The Verde Valley was a sleepy part of Arizona, often overlooked by travelers on their way from Phoenix to Sedona. When we first visited this area in 2013, we put it on our radar as an area to watch develop. And develop it has. In 2021 it was designated as the Verde Valley Wine AVA, the state’s third AVA (after Sonoita-Elgin and Willcox). The growth of tourists exploring the Verde Valley wine trail has ushered in a revival for communities such as Cottonwood, Clarkdale, and Cornville in addition to well-established tourist magnets Jerome and Sedona.
Although Willcox is still the primary source of grapes for most of the Verde Valley wineries, Verde is already producing some high-quality grapes and its production is likely to increase significantly as recent plantings begin to produce quality grapes and more vines are planted. It, after all, boasts high elevations averaging about 4,000 feet and a large diurnal temperature shift between mid-day and night. The area receives moderate summer rainfall although wind-driven monsoon rainstorms do have the potential of devastating yields (not to speak of grower’s livelihoods) if they come just before or during harvest (typically August and early September for whites and mid-September into early October or reds).
The AVA is relatively small compared to better-known growing regions in the US. The Verde Valley AVA has about 100 acres of vines and is home to over 20 wineries. The free-draining soils are volcanic and sandy loam with layers of calcium-rich soils bring a nice minerality to the wines.
Combine this with the established tourist appeal of Jerome and Sedona as well as the huge range of fitness, wellness, culinary and accommodation options available in Sedona, and you have the foundation of a wine region that could challenge the popularity of regions in California, Oregon, New York, Virginia, and other more established AVAs.
Verde Valley Wine Trail
On our 2022 visit, we revisited several wineries that we first explored in 2013 and found some new favorites. Our only regret is that many of the wineries have small productions with limited distribution outside of Arizona. And there is only so much wine we can ship home.
Jerome Wine Tasting
Arizona grapes are featured in most of the Jerome wine tasting rooms.
- Caduceus Cellars owner Maynard James Keenan is also the lead singer for Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer. He has been a long-time champion of Verde Valley fruit and sources virtually all of his grapes from his seven Verde Valley vineyards (and one in Willcox). It was our favorite Jerome wine stop in 2013 where we enjoyed the 2012 Diddler (a very interesting combination of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay), 2011 Nagual de la Naga (a Super Tuscan-like blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Sangiovese) and the 2011 Le Cortigiane Oneste (Barbera and Merlot). On our 2022 visit, we enjoyed several of the winery’s reds such as the 2019 “Kitsume’” Sangiovese Rosso (sourced from Willcox), 2018 “Nagual de la Nago” (Sangiovese, Souzao, and Negroamara), and 2017 “Sancha” Tempranillo. Our favorite of the tasting, however, was the subtle 2018 “Premier Paso” blend (85% Syrah, 10% Durif, and 5% white Malvasia Bianca) which was the first wine Keenan and his then partner blended.
- Cabal Cellars is one of the labels of Salvatore Vineyards whose grapes come from Willcox. Its wines have evocative fun names including “Prohibition” for its Grenache blend, “The Gambler” (representing Doc Holliday) for its Sangiovese blend) and “Conspiracy” (Chicago Black Socks Scandal) for its 100% Petite Syrah. Each name is graphically represented on the label. Our preferences: 2019 “Prohibition” Grenache blend with Syrah and Petite Syrah and especially the 2019 Conspiracy Petite Syrah.
- Four Eight Wineworks. We did not have time to stop at this wine cooperative which provides emerging winemakers space to make their wines. But if you do have the time, you might find some interesting gems.
Wine Tasting in Cottonwood
Cottonwood is the largest city and center of commerce for the Verde Valley. Soldiers first explored it in 1874 and the town was settled shortly thereafter. The previously sleepy, often ignored city recently found itself at the center of Arizona’s newest wine Verde Valley region, and is now in the process of rebranding itself as a wine venue and tourist center. Its main street is lined with tasting rooms, restaurants, and increasingly tourist-oriented shops. After a brief survey of the three-block stretch of Old Town, we focused our energies on a few of the most highly recommended tasting rooms.
- Arizona Stronghold Vineyards is a Willcox-based winery that claims to be the largest in the state. We found three of its bigger, more extracted Rhone blends to be very nice and have the potential for aging nicely. These were the 2019 “Nachise” (Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre), 2019 “Playa Roja” (small batch blend of Mouvedre, Syrah and Petite Syrah) and our favorite, 2020 Bagsham (Syrah, Petite Syrah and Mouvedre). We also enjoyed the winery’s 2018 “Lozen” Right Bank Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec.
- Pillsbury Winery relies primarily on native yeast fermentation with no additives and the use of neutral barrels for aging its wines. It produced one of the few whites that we liked: a 2020 “Wild Child” blend consisting primarily of Malvasia with 20% Chardonnay and 12% Symphony. Of its reds, we particularly enjoyed the 2019 “DIVA” which was 50% Syrah and 50% Mouvedre. The 2010 DIVA was a favorite on a previous visit also.
- Burning Tree Cellars specialized in small-batch boutique wines. We enjoyed several of its wines beginning with two French white single varietals: 2020 “Trademark” unoaked, zero malolactic Chardonnay (so named for a trademark dispute over the original name), and a 2020 “Coliri” Roussanne. We also enjoyed several of its red wines: 2020 Super-Tuscan-style “Anchor” (40% Sangiovese, 36% Barbera, 22% Merlot, and 2% Chardonnay), 2020 Rioja-like, Tempranillo-base “Matador” (with 26% Grenache and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon), and 2020 “The Dragon” Rhone-style blend (39% Mouvedre, 35% Syrah, 26% Grenache and 3% Roussanne). Our favorite was the 2020 The Imprisonment” Syrah with 4% Viognier.
We visited three wineries on Page Springs Road in Cornville, just south of Sedona: Oak Creek, Javelina Leap and Page Springs. Although we enjoyed the guest facilities and some of the wines at all three, Page Springs Cellars was the most interesting of the three, not only to us, but to the dozens of patrons who chose to spend Friday afternoon at Page Springs. The winery, which makes about ten different wines, is particularly strong in Rhone varietals. Nothing terribly sophisticated, but very drinkable, with reasonable pricing. But if you want to sample their wines, you pretty much have to visit the winery, which, like the other area wineries, sells virtually their entire productions to their wine club members.
Sedona’s Role in the Verde Valley Wine Trail
Although Sedona falls slightly outside the confines of the Valley Verde AVA, we’d be wrong to not include it here as it is front and center of the Valley Verde Wine Trail. It was home to the valley’s first vineyard which was planted by Heinrich Schuerman in 1884. Although the city does not currently have any planted commercial vines, it does have a few of its own wineries and tasting rooms. These include at least one winery, Winery 912, which sources grapes from Willcox, and several tasting rooms such as the Art of Wine, Vina Zona, Decanter and Vino di Sedona which features wines from Verde Valley and from across Arizona.
More importantly, Sedona is the valley’s primary city. It gets 3 million visitors per year and generates $1 billion in revenue. The vast majority of wine visitors stay here and most Valley Verde Wine Trail tours depart from Sedona. Sedona has the vast majority of the valley’s hotels, timeshares, restaurants, and spas, not to speak of hiking trails, stores, galleries, and vortexes. It is effectively the cornerstone of the entire valley and only a half-hour from the Cottonwood and Cornville grape growing region and wineries.
Verde Valley Restaurants
We have had multiple dinners and lunches in the Verde Valley. Dinners were:
- Nic’s Italian Steak and Crab House (Cottonwood). We had two nice dishes beginning with a bowl of white wine-steamed littlenecks followed by spaghetti carbonara with crispy bacon, mushrooms, eggs, and parmesan along with a bottle of 2019 Rivera Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
- Creekside American Bistro (Sedona). We split two very different tasty dishes which each had Ahi tuna tartare as its main ingredient. The first dish was Ahi tartare nachos with spicy wonton chips, mango, avocado, and ponzu sauce. The other dish was an Ahi tartar tuna burger with ginger and a very tasty wasabi aioli (which was also very good as a sauce into which to dip its very crispy fried potato slices). The wine list was very light in lights reds that would go with the food. We ended up with a very disappointing 2017 Ramon Bilbao Crianza.
- Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill (Sedona). We were not impressed by the Flores Del Mar entrée. It had a limited amount of shellfish (three each of shrimp, scallops, and mussels) that were roasted in an aromatic broth and served in the broth atop a layer of quinoa with sofrito that was mushy due to the broth. We were more impressed by the tasty side of roasted mushrooms, which we treated more as a main course to the seafood-based entrée. Along with the meal, we ordered a 2019 Arizona Stronghold Chardonnay that we had just tasted and enjoyed.
- Elote Cafe (Sedona). We shared two small but very good dishes: corn-crusted jumbo scallops with tomato jam and white truffle crema, along with grilled shrimp with roasted tomato chipotle sauce with corn cakes and lime aioli. Although we would have liked to try more dishes, these plus the corn chips and salsa that began the meal did us in. Except, that is for the margaritas. We sampled four of the several variations offered on the restaurant’s menu. Our favorites were one with tequila blanco, Cointreau, and lime mix and one with tequila blanco but this time with agave nectar and fresh lime plus lime mix.
- Elote Cafe (Sedona) the perpetually packed Mexican restaurant, is as authentic as I have been to in the U.S. we started with the restaurant’s namesake dish, Elote; fire-roasted corn kernels in a mildly spicy mayo, lime, and cotija cheese (very good). This was followed by a seafood taco appetizer with ancho-glazed snapper, salmon, and shrimp, and sockeye salmon with mole verde and an interesting cauliflower purée. Our final lunch was at the Cowboy Club Steakhouse. We couldn’t resist starting with the deep-fried rattlesnake bites (yes, they do taste like chicken), then the buffalo chili and a bison burger.
- Che-Ah-Chi at the Enchantment Resort (Sedona). We had a great meal at this fine dining establishment. We enjoyed what we consider the best seat in the house (or technically, out of the house). It was outside with both of us having head-on views of the Guardians’ formation. We split two dishes, a seared foie gras (accompanied by glasses of a late harvest, botrytized Riesling) and the huge, delicious, melt-in-your-mouth buffalo tenderloin and braised cabbage (with a bottle of Merlot). The service was great and since the restaurant was not especially busy, we enjoyed interesting conversations with the sommelier and our knowledgeable server. And then the was the view!
- Heartline Cafe (Sedona) was our only real dining disappointment in the area. Our pistachio-crusted chicken and even the house specialty, pecan-crusted trout, were overlooked and tasteless.
- The Hudson (Sedona). We had a tasty Ahi Tuna sandwich with Asian slaw and an incredible huge chicken pot pie baked in an entire pie dish (with a crust just on top) that was filled with large pieces of rotisserie chicken (overwhelmingly breast meat) with whatever vegetables could fit into the chicken-laded dish. Great food, great ambiance, and nice price/value.
- The Clinkscale (Jerome). Our very good lunch consisted of a basil-grilled chicken sandwich with brie, arugula, mushrooms, and basil aioli on a baguette plus a delicious, but sinfully rich Elote, which is a Mexican dish of corn, crema, cotija cheese, and lime which we ate on tortilla chips.
- 89Agave (Sedona). We started with a huge delicious but heavy serving of queso fundido with melted Mexican cheeses, chorizo, and tortillas in which you wrap and eat the fundido. Then we had less memorable and certainly less sinful shrimp fajita: a mix of roasted shrimp, onions, and peppers served with guacamole, cojita, and sour cream which we again wrapped in tortillas.
- SaltRock Southwest Kitchen (Sedona). We shared two small dishes: ceviche misto with sea bass, shrimp, avocado, and corn elote. The corn elote here was virtually all corn and had just a few sprinkles of cotija and was decorative squirts of crema. Both dishes came with very good house-made tortilla chips. And to make the meal even better, were a couple of traditional margaritas.
- View 180 Lounge at the Enchantment Resort (Sedona) The evening we arrived, we asked for recommendations of good, casual, small plate restaurants with great views. We were transfixed by the incredible, close-up, head-on view of the Guardian’s red rock formation. We also enjoyed the food and conversations with some of our neighbors. We ended up splitting two small plates: guacamole with chips and a prosciutto flatbread with figs, mascarpone, and arugula. The service was satisfactory. We were, however, disappointed with two of the special Margaritas, neither of which were to taste. Still, the food and the view more than made up for the minor disappointments.
- L’Auberge de Sedona (Sedona) This high-end Sedona resort, with its Restaurant on Oak Creek, has many charms. Although we only had lunch, the creekside site is scenic and tranquil, the food good and the service helpful. Even though we weren’t staying at L’Auberge, the concierge was extremely helpful, recommending hikes, restaurants, and sights that we had not yet seen. We look forward to spending more time (especially eating dinner) here on our next visit.
- Creekside American Bistro (Sedona) where we had a very good crab cake and Ahi burger.
- Bobby T’s BBQ Pit (Jerome) for a good rack of ribs, with sides of onion rings, baked beans, and cornbread.