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.
It's a bright morning in the Sonoran Desert. The light has a liquid intensity, a magnifying quality that picks out details in the landscape and casts them into high relief. I can see knobby limbs of cholla, spindly blades of yucca, distant tawny peaks. It's as if the world itself is an HDTV, almost too sharp and perfect to be real.
I'm driving south on Interstate 19, a short highway that begins in Tucson and terminates 63 miles later at the border of Mexico in Nogales. It's a road I've been on thousands of times. Although I live in New York, I grew up out here, "out" being a fitting way to describe it. As in out in the middle of nowhere.
The vast valley, covered in mesquite and prickly pear cactus, is stunning and dramatic, and these days it never fails to take my breath away. But this wasn't always the case. Growing up, the last place I wanted to be was in this isolated brown valley. The geography filled me with dread. Nogales, population 20,878, is a town that straddles two countries. There is a Nogales in Arizona and a Nogales in Sonora, Mexico—and a 20-foot-high steel fence separates them. Crossing it was less of a hassle pre-9/11, but even these days, with a passport, you can technically walk from one downtown to the other. (In high school, when the border patrol didn't ask to see documentation, my friends and I used to cut across on our lunch break; we'd head over for cantina enchiladas and be back at our desks in time for English class.) Mexico's streets are potholed and frenetic, with curio-shop owners hawking pewter picture frames on the sidewalk; on the American side, the flow of pedestrians in and out of the 99¢ stores is a mere trickle. Aside from the neither-here-nor-there cultural flavor that the duality lends Nogales—where 94 percent of the population is Hispanic and a monolingual person is at a considerable disadvantage—the place has just enough small-town traits to alienate a 16-year-old boy enchanted with Judith Krantz. It's sheltered and insular, and everyone knows you. Rather, not just you, but your whole family, and your whole family's history. To this day, when I walk into a restaurant—like Zulas, for example, which at lunchtime is like the town commissary (and where you should go for the club sandwich and pecan pie)—I get kissed hello by strangers who recognize me because I have the "cara de un Cordero."
Now, after living in New York for 10 years, that kind of kissy familiarity—combined with the pin-drop desert stillness—is precisely what draws me back. Over the past year, I've been spending weeks at a time at my mother's house working on a novel. I look out the window, and the stark landscape exhilarates me. I've also begun to notice intriguing changes that build upon what I've grown to love. The recession and recent border violence have hit the area hard, especially because tourism, mostly in the form of day-trippers from Tucson and Phoenix, has always been a major economic driver. Nonetheless, Nogales and the surrounding towns of Tubac, Patagonia, Sonoita, and Elgin have started to grow worldly. Sophisticated B&Bs are cropping up in historic ranch haciendas and boardinghouses. There is a burgeoning wine industry that's as remarkable as the neighboring grasslands. And the food, which was typically either good, rustic northern Mexican or forgettable, is getting inventive. Even better, all of this is happening slowly, in small, considered ways, spearheaded by mom-and-pop businesses that have a vested interest in preserving the area's distinct character.
When I daydream now, I find my fantasies have suddenly moved back West, to thick adobe walls and shaded Saltillo-tiled courtyards and a flood of high desert light. They look a lot, actually, like the Hacienda Corona de Guevavi, a bed-and-breakfast set on an 18th-century ranch outside Nogales that used to belong to the family of one of my closest childhood friends, Ian Wingfield.
The house, with its corrugated tin roof and façade of café au lait adobe, was built in 1938. A low wall encloses a front garden planted with sage and agave, and a walkway leads to the main courtyard, where original murals of Mexican villagers still decorate the walls. The current owners, Phil and Wendy Stover, greet me and my boyfriend, Rob, in the foyer. Phil and Wendy grew up in Tucson but worked for much of their lives in California and Connecticut—he ran restaurants, she was a film company exec—before returning to Arizona in 2002 and buying and renovating the beautiful Spanish colonial pile. When it was just Ian's grandfather's house, I used to spend afternoons hanging out here, watching Ian leap into the pinto-bean-shaped pool from the pool-house roof. The place is almost as I remember, though lightened and brightened; windows that were shaded by overgrown vegetation now offer clear views of the Santa Cruz riverbed. What was the master bedroom is now a grand suite with a tufted headboard, an original fireplace of massive stone blocks, and pink toile curtains dressing a large window overlooking the surrounding ranch land.
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.
On the ride back to Nogales, the Patagonias loom over the highway, silhouetted against the moonlight. I take them in from the passenger seat while Rob drives. Backlit by a million stars, they shine black against the steel-gray sky. It's real and it's lovely and it's home.
Hacienda Corona de Guevavi
348 S. River Rd., Nogales, haciendacorona.com, doubles from $189, including breakfast
The Duquesne House
357 Duquesne Ave., Patagonia, theduquesnehouse.com, doubles from $125, including breakfast
982 N. Grand Ave., Nogales, 520/287-2892, entrées from $8
3252 Hwy. 82, Sonoita, 520/455-5873, canelabistro.com, entrées from $13
336 Elgin Rd., Elgin, 520/455-5322, callaghanvineyards.com, tastings $7
290 Elgin-Canelo Rd., Elgin, 520/455-5893, sonoitavineyards.com, tastings $5
Dos Cabezas WineWorks
3248 Hwy. 82, Sonoita, 520/455-5141, doscabezaswinery.com, tastings $7
Canelo Hills Vineyard & Winery
342 Elgin Rd., Elgin, 520/455-5499, canelohillswinery.com, tastings $5
Rancho Rossa Vineyards
32 Cattle Ranch Ln., Elgin, 520/455-0700, ranchorossa.com, tastings $5