Nestled in the hills of southeastern Arizona is a cluster of vineyards and a trio of burgeoning wineries. The scenic countryside around the towns of Sonoita and Elgin has long been used for cattle ranching and mining, but in the past 15 years, grapes have become the new cash crop. Being fond of both good wine and good cycling, I was pleased to discover that the rich land nourishing Arizona's wine country is also ideally suited for leisurely mountain bike excursions.
After researching biking possibilities in the Sonoita/Elgin region, my friend Jennifer and I mapped out the perfect day-long, wine country bike tour. Our leisurely, 29-mile loop route followed a series of country roads (both paved and graded dirt) and allowed us to visit three wineries along the way.
We arrived in the area the evening prior to our ride. Although there are a variety of bed and breakfast accommodations in nearby Patagonia, we decided to camp in the Coronado National Forest and sleep under the stars.
The next morning we ate a quick breakfast and drove to Sonoita, the ride's starting point. We parked at a rest stop just west of town, unloaded our bikes, and jumped in the saddle. From the intersection of highways 82 and 83, we turned right and pedaled south on 83 and into the heart of Arizona's wine country.
The serene views and tranquillity of morning were punctuated by beautiful cattle ranches stretching across the hillside. The first eight miles of our route traversed pavement, and, at mile nine, we delighted in the sound of dirt crunching under our knobby tires. Settling into the rhythm of this new surface, we were startled when three pronghorn antelope bounded across the road.
We quickly made our way to the junction of Highway 83 and the Canelo Road. We headed north on a downhill section of the road to the first stop of the day, Callaghan Winery. With no signs identifying the property, however, it wasn't easy to find. Our map showed it was on the left so we kept our eyes pealed. Three miles from the Canelo/83 junction and just before a cattle guard, we spotted a white, hand-painted sign pointing the way to the winery.
Inside this rather rustic facility we met Kent Callaghan and sampled some of his award winning vintages. He explained the history behind his family-owned business and their approach to wine making. Callaghan said they primarily focus on the production of exceptional red wines and red cuvees (blends). They are also having great success with both a dry Chardonnay and Riesling.
Returning to our saddles, we made a short trip down the road to Sonoita Vineyards. This winery is well-marked and we followed the bumpy dirt driveway to the main building. Karen Robbins treated us to a tour, telling us that the Sonoita Winery is the state's oldest and largest winery, with production dating back to 1983. The winery has received international recognition, and its Fume Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon were selected to be served at the President George Bush's inauguration. Robbins poured us a wide sampling from their award-winning vintages, and we happily evaluated the famous wines for ourselves.
Back on our bikes, we continued on the Canelo Road to Elgin. It was 12:30 and our stomachs needed something besides wine. We stopped in Elgin at Karen's Cafe, where we enjoyed a light lunch of black bean soup, freshly baked bread and steamy espressos. After our tasty meal, we walked next door to the Santa Cruz Winery.
Oliver Weisel, a partner in the business, showed us around. He told us Santa Cruz is one of only a handful of kosher wineries in the United States, and that a rabbi handcorks each bottle to assure its purity. We sampled a few of their vintages and discovered a surprisingly good '92 Fume Blanc.
From the winery, we found the Lower Elgin Road and headed back toward Sonoita. On this last leg of our journey, we slowed the pace and savored the end of our wine country tour.
Getting There: From the Greater Phoenix area, take Interstate 10 through Tucson to State Highway 83 (exit #281); continue south on Highway 83 for 25 miles to Sonoita. The author's bike route begins at the intersection of highways 82 and 83 in Sonoita. A good place to park is at the rest area just west of town.
Maps: Coronado National Forest, Nogales and Sierra Vista Ranger Districts
Alternate routes: If the 29-mile loop taken by the author seems a little long for you, there are two alternative routes; both cut about 10 miles off the distance.
Alt. #1: From Sonoita, go south at the 82/83 intersection four miles to the Elgin Road turn-off. There is a school at this corner. Turn left and go east five miles to Elgin. Both Sonoita and Callaghan wineries are south on the Canelo Road within a couple of miles.
Alt. #2: From Sonoita head south on Highway 83 (same as above). Instead of following the road right where it makes a 90 degree turn, continue straight. The road going straight is the Lower Elgin Road, and it will continue across the rolling pastures to Elgin. The distance is the same but the road surface is dirt.
Wineries: Callaghan Vineyards, phone 455-5650; open Sunday only, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sonoita Vineyards, phone 455-5893; open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Santa Cruz Winery/Naveh Vineyards (kosher), phone 455-5373; open Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Accommodations: Numerous camping areas are located in the surrounding Coronado National Forest. Contact the Forest's Sierra Vista Ranger District at 378-0311 for more information.
There are several nice bed and breakfasts nearby in Patagonia including: Little House, phone 394-2493; Patagonia House, phone 394-2671; Dusquene House, phone 394-2732; and Rothrock Cottage, phone 394-2952.