The dusty road through northern Arizona’s wine country does not immediately leave the impression that one is in prime grape land.
The rocky, hard soil leaves one wondering what, exactly, could grow in such arid conditions except for the low-lying brush and scattered trees.
But, the same dry summer heat that brings sweat to the skin — the same dusty soil that swirls in the air, gives grapes the stress they need to develop into good wines, winemakers say.
“You don’t grow grapes in loamy, potato soil,” said Rod Snapp, who owns Javelina Leap Vineyard in Cornville. “You grow grapes in rocky, hard soil. That’s what stresses the grapes.”
Paula Woolsey, sales manager for Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and several others, agreed. “Grapes like to struggle. That’s what makes good wines.”
These stressful conditions result in fewer, but more intensely flavored grapes.
Just as human struggle builds character, grapes struggling to grow from this rocky turf also develop deep disposition — delicate hints of floral, berry and fruit.
The national wine scene has begun acknowledging the self-sufficient vintners building this wine community. These leaders have a vision of community, sustainability, and of developing a new type of economy in an area that used to be largely out of tourism’s view.
“First it was France, then it was California, then it was Washington, then it was Oregon, and now it’s Arizona,” said Snapp.
Four wineries sit on the Verde Valley Wine Trail. The journey starts off at sprawling Alcantara Vineyard and Winery on Thousand Trails Road off Highway 260 north of Camp Verde. Then, swing onto Highway 89A, and turn right onto Page Springs Road, a picturesque path that would make a nice drive even without the wine.
Three vineyards with tasting rooms lie on Page Springs Road — Page Springs Cellars, Oak Creek Vineyards and Javelina Leap Vineyard.
One recent April afternoon, the Predmores, who own Alcantara, hosted the Zinful event, which combined wine, chocolate, bottling, and a pre-release wine sale.
Bob Predmore worked in the bustling bottling area while his wife, Barbara, mingled with the crowd, her European upbringing seeping through her Italian-style vivaciousness.
Barbara has a vision, and the spiel to accompany her disarming passion.
“It’s very much not an attraction — it’s a destination,” she said of Alcantara. “I don’t want to go to Disneyland, I don’t even want to go to Tlaquepaque. I want a place where people can sit and enjoy — use their senses.”
Barbara’s ultimate vision is to develop her 87 acres into a Tuscan village complete with a bed and breakfast, shops, a piazza, and a co-op winery so other small vineyards can share the costs of making wine.
The Predmores still need to find money to complete the dream project, but Barbara seems content with the vision created heretofore.
“I created my own Shangri-La here,” she said. “Without the vineyards, I don’t exist. Our wine and our grapes are an extension of ourselves.”
The Predmores have owned the property since 2005. They grow over 13,000 vines and craft 12 different types of wine.
At Javelina Leap Vineyard, a 10-acre spread on Page Springs Road, Snapp says, “we can’t make enough wine.”
He sells 24,000 bottles of wine annually. He plans to bottle an extra 1,000 cases next year, up to 3,000, and says he’ll keep growing up until 8,000 cases.
“That’s it,” he said. “We don’t want to be any bigger. That’s big enough for a small winery.”
Snapp said 20,000 people come to his winery annually. “This is the fastest growing single industry in the state of Arizona,” he said. “This is everybody’s dream.”
Having vineyards and tasting rooms provides travelers with a fun activity, and people can even take tours like the Water to Wine Tour that features a float down the Verde River to Alcantara.
Javelina Leap’s award winning wines include a Wholefoods Consumer Choice Award for the 2009 100% Estate Barbera, a 2009 Arizona Growers Cup Gold Medal for the 100% Petite Sirah, and a 2009 Arizona Growers Cup Silver Medal for the 100% Cabernet Franc.
At Page Springs Cellars, owner Eric Glomski grows his wines without chemicals, although they are not certified organic.
“We want anybody to be able to run through the vineyard naked if they wanted to,” said Woolsey. “That’s the way it should be. We’re not even trying to be cool.”
Glomski has gained recent fame in his partnership with Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, who jointly own Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. The company has vineyards around the state.
A documentary released earlier this year features their plight to develop their vineyards “amidst wine industry prejudice and the harsh Arizona terrain,” according to the Page Springs Web site. The movie, “Blood Into Wine,” is now on a screening tour around the nation, and a DVD will release in September.
Woolsey also teaches wine classes at Yavapai Community College, where leaders are also working toward planting a 30-acre vineyard.
“There’s a push to make a long-lasting cultural improvement,” said Woolsey. “We’re not doing this to get people drunk.”
She added, “Our idea of sustainable is not hopping in your Prius and driving to work.” It’s riding a bike to work.
At Oak Creek Winery, roughly 4,000 plants grow on 10 acres.
Owner Deb Wahl offers a variety of cheese and dried meats to enjoy with wine in the tasting room.
“If people want to have a nice glass of wine and sit on the patio, it is really beautiful to overlook the vineyard,” said Lisa Billingsley, who works at the winery. “I just think it’s a very welcoming tasting room,” she added. “It feels very warm and people can come here and try all of our different wines.”
Local artwork decorates the walls, keeping with the Verde Valley wine community’s emphasis on supporting the region.
Woolsey, the national sales manager for Arizona Stronghold, said Arizona wines are well received. “I sell these wines based on they’re interesting wines from an interesting place.”
Indeed, the wine culture has taken root in a place where cowboys and Indians used to wrestle. In the Verde Valley, this emerging atmosphere allows the best of both worlds.
More information about upcoming events can be found at www.vvwinetrail.com.