trying wines made with grape varieties found all over the world, made by an equally diverse group of people including movie moguls and rock stars. After sorting through the day’s notes at the hotel later that evening, I started getting excited about the next day’s adventures. Maybe there was really something to this Arizona wine thing after all.

A highlight of my trip was the Willcox Wine Festival in downtown Phoenix, a smallish event with 20 different Arizona wineries pouring nearly 150 different wines. It was my first real exposure to Arizona wines, and I was ready to learn.

We drove to the festival in the late morning, and I tasted wines and talked with winemakers. Every table had wines that completely caught me off guard. Crisp, bracing white wines made from grapes usually found in the verdant Loire Valley of France were poured right next to monstrous reds made from grapes best known for the scorching summer weather of southern Italy. Spanish grapes were blended with Argentinians. There were so many permutations. On paper, the cacophony of varietals might not have made a whole lot of sense, but in the glass, they came together beautifully.

I sipped Golden Rule Vineyards’ award-winning syrah. It was gorgeous, full of dark fruit and energy. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that this plump, complex wine came from Arizona. Jim Graham, the owner, noticed my perplexity and came over. “We’re really proud of that one,” he said, beaming.

Jim, a former hog and beef cattle rancher from Iowa, co-owns the vineyard with his wife, Ruth. He’s in his seventies now and looking to retire. He’s not leaving the industry, however. Jim has already begun working with younger winemakers to ensure the traditions continue. “We want to share Arizona’s unique terroir and passion for what we do.” That was a mantra that was repeated over and over as we visited each producer.

The next morning, we began the two-hour drive north to Verde Valley. The sprawl of Phoenix gradually transitioned to equally vast suburban neighborhoods, eventually giving way to open highway. The flat expanse was dotted with huge cacti growing in clusters that looked like exclamation points, accenting the landscape with their bizarre punctuation. I marveled at their size and shape.

An hour into our trip my ears popped, startling me a little. The smooth road, unchanging landscape, and warm sun had lulled me into a trance. I realized how much everything was changing. Flat land quickly evolved into ridges and hills, leading to mountains, and we were going up. We finished the day a mile above sea level, just about the same altitude as Denver. Amazing.

Our first stop was Pillsbury Wine Company in Cottonwood. Sam Pillsbury, a film director with nearly three dozen credits to his name, has been making wine here for over two decades. Nestled into a comfy couch in the tasting room, manager Val continued to demolish my perceptions of Arizona wine, serving up wines with a grin and a laugh.

Later that afternoon we headed further north to Jerome, a copper mining town built in 1876. It’s also the home to Caduceus Cellars, a family-owned winery owned and led by Grammy Award-winning artist Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer for the progressive metal band Tool. A descendant of Northern Italian winemakers, he’s as serious about his wine as his music. (He’s also a focus of the 2010 movie Blood Into Wine. Fascinating.)

After staying the night at the supposedly-haunted Jerome Grand Hotel, during which I did hear a female ghost chiding a male ghost for drinking too much at the hotel bar, we headed down the mountains for the final wine stop of my trip.

Yavapai Community College has been teaching about wine since 2008. They are one of only three colleges in the entire country that teach students winemaking in every stage, from growth to production, to marketing and sales. Adjunct Professor Paula Woolsey has been involved since the beginning and is fiercely proud of what her students have accomplished.

“The program was created from the simple idea of what it would look like to have vineyards planted all the way to Sedona,” she says, swirling her wine glass. Today they offer three program options, and the average student age is 48. “We can teach you how to grow in high altitude, high desert conditions.”

Speaking with Woolsey, I quickly realized everything I may have thought about Arizona’s terroir was off. Way off. Did you know Arizona’s Verde Valley has the 2nd largest difference between average daytime temperature and nighttime temperature in the world, behind only Mendoza, Argentina? Neither did I. Once again, I was the student and Arizona wine culture was the teacher. We wrapped up the afternoon with a firm handshake and an equally firm promise to return for more learning.

As we began the drive back to Phoenix, I turned my face to the sun streaming in the window, closed my eyes, and reflected on the past few days. My time in Arizona wine country was a humbling revelation. I could not have been more wrong in my expectations, or happier to be so pleasantly enlightened.

Adam Centamore teaches and writes about wine and cheese on the South Shore. His book, Tasting Wine & Cheese – An Insider’s Guide to Mastering the Principles of Pairing, was a finalist for the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Book of the Year. When not babbling about wine and cheese, he’s usually traveling to destinations near and far to continue being happily proven how wrong he is about stuff.