Native son Mario López-Cordero returns home to the Sonoran Desert to find it all grown up—world-class vineyards, smart B&Bs reclaiming old adobes, and a food culture both earthy and full of surprises.
Our room, the Duke, is off the courtyard and is named after John Wayne; a friend of Mr. Wingfield, he used to stay in the suite when he came to visit. The bedroom has high, beamed ceilings, a brass and crystal-teardrop chandelier, and a pair of longhorns hanging over the bed. A small adjoining sitting room looks out, through coral-painted shutters, over the front garden, and a built-in bookshelf is stocked with titles like Pilar Wayne's Favorite and Fabulous Recipes. In the morning, we wander into the dining room for goat-cheese omelets and scones made from the ranch's own mesquite beans, a regional staple the Stovers pick and grind into flour. The breakfast is a perfect way to start the day before getting back into the car and heading northeast to explore further.
Highway 82 angles through a pass between the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains, and as you rise in elevation—Sonoita sits at 4,800 feet—the mesquite scrub gives way to oak and pine, interspersed with wide grassy meadows. We pass through the sleepy hamlet of Patagonia, a former mining village that's gaining ground as an artist's haven. The Duquesne House, a four-room B&B in town, marries the old with the new: The 1898 boardinghouse, originally built for miners, has been transformed into a relaxed retreat, with painted furniture, Guatemalan blankets, and patchwork quilts. Owner Nancy McCoy, an elementary school teacher, came upon the inn on a mountain-biking trip in 2001 and felt so connected to Patagonia and the inn that she vowed to come back and give it new life.
Twenty minutes farther along on 82, we hit "downtown" Sonoita, which you could miss if you blinked. The dusty intersection is composed of a Shell station and two lone saloon-style buildings. As the road winds over the prairie toward Elgin, vineyards are lined up one after another, the tidy rows of trellised vines scrolling over the hillsides.
I first heard about the Sonoita area's wine making in the late '90s, after the region got a little press. I can't remember actually reading any of the stories, but like most people, I was dubious. I probably should have paid attention. The news was about Kent Callaghan, who runs Callaghan Vineyards, and the guy writing the effusive praise was the noted wine critic Robert Parker. "The '91 vintage, our first, came out in '93, and he just raved," says Callaghan. "That pretty much put us on the map." Callaghan, who planted his first grapes in 1990, has been earning consistently high marks from Parker ever since for his Rhône- and Bordeaux-style blends.
What originally drew Callaghan to Elgin wasn't a lark. It was the result of a study by University of Arizona soil scientist Gordon Dutt, funded by Congress in the late '70s to explore the feasibility of growing quality wine grapes in the Southwest. What Dutt found in Elgin was an iron- and lime-rich soil much like Burgundy's and a climate that, because of the high elevation, made for hot days and cool nights, ideal for cultivating all kinds of wine grapes. Dutt himself founded Sonoita Vineyards, the area's first commercial winery, in 1983.
There are 10 vineyards in Elgin and Sonoita now, and all are tiny producers that mostly sell their small-batch stock through tasting rooms where the winemakers themselves often do the pouring. These are not big businesses—Callaghan, for example, works his own fields—and they'll probably never morph into large-scale commercial ventures. "It's just not viable economically," explains vintner Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks, who is also the president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, and turns out vintages like the 2008 Toscano, a Sangiovese blended with cabernet, Syrah, and petite sirah. "The uneven land rules out mechanized farming; the population is small, so there isn't a major labor pool to help with picking; and this is still the desert, so water is a big issue." In many cases, the wineries are also a family affair: Bostock runs Dos Cabezas with his wife, Kelly, and his parents; Callaghan shares duties with his wife, Lisa; and other outfits along the road in Elgin, like Canelo Hills (known for its Syrah and Sangiovese) and Rancho Rossa (which produces Grenache, Syrah, and cabs), follow similar business models. No one is going to get rich, but no one expects to. "This will never be Napa," says Bostock. "We're shooting for a sustainable model, with low-water-use, high-dollar crops that we can pass down through generations."
The slow, measured growth has helped foster local enterprises like Canela Bistro, an unassuming restaurant with Southwestern watercolors on beige walls, tucked between a feed store and a law office in Sonoita's main shopping plaza. Chefs John Hall and Joy Vargo trained at the New England Culinary Institute, worked in kitchens in Chicago and Seattle, and are forging a trail in the area with ingredients they source locally, a new concept for the region. "The farmers and ranchers scoffed at first," says Vargo. "They needed convincing before supplying us. But now that we've stuck around, they've begun to trust us." In addition to serving wine from neighboring vineyards, Hall and Vargo use grass-fed beef from the nearby Doublecheck Ranch, goat cheese from two Sonoita women who have their own herds, and brussels sprouts from raised beds out back. They take all their Arizona ingredients and apply traditional French techniques: The cassoulet is made with native tepary beans and house-cured sausage, while roasted quail is brightly flavored with cumin, tomato, and an earthy dose of bacon. Eating this kind of farm-to-table food in Santa Cruz County, where the options have always been either steak or tacos, is a total revelation for a hometown boy like me.