Cottonwood, Arizona is located in the heart of the Verde Valley, one hundred miles north of Phoenix, close to the geographic center of the state. The name is derived from a stand of sixteen cottonwood trees that became a campground and stopover place for travelers along the Verde River. In the late 1800s, the first settlers moved in and developed a farming community that served the soldiers in Camp Verde and the copper miners in the nearby town of Jerome.
In recent years, Cottonwood suffered something of an identity crisis, becoming a bedroom community for the nearby tourist town of Sedona. As tourism grew for neighbors Clarkdale, with the Verde Valley Railroad providing scenic journeys along the river, and Camp Verde with the opening of Cliff Castle Casino, Cottonwood suffered a depressed economy and a high crime rate.
But that all changed in 2010, thanks to the revitalization of Old Town Cottonwood and the burgeoning Arizona wine industry. The city courted the wineries, first convincing Arizona Stronghold to open a tasting room. Others soon followed, and very quickly this historic part of town became home to four wine tasting rooms, among cafes and restaurants, antique stores, galleries and boutiques.
This resurgence is what prompted us to visit on a beautiful, sunny October Saturday. We discovered a picturesque main street, with buildings that retained the charm of the historic old west. Our first stop was the Arizona Stronghold tasting room. Their decision to take a chance on Cottonwood was certainly paying off when we visited. The tasting room was packed with wine lovers enjoying the product of one of Arizona's premier wine makers. Stronghold has won awards, not just in Arizona but in national competitions and is consistently a fan favorite in local wine festivals. They make a very nice red blend called Nachise, and Jim enjoys their Dala Cabernet Sauvignon.
Next, we went to Pillsbury (no doughboys here!). Sam Pillsbury was a film director in New Zealand who, according to the winery's website, was interested in the “phenomenon of growing classical wine grapes in unusual places.” That led him to the high-desert climate of Cochise County, about two hundred miles south of Phoenix. Since planting his first grapes in 2000, he has won several awards in Arizona and is starting to get national recognition. Jancis Robinson, one of the world's leading writers of educational material on wine, wrote in her book American Wine that he makes “some of Arizona's finest wines.”
Our tasting experience was enhanced by our host, Gary, a Certified Wine Educator. He guided us through our tasting flights while explaining the professional certification process. I tried the white wine flight while Jim tried the reds. Unfortunately, they did not have Chardonnay available for tasting, but the whites I tried were light, fruity and pleasing. Jim enjoyed his reds, especially the Roan Red 2012, which he deemed worthy of purchase.
Much to our surprise, we discovered a distillery tasting room. Desert Diamond Distillery is Arizona's oldest craft distillery, located in Kingman, AZ. The Cottonwood tasting room opened just a week before our visit. Here you can taste their Gold Miner Spirits, a collection of four rums and a vodka. And if you don't want to sip them straight, they'll even make you cocktail! We tried the Agave Rum, which was delightfully smooth and can easily be sipped on its own. You can taste the entire flight if you like; you can also take a virtual tour of the distillery in Kingman if you want to see how the spirits are produced.
Final stop of the day was Fire Mountain tasting room. This was an inviting space, with lots of seating to encourage people to have a glass and stay awhile. Fire Mountain does not grow their own grapes; they purchase juice from a variety of sources in California and the Southwest. The winery is Native American owned, and the goal is to eventually plant vineyards on the ancestral lands of the Yavapai and Apache people in the Verde Valley. In the meantime, they are perfecting their winemaking techniques, producing some lovely blends. I particularly liked the Mantis, a 50/50 combination of Viognier and Grenache Blanc, while Jim enjoyed the Fire, a Syrah/Petite Syrah/Grenache mixture.
At this point we thought we'd better stop tasting! The lone tasting room we did not visit was Burning Tree Cellars. As we drove past on our way out of town, it looked inviting enough to warrant a return trip.
If you're in the area, visiting Sedona or coming down from the Grand Canyon, take some time for a side trip to Old Town Cottonwood. There is plenty of Arizona sunshine, great places to eat, drink and shop, and you can even catch a show at the Old Town Center for the Arts.
Mary St. Germain is Chief Financial Officer of St. Germain Cellars and appreciates an oaky, buttery chardonnay. On the occasional break from wine, she enjoys Mai Tais with an ocean view.
(Image Credit: Photography/Mary St. Germain)