Located at 3248 Highway 82, Sonoita, AZ 85637
Open Thurs-Sun 10:30a-4:30p
Part 1 of a thrilling, 4-part story called, “A Rainy Day in Sonoita & Elgin.”
The small town of Sonoita can be found an hour south of Tucson if you’re heading east on I-10 and about two hours away from the state line if you’re heading west. This is Arizona’s oldest wine country along with the neighboring town of Elgin. There are almost a dozen wine tasting rooms in the area and most of them are within ten minutes of each other.
Before we continue I’ll mention that I use the word vineyard quite often on this site without ever mentioning the word “winery.” A vineyard is the field where grapes are grown (a “yard of vines,” so to speak) to be harvested for wine production. A winery is the place where the production actually happens; where the grapes are crushed, fermented, bottled, etc. For this project I’ll be visiting places that have tasting rooms where you can sit and drink wine as well as buy bottles. These places may only be wineries that actually produce the wine while their vineyards may not be on site. Dos Cabezas, for example, produces wine harvested from several vineyards, a couple of which are in separate towns. And ultimately I’ll be using the word “vineyard” to describe all of these places because I just like the way the word sounds as opposed to the word “winery.” I just wanted to make sure you knew I knew the difference.
My adventure started on a rainy Saturday morning. The temperature was in the low 60s, the rain vacillated from light to pounding every fifteen minutes or so and the skies were covered by a dark, gray sheet of clouds. The sun did not show its face throughout the entire day, which, as you can imagine, is rare for southern Arizona. I expected to spend the day indoors but I was woken up by a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I was hungover with a headache that felt like I was gonna vomit my brain out through my eyelids and there was a melon lying next to me that I may or may not have tried to have sex with. Also I was face down on my bathroom floor. Also I had the word BALLS written on my forehead with a Sharpie but I didn’t have anyone over the night before so I could only assume I did that to myself, which was weird.
I answered the call because I vaguely remembered leaving a drunken voicemail at 4am for my mom because I was out of beer and wanted to see if she could tell me how to make tequila out of the cactus on my front lawn. I assumed that was her calling me back with the recipe.
The voice on the other end of the phone was gruff, like that of a person who drank cheap tequila and smoked unfiltered cigarettes for a couple of decades straight and who left prison with more neck tattoos than they went in with…so naturally I was still under the assumption that I was talking to my mom.
“No, this isn’t your mother, you fucking idiot,” said the voice on the phone. “I have information on Rosario Vargas. If you want to know what I know then you’ll get your ass to Sonoita right now!”
Rosario was an ex-girlfriend I had in my early twenties back when I was skinny and rocked a hairstyle that could easily be described as “Backstreet Boys-esque.” She was a hard drinker, heavy smoker and just listening to her curse during normal conversation was enough to turn any sailor straight. She was ten years older than I was when I met her and somehow I caught her eye…for about six months. Things didn’t end well between us when she bailed on our relationship and skipped town about seven years ago. I heard from her every now and then since that time via a sporadic email from Europe or a text that consisted of just a dozen of the poop emojis in a row which I assumed she sent while she was high on mushrooms.
Last I heard she had busted out of a private prison in Eloy, AZ by organizing a large group of undocumented immigrant inmates into staging a riot so big that it took an army of guards, local PD officers and Sheriff’s Deputies to stop it. But not before she managed to escape through the barrage of rubber bullets and tear gas. Heh. Classic Rosie.
I had no idea where she ended up after that, though, and, without knowing who this guy on the phone was or what was waiting for me, I decided to hit the road immediately.
I drove through the heavy rain with determination until I reached Sonoita at about 1pm. I received another call instructing me to go to Dos Cabezas Wineworks, which is conveniently located on Highway 82, only a minute east of where it meets Highway 83, the road you take south from I-10 to get to Sonoita.
I walked in to the place not knowing what to expect. It was significantly less busy than a typical Saturday which I imagined was due to the weather. The atmosphere was still friendly and inviting though and there was even a live band playing when I got there.
I approached the bar and made some light conversation with other patrons. As I had no further instructions from the mystery caller I opted to do a tasting of each of the wines they had available while I waited to figure out what was going on. Just about every vineyard in Sonoita/Elgin will have a souvenir wine glass with their logo on it and the price of a tasting includes a glass that you can own for life. However, you’ll get a significant discount on tastings if you bring in your own glass, even it’s from another vineyard. That way you’ll have a good answer when the cops ask you why the hell you have wine glasses stored in your glove compartment right next to your insurance and registration.
Dos Cabezas had exclusively red wines available. They produce a few white wines in the Spring but by the end of the year they’re pretty much sold out. As I was getting the first taste poured into my glass a heavyset man wearing a denim jacket walked up and stood next to me at the bar.
“You look pretty classy,” he said. And he was right. I looked damned good. Despite having to run out in a hurry I still made time to fix my hair, wash the BALLS off my face, put on a necktie and pick out a pocket square to complement it.
“I’m sure Rosario would agree,” he added. That’s when I realized I was talking to the guy from the phone. He could tell from my face that I was about to flip out so he put his hook hand on my shoulder and told me to stay calm and keep my voice down. He said that if I made a scene I’d lose my chance to learn where Rosario was. I relaxed and let him take the lead while I sipped my wine.
The guy told me to call him Chuck Steak, which I assume was his real name because what parent would be dumb enough to not name their kid that? Chuck asked me how much I knew about wine and I told him that I only knew what my mother taught me: that it’s the only thing that keeps neglected, middle-aged housewives from castrating their worthless husbands after they get home from blowing their entire welfare checks at the casino and also it’s the only reason she even let that loser impregnate her in the first place.
Chuck didn’t acknowledge any of that with more than a single teardrop falling from behind his eye patch. He told me I had a long day ahead of me and that in order to find Rosario I needed to have an extensive knowledge of wine. I told him I didn’t even know where to start.
“Bullshit your way through it,” he said. “You ever hear those pretentious dudes taking a sip of wine and saying it tastes like tree bark with hints of a rabbit’s foot or some shit like that? Those guys are full of crap. Just say the first thing that comes to mind when you taste wine and say it with confidence. Nobody’s gonna tell you you’re wrong because every so-called sommelier is just as full of shit as you are. Here, try this.”
He handed me a glass of a Dos Cabezas wine called El Campo. I sipped, swished, swallowed and smacked my lips quickly as per Chuck’s instructions. It was strong, earthy and absolutely delicious; perfectly indicative of the high quality you’ll find at Dos Cabezas. I told Chuck that the wine tasted like a walk-in cigar humidor because it absolutely did. He cackled so hard with glee that he started coughing violently and had to take a long drag of his oxygen mask so he wouldn’t die.
“You’re a natural, kid,” he told me as he smacked me on the shoulder with his hook hand, drawing blood. “You know how to recognize a good wine? It’s whatever you like the taste of. Especially if you wanna drink it again.”
“Hold on a second,” I said, “you can’t sit here and tell me that wine quality is subjective.”
“Oh, yes I can. There was a study a few years ago where some professors from Stanford and Caltech gave volunteers a bunch of wines and labeled the bottles with prices. The volunteers pretty much all said they liked the most expensive wines better than the cheap ones. They even got a brain scan while they were drinking and the machine showed that the part of their brains that indicated pleasure was firing off more when they drank the pricey stuff.”
“So these people not only said that they preferred the more expensive wine but they even felt it in their brains too?” I asked, perplexed. “Just based on the price tag?”
“Yep. And here’s the kicker: at one point the volunteers were tasting the exact same wine. They labeled one bottle as $10 and another as $90 but both of them were the same shit. And they still said they liked the expensive bottle more than the cheap one.”
My mind was blown. I spent years feeling intimidated by wine culture and “wine experts” because I didn’t know the exact process by which wine was produced and couldn’t tell you what the hell a tannin was to save my life, much less describe a glass of wine just by the smell. But after hearing what Chuck Steak had to say I realized that that knowledge was unnecessary. Any beginner can immerse him/herself in wine culture. The best way to become an expert in wine is to pop a lot of corks. And when you find something you like, you’ve found quality wine. It was as simple as that. Now the only question was what the hell all this had to do with Rosario.
Chuck told me that she got into trouble last year. Apparently she decided to steal a 62 year old bottle of scotch that was worth at least two hundred thousand dollars from a very rich businessman who then decided to send bounty hunters out to find her. She went into hiding in the Sonoita/Elgin area after that and Chuck said that it was up to me to get to her before the bounty hunters did. He had been tracking her for years as an assignment for a government agency that he refused to name but lost her scent after her daring Eloy prison break.
“Why would you reach out to me?” I asked. “How did you even know I had a history with Rosario?”
“Kid, I know everything about Rosario. I know the names of all her family members, I know how she likes her eggs, I know how many times she faked a pregnancy to get a closer parking spot at Walmart, I know how much time she spent selling knockoff Coach purses out of her trunk to finance her mom’s boob job and I also know every single thing that she wrote in her diary. Your name kept coming up. I figured that if she wrote about you the way she did you might be able to coax her out of the woodwork. So you need to stop wasting time and head down to Callaghan Vineyards in Elgin. A guy named Chewie will be there waiting for a well-dressed dude with an extensive knowledge of wine. That’s gonna be you. He’ll help you find Rosario but only if he thinks you really know your shit. Oh and make sure that when you order a tasting you tell them that you only want to drink reds.”
“Why only red wines?” I asked.
“Because men don’t drink white wine. The two ingredients in white wines are grapes and estrogen secreted from the swollen feet of pregnant women. If a woman sees you drinking white wine she’s gonna think you’ve never heard of the word ‘orgasm’ before. I once ordered white wine on a date and it made the woman I was with immediately start going through menopause. She was 26.”
“Wow, Chuck. That philosophy is super offensive to guys who enjoy white wine.”
“Well you’re not saying it. I am. So if they have a problem with it, tell them I said they can go fuck themselves with their white wine glass.”
“…….okay,” I said.
I had a million questions but only a limited amount of time, according to Chuck. I walked out of Dos Cabezas (though not before buying a bottle of the El Campo wine, which…worth it) and felt the cold breeze burning my cheeks. The rain had died down a bit while I was inside but it seemed to come back in full force as soon as I stepped out. This was just the beginning of my Rainy Day in Sonoita & Elgin.
The adventure continues at Callaghan Vineyards.