Yeh, I was surprised too. I have to say that when we were planning our trip to Arizona and looking for interesting ways to spend our time, wine tasting was not something that we expected to find. Before our return to Mexico, we were visiting good friends in Mesa, Arizona with whom we share a love of good wine. When we found this website for the Scottsdale Wine Trail, the pieces fell into place for one of our favorite kind of days. Several Arizona wineries have opened tasting rooms in Old Town Scottsdale to make it easier for locals and visitors to learn about and experience Arizona wines.
I must admit we were skeptical. Arizona is mostly desert, right? Well, we learned that Arizona actually has very diverse geography with low and high altitude deserts and volcanic mountain ranges. It is at the base of these mountains with their volcanic soils where the opportunity for growing quality grapes exists. These areas experience daily cycles of warm sunny days and cool nights, which are great for growing grapes. About 75% of the grapes grown in Arizona come from the Willcox area in the southeast of the state. There are also vineyards north of Phoenix in the Verde Valley of central Arizona.
The Scottsdale Wine Trail was launched in 2016 to help promote the growing wine industry. There are now over 110 wineries in Arizona and most of us know nothing about them. Four Arizona wineries participate in the Scottsdale Wine Trail: Aridus Wine Company, Carlson Creek Vineyard, Salvatore Vineyards, and LDV Winery have tasting rooms within about a half-mile walk of each other in Old Town Scottsdale. At our first stop we purchased Scottsdale Wine Trail Passports for $5. At each participating winery, you receive a stamp in your passport and a $2 discount on a wine tasting.
Passports in hand, we forged our way along the wine trail, sightseeing and sipping, all the while on the lookout for electric scooter attacks. It’s still the wild wild west in Scottsdale, but the cowboys are no longer riding horses.
Aridus Wine Company
Old Town Scottsdale’s Main Street looks like a scene from a Western movie, but behind the doors of Aridus Wine Company is a very contemporary tasting room.
Aridus Wine Company’s winery was established in Willcox in 2012. Husband and wife owners Scott and Joan Dahmer renovated an apple warehouse into the largest custom crush facility in Arizona. Their 40 acre estate vineyard is in Pearce, Arizona, about 45 miles outside of Wilcox. The vineyard sits at 5200 feet elevation, at the base of the Chiricahua Foothills. They grow Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Malvasia for whites and Cabernet Sauvignon for red. They use grapes from their own estate, and also from other growers in Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Producing about 20,000 cases, they are one of the largest producers in Arizona.
At their Scottsdale tasting room, for $10.00 you can taste five wines from a list of eight whites, three rosés, and thirteen reds. We shared a tasting between the two of us, but were so interested in the wines that we ordered a second tasting with five additional wines. We were very impressed with their red wines. The 2016 Cabernet Franc was fabulous. We are big fans of Cab France when it is done well, and these grapes seem to ripen nicely in Arizona. The 2016 Graciano was big and tannic, while the 2015 Grenache was smooth and juicy, full of red cherry flavors.
Carlson Creek Vineyard
We earned our next passport stamp at the Carlson Creek Vineyard tasting room on Marshall Way. Carlson Creek’s 280 acre vineyard in Willcox sits at 4200 feet above sea level. Almost all of their wines are made from estate grown grapes, mostly Rhone style varietals. The family owned winery was established in 2009 by Bob and Elizabeth Carlson along with their three children.
At the tasting bar, they were pouring three whites, a rosé, four reds and a sweet muscat. A $10 tasting fee included our choice of five wines and a Carlson Creek insignia glass. The Chardonnay was aged on the lees with malolactic fermentation, giving it complexity with a soft buttery note. With the reds, we had fun comparing the differences between subsequent vintages of the same wines. You could really taste the influence of the weather in the Sangiovese from 2013 and 2014, the former being smooth and well integrated while the latter showed a higher acidity. We also compared the 2014 and 2015 vintages of The Rule of Three, their flagship wine which is a classic Rhone style blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.
Salvatore Vineyards and Passion Cellars
A short walk along Scottsdale’s 5th Avenue shopping district, next to the Bronze Horse Fountain, we found the tasting room for Salvatore Vineyards and Passion Cellars. Owner and winemaker Jason Domanico purchased land in Willcox and established the Passion Cellars winery at Salvatore Vineyard in 2013. It is a family business, with his parents and brother also involved in the winery.
You can get a Passion Cellars tasting flight of five wines for $12. The Salvatore label is used for their best reserve wines, in honor of the winemaker’s Italian grandfather Salvatore Ligammari. A tasting flight of four of these wines can be had for $25. Not wanting to miss out on the good stuff, we went with the Salvatore Vineyards Tasting. It was a pricey tasting to be sure, but the wines were all small batch with only 60 to 90 cases produced of each wine.
The Fumé Blanc was delicious and full-bodied from its time spent barrel fermenting in French oak. The 2015 Merlot had nice tobacco notes, with red and black cherry flavors and a nice finish. The 2015 Sangiovese was full of red cherry flavors yet was light in color.
LDV Winery moved into their new tasting room on Stetson Drive in October 2018. There is an outdoor patio, where you can enjoy their wine by the glass or bottle, along with small bites of food. Owners Peggy Fiandaca and Curt Lawrence Dunham established their winery in 2008. Their vineyard is located outside of Willcox at 5,000 feet above sea level with the Chiricahua Mountains rising behind it. The soil is volcanic, created 16 million years ago from an eruption of the Turkey Creek Caldera. All of their wines are made from their own estate grown grapes, which include Rhone varietals like Viognier, Grenache, Syrah and Petite Sirah.
At the bar there are three different tasting flights available, ranging from $8 to $16. We did the Taste of LDV flight, which gave us a choice of five wines representing their estate grown grapes for $12. We liked the crisp dry 2015 Sky Island Viognier and the 2013 Sky Island Petite Syrah, which was full bodied with lots of black fruit. The term “Sky Island” was new to us, so our server gave us a little education. Sky Islands are geological areas where an isolated mountain is surrounded by lower altitude regions with radically different environments. The Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona are a good example.
Merkin Vineyards Old Town
Literally across the street from LDV on Stetson Drive you’ll find Merkin Vineyards Old Town, a restaurant and tasting room for wines by Maynard James Keenan. Keenan may be best known as the lead vocalist for the rock band Tool, but is also one of the most prominent vineyard owners in Arizona. Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars wines are produced from vineyards throughout the Verde Valley in central Arizona, while the Merkin Vineyards wines come from their vineyard south in Willcox.
Merkin Vineyards Old Town did not have organized tasting flights, but they did offer tasting size pours at $2 for Merkin wines and $4 for the Caduceus. They also pour wines from Four Eight Wineworks, a winemaker cooperative founded and owned by Keenan. There was a long list of 18 wines available by the glass, but between the four of us we put together a pretty thorough tasting.
Standouts include their rosés, of which we tried three and were pleased with all of them. We also found the Merkin Shinola Orancia to be very interesting. It is an orange wine, meaning that it is a white wine that was fermented with the juice in contact with the skins – in this case for 10 days in stainless steel – giving it an orange hue. Made from 100% Malvasia Blanca, the Shinola Orancia is a fun wine with intense floral aromas.
We did not try anything from the food menu, but what we saw around us looked great. The menu included cheeses, smoked trout, pork belly, and vegetables and salads using produce from Merkin’s own orchards in the Verde Valley.
Need to walk off some of that wine? Take a stroll along Scottsdale’s waterfront. Cut through the walkway next to the LDV Winery back to the Arizona Canal Trail, a multi-use path that runs for nearly 39 miles along the Arizona Canal waterway.