Cottonwood’s charming Main Street has become an essential outpost for the Grand Canyon State’s burgeoning wine industry. Kelly Vaughn gets a taste
Photography by Dawn Kish
It shouldn’t take five hours to get from Phoenix to Cottonwood.
But if an accident on the interstate and a detour along a winding mountain road stretch the usual two-hour venture into a much longer one, it’s comforting to know that one of central Arizona’s most charming small towns awaits, along with the promise of wine tasting. And maybe a slice or three of pizza.
Named for a circle of 16 cottonwood trees near the Verde, one of Arizona’s last free-flowing rivers, Cottonwood was founded as a farming settlement in 1879. Hay, grain and vegetables thrived in the rich, river-fed soil — as did grasses, cactuses, and mesquite and juniper trees. Today, though, that same sweet dirt is best known as the foundation for the state’s wine culture.
Many vineyards and wineries — Alcantara, Caduceus (powered by Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan), Javelina Leap, Arizona Stronghold and Page Springs Cellars among them — have popped up in the Verde Valley over the past decade, taking advantage of the sunshine and rocky soil that grows enviable grapes. Stress, it seems, causes a vine to produce fewer but more intensely flavored fruit — brave, bold fruit that makes the type of wine that master makers (and consumers) crave. In turn, the wineries have sparked the Verde Valley Wine Trail.
Cottonwood, at the valley’s center, is less crowded than neighboring Jerome and Sedona, which draw tourists in droves — Jerome for its funky arts vibe and Sedona for its red rock energy — and its historical Main Street was just quirky and quaint enough to draw attention from tasting room planners. Now, it’s a destination for day-tripping oenophiles.
That’s where I find myself on a crisp Saturday. Bare trees hold the promise of spring, but the sky burns with winter blue, and the smell of spent campfires lingers. Main Street is relatively quiet, but that’s not the case at Pizzeria Bocce, where I have the day’s first glass of Arizona wine, a heady red blend made from grapes grown in southeastern Arizona and barrel aged in Camp Verde.
It pairs nicely with Bocce’s incredible wood-fired Cires pizza. Stacked with housemade Italian sausage, pepperoni, ricotta, mushrooms and mozzarella, it tastes even better after the long-haul drive.
Although not technically a tasting room, obviously, the restaurant does offer a wine list that features nearly two dozen bottles, including four from Arizona’s Dos Cabezas and Arizona Stronghold labels.
From Bocce, my partner and I walk a brisk block or so to Burning Tree Cellars. The space is a charming public living room, vast and comfortable, with leather seating and a considerable wooden bar, where our hosts tells me I’m welcome to do a tasting of several wines or order anything by the glass. Drawn by its label — a black and white illustration of a goat’s skull — I order a glass of the Scapegoat.
Described as having “suave and sexy aromas of macerated plum, black cherry, mocha and sage with hints of petrichor and gingerbread spices,” the Scapegoat is a blend of 86 percent merlot (sourced from southern Arizona) and 14 percent California petit verdot.
As it turns out, petrichor is the smell of the desert after the rain, and it’s a fitting and lovely undertone to the Scapegoat, one of the top Arizona wines I’ve tried in a while. Our host recommends that we give Arizona Stronghold — just across Main Street — a try, and we venture back out, past a bookstore and clothing shops, windows full of vintage trinkets and Arizona kitsch.
With winemaker and owner Eric Glomski (he’s also the man behind Page Springs Cellars) at its helm, Arizona Stronghold wines have a presence in 33 U.S. markets, as well as in Canada and Australia. The Cottonwood tasting room is a testament to the success of the label.
Bathed in the ample sunlight that pours through its front windows, the space is warm, hip and representative — I think — of what a tasting room should feel like. Canvases rich with local art line the terra cotta-colored walls that complement wood floors and leather furniture, and the quiet crowd is young.
I ask our host for a sample of what she considers the label’s “most representative Arizona wine,” and she’s generous with a pour of mourvedre. It’s the hint of cherry in this glass that makes me smile, and I sip it while talking to three other travelers who endured the long drive from Phoenix. As I read Arizona Stronghold’s menu — small plates pair with wine flights — and my partner captures street scenes and views of the room with his camera, we realize that the light is fading. We have two dogs back in Phoenix that are waiting to be fed, so this must be the last stop on our personal wine trail.
Back out into the chill, I look up Main Street. Signs for Pillsbury Wine Company and Fire Mountain Wines hold the promise of a return trip — and the hope of a much shorter journey.