We had been searching for Arizona wine tours that we can recommend, particularly here in Southern Arizona. I mentioned this fact to Michael Foltz, owner/operator of Reisen Arizona Day Tours. He informed me that he could remedy our sad situation and invited Ms. Karen and me on his Arizona Wine Tour.
So, one August Saturday we met Michael and his tour group at the Embassy Suites behind Fleming’s at Campbell & Skyline at 10 AM. He gave each of us a bottle of water and we promptly headed for Sonoita.
I particularly like the idea of a day tour of our wineries because (a) I can sit back and relax and let someone else do the driving and (b) I can enjoy more wine tastings than when I am the designated driver.
It was clear from the beginning of our 50-mile journey that Michael is a fountain of local knowledge. He carried on a steady stream of interesting information; narrating stories about the places we were seeing along the way. Yet he happily interrupted his monologue to answer our many questions and seemed to enjoy our several discussions about local history.
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Our first winery stop was at Charron Vineyards just off Hwy 83, and only about 30 minutes from Downtown Tucson. Here we met vintners Milton & Susan Craig. In 1994, the first Merlot and Cabernet vines were planted here. The Craigs retired from their technology careers and acquired Charron in 2009 to fulfill their passion for making fine wines.
At 4,200’ elevation, Charron is about 1,600 feet higher & cooler than Tucson. We sat in the shade of their wood deck overlooking their vineyard in the foreground and the Santa Rita Mountains in the distance.
Their vineyard is not large, only 5 acres are currently planted with vines. However, Susan told me that from their most recent harvest they netted 7 tons of grapes. From these they can produce 400-500 cases of wine.
We tasted all 13 of their offerings: 7 dry and 6 sweet wines. All were worthwhile. However, as is typical, I preferred some and Ms. Karen preferred others. In the end we agreed on Charron’s Rincon Red – Non Vintage Merlot/Chancellor Blend, a Santa Cruz County Fair award-winner with a distinct berry flavor. We have since shared it with friends who thought Rincon Red an excellent sweet wine.
I asked Susan, when it is time to blend the wines to achieve the desired taste & other characteristics before bottling, how does the decision-making process work? Who decides?
She told me, “It is a combination of art and science. The winemaker (Milton) checks all the technical characteristics of the wine, but ultimately it comes down to the senses. The aroma, taste, mouth feel, and color all play into making a balanced wine. We have a small group of people who we use to get feedback on our wines, but ultimately it is the winemaker’s decision.”
Personally, I find this approach to be incredibly risky because everyone’s palate is so different, which of course is why there are so many different types of wine. For example, I often find some Southern Arizona wines to be pucker-my-lips sour. But Ms. Karen does not. Go figure. And yet, what other approach to wine-making would be better? I can’t think of any. I just know I wouldn’t trust my palate. Fortunately we have little ol’ winemakers like Milton who create many different and excellent wines to satisfy everyone’s taste.
One other good feature about Charron Vineyards. Susan and Milton invite visitors to bring a picnic lunch and enjoy it on their deck while sampling their wines. We might just do that next time we are down this way.
Back To The Tour
At our first winery, in addition to getting to sample many very good Southern Arizona wines, we learned several important things about the benefits of going on a Reisen Arizona Day Tour.
- • Michael didn’t have a set schedule, so the tastings were relaxed and unhurried.
- •The winery owners know Michael and give his tour customers VIP treatment. For example, Susan took me behind the scenes and showed me the fermenting process in their warehouse. One thing that surprised me was how warm the natural fermenting process makes the harvested grapes.
- • On this day, Michael would not indulge in a single drop of alcohol. He’s serious about the safety of his passengers. But I’ll bet he has a beer or two when he gets home.
South To Sonoita
Leaving Charron Vineyards, we continued south on 83 and were soon traversing the rolling hills and vast grasslands that surround the villages of Sonoita and Elgin. This is cattle country and has been for 150 years.
This small café has a pleasant interior and a large patio. The weather was very pleasant so we chose to have our lunch outdoors. From the patio we could enjoy the expansive views with cattle grazing in the tall grass and the Whetstone Mountains in the distance.
Ms. Karen ordered their Black & Bleu Salad: Organic Mixed Baby Greens; Sizzling Steak; Bleu Cheese Crumbles; Cherry Tomatoes; Cucumbers; Red Onions; & Balsamic Dressing ($10). She said the salad portion was fresh and tasty and the steak was very good.
Michael had what he says he always orders here: Chicken Club Sandwich: 6 oz. Chicken Breast with Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, & Spicy Mayo ($8).
I had one of their daily specials: Chicken Caprese Sandwich; Tomato; Basil; Smoked Mozzerella; & Balsamic Mayo plus a salad ($8). As sandwich and salad lunches go, I could not have been happier with mine. Very good indeed!
Note: As usual, I included the price of the various meals. However, Reisen Arizona Day Tour passengers pay one upfront price that is all-inclusive: lunch, wine tasting … everything.
Following a fine lunch, we headed for Elgin’s Winery Row where we would first visit Kief Joshua Vineyards, a very short drive from The Café.
When we arrived, we could see that this winery was in the midst of their Summer Concert Series that goes on every Saturday from 1-4 PM. The place was very crowded & the live music very loud. We managed to sample one wine before all on our tour elected to move on to our next winery just down the road. We’ll go back to Kief Joshua another time.
Rancho Rossa Vineyards
Heading back the way we came, we stopped at Rancho Rossa Vineyards. Upon entering the tasting room, the first thing that caught our attention was the large saltwater tropical fish tank embedded in the wall behind the tasting bar.
At first I thought the fish tank was a bit out-of-place for an inland winery. Then it hit me. After visiting many of the local wineries and tasting dozens of wines, it’s easy to forget which is which. But Rancho Rossa will forever remain in our memory, not merely for the fine wines they produce, but also that fish tank. It’s unique … and smart marketing.
Here we met Breanna Glaze, the tasting room manager and Chris Hamilton, owner & winemaker. Like I said, being a passenger on Reisen Arizona Day Tours has its privileges. Chris took us back behind the warehouse and showed us his wine-making machinery and explained the process. Most interesting. You have no idea how expensive wooden barrels are. We began to realize what a manual labor of love this wine-making can be.
He also took us into his vineyard to show us his grapes. At this time, his biggest concern was rain. While we who live in the Tucson Mountains pray for rain, Chris was concerned that rain a week or two prior to harvest would ruin his crop. Three days after we visited Rancho Rossa, we Tucsonans got a good soaking thanks to our ritual morning rain dances. But we were hoping that the monsoons had bypassed Elgin until after the harvest.
Rancho Rossa Wines
Chris’s regular job 4 days a week is airline pilot. But wine-making is clearly his passion. Of the six wines we tasted, the 2007 Syrah and, oddly, the Shadow (a Red Dessert Wine) were our favorites. Shadow is a unique blend of five grape varietals from select vintages. Slightly sweet, this dessert wine reveals flavors of cherry, raspberry, caramel and sugarcane. Normally, I prefer a dry white, such as Sauvignon Blanc. But I liked Shadow so much that we took some home.
We also walked off with the Syrah 2007, the Grenache, and a couple of other varietals. The Syrah we purchased. But the others were not yet labeled so, by law, Breanna could not sell them to us. She just gave us the half-empty bottles and we have been enjoying them immensely.
Chris told us that Rancho Rossa is the only all-estate winery in the Sonoita/Elgin area, meaning all of his wines are made from grapes grown in his vineyard.
“As a grower/wine maker, I decide exactly when the fruit is at its peak and ready for harvest. Within two hours after being picked, our grapes are delivered to the winery and are processed, ensuring the highest quality juice for our wines. I have touched every bottle, made every ounce of the wine, and put on every label.”
Our last stop before heading back to Tucson was at Callaghan Vineyards, perhaps the best-known winery in Southern Arizona. Callaghan wines have been served at state dinners in the White House & Governor Napolitano declared Callaghan an Arizona Treasure.
Even Le Monde, The Parisian daily newspaper listed Callaghan Vineyards as one of six most interesting wineries/ winemakers in the United States. “Astonishing, concentrated and fruity wines. This pioneer symbolizes the spirit of the wines of the New World.” One thing I know for certain about the French; they know good wine.
Kent Callaghan and his parents first planted these vineyards in 1990 and lost most of the first crop to a heat wave. Since then they have specialized in planting vines that are better adapted to Southern Arizona soil and climate; Mediterranean, particularly Spanish, varietals: Tempranillo, Monastrell, Mourvedre, & Grenache.
Our Callaghan favorite was Ann’s Selection 2010, a premium white of equal parts Grenache Blanc, Verdelho, Symphony (Muscat x Grenache Blanc), Marsanne and Roussanne. Unfiltered, & completely barrel-fermented.
Leaving Callaghan Vineyards, we headed back to Tucson with our case of acquired wines. We were no sooner out of Sonoita heading north on Hwy 83 when we spotted a herd of pronghorn antelope grazing not far from the road. A beautiful sight!
As on the way back, Michael told our group interesting and entertaining stories about the sites along the way and answered our many questions. In no time, we were back at our starting point by 5 PM, having spent a delightful day on our Reisen Arizona Wine Tour of some of Southern Arizona’s finest wineries.
Do we wholeheartedly recommend Reisen Arizona Day Tours to our friends & family? Indeed we do.
In addition to Michael’s Arizona Wine Tour, Reisen Arizona offers 10 other day-tours, including Tucson City Tour; Mission Tour; Ghost Town Tour; and Tombstone/ Bisbee Tour. He also offers a 3-day Grand Canyon/Sedona Tour. For prices and other details, click HERE to visit Reisen Arizona’s website.
Reisen Arizona Day Tours