Monthly Archives: August 2015

Visiting the Sonoita Wineries

Flying Leaf Vineyard

Photo courtesy of Flying Leaf Vineyard


Visitors to the Circle Z know what a delight it is to ascend from the arid desert surrounding Tuscon and into the refreshing mountains around Patagonia. In addition to the magnificent scenery and prime land for grazing livestock, this terrain is also proving ideal for vineyards.

Credit for this discovery goes to Gordon Dutt, a PhD with expertise in soil science from the University of Arizona. Dr. Dutt discovered that the red clay soil of the area (think Red Mountain) was very similar to that of Burgundy, France. In 1973 he purchased land near the tiny town of Elgin, just southeast of Sonoita and planted the region’s first vineyard.

Award Winning Sonoita Vineyard Wines

The success of Sonoita Vineyards started a trend, and soon other would-be winemakers began arriving in the area. Today the grasslands nestled between the Huachuca, Santa Rita and Whetstone mountains are a designated AVA (American Viticultural Area), a federally recognized wine-growing region.

Over forty years later, the Sonoita AVA is thriving. Today there are thirteen wineries in the region, many producing award-winning wines. Several have even been served at the White House. Varieties differ somewhat from one winery to the next, however most focus on grapes that like hot, dry days and cool nights, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Sauvignon Blanc.



Wilhelm Wineyards, Cab Sauv

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes bask in the Arizona sun at Wilhelm Vineyards, photo by Wilhelm Vineyards


Visitors are welcome. The Arizona Wine Growers Association has created a Sonoita Wine Growers Trail, with a map highlighting the wineries’ locations in and around Sonoita and Elgin. A tour of the wineries makes a nice half day trip from the Ranch; most are open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. In addition to wine tastings, many wineries also offer light meals and snacks. Be sure to appoint a designated driver, or ask the ranch for help in arranging transportation—there are several local companies that specialize in wine country tours.

Upon returning from a day of Sonoita wine tasting, take a look at Red Mountain and see if there’s any resemblance to Burgundy, France.

Click for a printable map of the Sonoita Wine Trail, with wineries and opening hours.

Sonoita Winery Picnic

Enjoy a picnic at Sonoita Winery, photo by Sonoita Winery


By |August 15th, 2015|Community, Day Trips|Comments Off on Visiting the Sonoita Wineries

Camels of the Southwest Desert

Artwork from Smithsonian Magazine

The colorful history of Arizona draws many visitors to her borders. The true spirit of the West lives here, with memories of Apache raiders and brave settlers, mining giants and cattle barons. And into this mix is thrown an anomaly that perhaps makes sense to those who know the Southwest: camels. Yes, the U.S. Camel Cavalry, a brief but memorable experiment with this non-indigenous breed, sporting indigenous traits. The year was 1855.

With the transcontinental railroad decades away, the expansion into the West and Southwest seemed a daunting, yet much desired, venture. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had an epiphany. Why not use camels to help move supplies between military outposts, and to help in the settlement of the West?

By nature and design, camels seemed a perfect fit for desert life, much more so than the mules being used by the military. Able to travel long distances with no water, our arid climate was a breeze for camels. They also thrived on desert flora, making the thorny, dried, and basically unpalatable forage a meal worthy of consumption. Adding in their ability to carry up to 1000 pounds over 30 miles, the westward push seemed less daunting.

Jefferson Davis was able to convince Congress to appropriate $30,000 for the procurement of camels for military purposes, a fortune in that time period. Over the course of the next two years, 75 camels were imported from the Eastern Mediterranean for this camel experiment. Expert handlers who knew the camel’s quirks were soon to follow. Their job would be to assist the hump-backed creatures in their assimilation to life abroad.

Soon after landing in the states, the camels were sent to military forts in Texas and California. They were mostly employed as pack strings to move supplies between the outposts. The camels were also used for expeditions in search of supply routes along the U.S./ Mexican borders.

But these hard working camels were not popular. In Washington the mule lobbyists opposed further camel purchases, and petitioned to protect the mules’ foothold in the Government packing contracts. And in the military forts the reputation of the camels were tainted: horses were annoyed by them, the soldiers found them to be contemptible, and they had the inconvenient tendency to wonder off at night.

The outbreak of the Civil War put an end to the official Camel Cavalry experiment, and after only six years, the Government wanted out of the camel business. But what do you do with unwanted and out of vogue camels? The U.S. Government ordered the camels to be put up for auction. Some were sold off to the salt and copper mines. Others were sold to zoos and traveling circuses. The railroads in Arizona took on some to help in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The Confederate Post Office Department even employed camels for mail delivery. And others were simply turned loose to graze in the desert, finding their way into Mexico and the grasslands of Arizona. They roamed the desert, along with commercially imported camels that had been turned loose by owners who had also lost interest.

And so the camels became feral, surviving for a few years in the desert. But there numbers were not enough to support a thriving population, so they quickly and quietly diminished. In the early parts of the 19th Century, reports of the feral camels were made by crews surveying the international boundary between Mexico and the U.S. Passengers on the Pacific Railway would also see the occasional camel out their windows as they traveled the long routes. By the 1920’s the camel sightings came to an end.

These Army camels, which had once been destined for greatness in the settling of the west, are now a blip on our historic radar. Imagine what our Sky Islands of the Southwest would be like if the camels had taken hold and survived in the wild. Or perhaps it is best that we do not know.

By |August 14th, 2015|History|Comments Off on Camels of the Southwest Desert