The road to Page Springs Cellars near Sedona in central Arizona dips and rolls over the highland desert terrain, a stony, shrub-dotted landscape terminating amid more unexpected flora, grapevines. On a recent afternoon in its busy riverside tasting room, I found the winery’s owner, Eric Glomski, popping the cork on a malvasia bianca with surprising richness.
“People’s expectations are so low, we always surpass them,” said Mr. Glomski, one of the area’s winemaking pioneers who established Page Springs Cellars in 2004.
Sedona, gateway to Arizona’s red rock country 90 minutes drive north of Phoenix, attracts hikers eager to scale its striated buttes and New Age pilgrims seeking the fabled vortexes — or energy centers — said to be squired in the rocks. Additionally, over the past decade, the high desert has attracted a more cultured crowd: wine lovers. Today, 18 wineries operate in an area known as the Verde Valley where the vines are stressed by rocky soils and altitudes above 3,200 feet moderate temperatures to produce mineral-accented, juicy fruit.
Producers in the region have applied to become an American Viticulture Area, which recognizes its distinct growing conditions. A map of the Verde Valley Wine Trail shows them largely clustered in the close-set towns of Jerome, Clarkdale, Cottonwood and Cornville.
Though Spanish missionaries grew grapevines in Arizona in the 16th-century colonial era here, the state’s contemporary production is considerably younger.
“Around 1999, I started looking at the terrain in Jerome and the surrounding foothills and realized it looked a lot like places in Spain and Italy,” said Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer for the rock band Tool who released his first Caduceus wines, made in Jerome, in 2004.
He later joined with Mr. Glomski in 2007 in founding Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, now the largest winery in the state. (Mr. Keenan is no longer a partner.)
Skeptics question how a state like Arizona, more associated with saguaros than Sangiovese, can produce wine, but vintners here say rain and frost are their greatest foes.
“In Arizona, you’ve got to go up to find vineyards,” said Corey Turnbull, the winemaker at Burning Tree Cellars, located in a former auto dealership in Cottonwood. “People think it’s cactus and tumbleweed but Arizona is very diverse, with pine forests and snowcapped mountains. You’ll find vineyards between 3,200 to 5,200 feet.”
Though wine is now produced in all 50 states, winemakers in Arizona aim to nurture a comprehensive industry, starting with training. Established in 2009, the Southwest Wine Center, a division of Yavapai College in Clarkdale, teaches winemaking and runs a tasting room. In 2014 the operation moved into a repurposed racquetball court beside 13 acres of vineyards where students experiment with different varietals, many of them Spanish or Italian.
“Our climate is comparable to the Mediterranean where it’s warm and dry, except that we use elevation in place of the ocean to get 30-degree temperature swings,” said Michael Pierce, the director of oenology and viticulture programs and an instructor at the school.
Some graduates move on to Four Eight Wineworks, a Clarkdale winemaking cooperative established by Mr. Keenan in 2014 to allow fledgling vintners to share tools such as stemmers and wine presses, thus avoiding costly start-up investments.
The first winery to “graduate” from the co-op, Chateau Tumbleweed in Clarkdale sources its fruit from Willcox in southern Arizona, the largest grape-growing region in the state and, as of 2016, recognized as a new American Viticultural Area.
“There was a huge resurgence in the early 2000s in this industry,” said Joe Bechard, the winemaker among four partners in Chateau Tumbleweed as he poured samples of his 2015 albariño under a disco ball in the tasting room. Compared to just over 100 wineries in Arizona now, he said, “There were 10 in 2005 when I started. It’s gone from a joke to people seeing it as serious and competitive.”
Like Mr. Bechard, many area vintners pour wine in their tasting rooms, creating a personable tasting trail set against a grand backdrop of sandstone cliffs and the distant Mongollon Rim, the edge of Colorado Plateau that moderates much of the weather here.
Among the most scenic, the boutique D.A. Ranch in Cornville produces only estate-grown wines on seven of its 250 acres and offers tastings of its plush syrahs at a log lodge by appointment.
It is one of the few area wineries to exclusively grow fruit locally. Most local wineries followed Sedona’s tourist crowds here. Cottonwood, about 19 miles southwest of Sedona, has flourished in the wine boom as tasting rooms and restaurants have revived the once struggling Main Street.
“Cottonwood was a dead town, and now we’re a gourmet destination for Phoenix,” said Sam Pillsbury, a New Zealand-raised filmmaker and owner of Pillsbury Wine Company, which operates a tasting room in Cottonwood, though its winery is in Willcox.
In November 2016, Mr. Keenan opened Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria in Cottonwood, serving charcuterie and house-made pasta along with his line of Merkin wines. He eventually plans to plant vines nearby.
“We think people are coming around to low-alcohol, elegant-with-dinner wines,” said Mr. Keenan. Despite their youth, Arizona wines, he added, “are more Old World than you would expect.”
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