Letting it Breathe: Escape to Arizona Wine Country
Writer Shannon Severson
You might presume that a wine country vacation must entail a pricey, crowded flight to Napa or the South of France. Or perhaps an arduous 10-hour car journey through California traffic to Paso Robles, where the iconic movie “Sideways” was set.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that none of that strain or exorbitant expense is necessary — not when Arizona has its own beautiful and nationally-recognized wine-growing region just up the road in the Verde Valley.
Sounds pretty good, right?
It gets even better because Leon “Jay” Morton’s exclusive AZ Wine Crawler daily shuttle will relieve you of driving duties — either on a VIP Crawler Experience from the Phoenix area or in town with his one-day, hop-on/hop-off option, which has a route that originates and ends at various spots in Cottonwood and Sedona and loops back to each stop every 50 minutes throughout the day.
“We are the ultimate wine tour alternative in the area,” Morton says. “Standard, three-hour tours can run anywhere from $95 to $150 and only take visitors to the three wineries in the Page Springs Canyon. People miss out on the majority of what the area has to offer — the wine, the tasting rooms, Old Town Cottonwood and historic Clarkdale.
“I’m proud to offer a service that really meets the need for a fun, safe and reliable way to fully enjoy this beautiful area and the award-winning wines that are being produced here. Not to mention, our daily pass is about one-third of the cost of the set tours and gives you a full day to go where you please.”
This region is on the cusp of being designated Arizona’s third American Viticulture Area, which marks it as a specified grape-growing region. It’s part of the state’s rise in winemaking prominence. The talent and incredible wine is abundant here.
“I love that the Verde Valley has really become a destination, whether you’re from in or out of state,” says Christina Barrueta, who writes the award-winning Write On Rubee Blog and recently authored “Arizona Wine: A History of Perseverance and Passion.” “It’s one of the prettiest regions in all of Arizona with so many things to do. It’s ideal for a weekend getaway.
“People want to support local, so I believe that if you’re going to the farmers markets and craft breweries, you should support local wineries the same way. It’s really something people should seek out. The explosion of wine tourism has revitalized this area that is steeped in culture and offers a really convenient cluster of fantastic wineries.”
If you’re looking to support local and make a mini-vacation of your trip, Morton’s rustic-chic bed-and-breakfast, Acoustic Cellars Lodge, is located just off Page Springs Road near the wine canyon in Cornville. It’s the perfect spot to rest after a “rough” day of wine tasting and perhaps enjoy a private Historical Musical Showcase concert in the evening.
Morton and his partners, Alexandra Milet and Becky Romine, have painstakingly renovated each room and even a vintage 1974 camper — all nestled among the rolling hills and situated on two acres of beautiful woods, dotted with majestic cottonwood trees.
A modern-day Renaissance man, Morton is an extremely accomplished blues musician and music historian having been inducted into The Blues Hall of Fame by the National Heritage Foundation in 2011. He’s also the host of the AZ Wine Guru podcast and has studied the science of winemaking himself in the Enology program at Yavapai College’s esteemed Southwest Wine Center. He even had a hand in producing some of the wine you’ll taste at Arizona Stronghold.
Sip and Stay
I was invited to experience the in-town VIP “sip and stay” experience first-hand when Morton and his team hosted me for an overnight visit.
We began the morning at Acoustic Cellars Lodge and were greeted by a tail-wagging black pup named Dallas — the sweetest “lodge dog” ever. The sun was shining brightly and there was a crispness to the fresh air at this off-the-beaten-path inn.
Morton had mimosas and Bloody Mary deviled eggs at the ready for a bit of sustenance before we had our temperatures taken, masked up and boarded the AZ Wine Crawler Shuttle driven by our affable guide, Wil.
“Our drivers are so knowledgeable,” Morton says. “And for both the VIP crawl or on our daily route, they act as a sort of concierge, calling ahead to let wineries know that a group is coming. They know the history of the area and can make recommendations for wineries and restaurants. Our personalized services add to an already excellent value and really enhance the entire experience.”
It’s important to note that social distancing, mask and sanitizing protocols were easy to follow — both on the shuttle and at all of the spots that we visited.
The AZ Wine Crawler makes stops at eight vineyards and wineries, seven award-winning tasting rooms, two new brewpubs and more than 10 foodie destinations with nine hourly stops. What I was able to experience was just a sampling. Visitors and VIP tour participants can create their own adventure with the flexibility of the service.
Javelina Leap Winery, Cornville
At our first stop, third-generation winemaker Lucas Reed welcomed us into the barrel room and told us about his unique secondary fermentation process and his recent awards for Arizona’s Best in Class petite syrah and Double Gold Award for riesling.
At just 38 years old, Reed’s goal is to be recognized as the youngest, top-rated winemaker. Javelina Leap produces 16 wines — 12 of which are pure varietals.
We were treated to a taste of a pink rosé with a hint of tropical flavors made from 80% sauvignon blanc and 20% estate zinfandel grapes, which Reed mixed for us on the spot. We then enjoyed a flight in the friendly wine tasting room where Javelina Leap — like most spots on our tour — offered discounts on flights and bottles for AZ Wine Crawler guests.
Chateau Tumbleweed, Clarkdale
The cheeky wine labels by artist/owner Chris Pothier hint at the personality of this hip, irreverent little winery (which keeps its awards in the bathroom) in Clarkdale. We enjoyed a flight of small production reds on their sunny patio, accompanied by a charcuterie board and fresh fruit.
I decided to purchase a bottle of their 2018 Cimarron Vineyard mourvèdre — a grape that was completely new to me but is popping up on wine lists all over the region and was originally cultivated in the Valencia and Jumilla regions of Spain as well as the Rhône and Provence regions of France. Coincidentally, according to Wine Traveler, it was first brought to Europe by Phoenicians in the 1st century.
Old Town Cottonwood
The AZ Wine Crawler took us to Cottonwood’s quaint Main Street for a tasting of wine that Morton helped to make at Arizona Stronghold, accompanied by their weird, wild and delicious brûlée cheesecake — made with torched cheesecake beneath a layer of brie and blue cheeses, topped with apple-pear, figs and prosciutto.
As we sipped vintages from their Red Flight Z, Morton guided us through the history of Arizona Stronghold wines and the winemakers who he has interviewed on his podcast and worked with personally. It was exciting to get his behind-the-scenes perspective and knowledge.
Next, we set off for lunch at Colt Grill before returning to the shuttle for a trip to two of the wineries in the famed Page Springs Wine Canyon.
Page Springs Wine Canyon
Our first stop was Page Springs Cellars, where the Cottonwood trees were turning a brilliant yellow as the sun began to set, casting a golden light on the expansive grounds.
We tasted a chilled 2018 New Mexico ugni blanc while sitting on a deck overlooking Oak Creek as it rippled past. Ugni — a grape variety originating in Italy under the name Trebbiano — is the most commonly cultivated white grape in France. This glass had crisp notes of persimmon, Meyer lemon and shortbread.
Next, we had the privilege of visiting DA Ranch Vineyards, where one of five artesian springs on the property runs alongside the picturesque log cabin-style lodge and tasting room. Morton and the Acoustic Cellars Lodge team have a special relationship with this operation. He regularly provides musical entertainment on their cozy porch, and Milet and Romine work in the tasting room and assist with events at DA Ranch.
We sat by a roaring fire as Becky expertly walked us through the wines and the fascinating history of DA Ranch and its pioneering female founder, Gertrude Edna Lewis Gates — who operated it as a 350-acre cattle ranch from 1910 to 1922. Now, an 18 month-aged syrah bears her name. The other wines produced by DA Ranch Vineyards also pay homage to the historical property.
A Gracious Conclusion
As the stars twinkled in the dark sky above, we returned to Acoustic Cellars Lodge for a delicious dinner and conversation, tasting the newly awarded Best White Wine of Arizona — a crisp and delicious sauvignon blanc by Morton’s mentor, Michael Pierce, who was recently recognized by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as a leading winemaker in their “Who’s Who, Forty Under Forty” feature.
Then, we gathered around the fireplace as Morton took out his solid brass Tricone National Resonator guitar to entertain us. We enjoyed hearing about his musical roots and heard the history behind the songs he played by blues legends Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, J.J. Cale and John Prine. The stories and Morton’s fantastic talent brought each song to life there in that cozy lodge.
After a great night’s sleep in one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever experienced and breakfast at Crema in Old Town Cottonwood, it was time to return to reality in Phoenix. But I vowed to return as soon as I could, feeling fortunate to live so close to a beautiful region that is a viticultural treasure.
AZ Wine Crawler
$43.50+ | Group discounts available | 602-509-6262 | azwinecralwer.com