Turning the Page on Sedona
August 25, 2006
Debbie Wahl grew up in a farming family in South Africa, amidst the grapes and fruits her family raised. She worked as a sommelier for the Hyatt corporations Caribbean properties and, most recently, at an established vineyard in San Miguel, Calif. With a practical, can-do attitude that seems reflected in her wiry build and short hair, Wahl has developed some convictions about wine and grapes. Perhaps primary among those is that the ground will yield grapes, even in the most unlikely of places.I knew you could grow grapes anywhere, said Wahl, in the tasting room of her Oak Creek Vineyards and Winery. Its all what you want to do.After working for other people for decades, what Wahl wanted to do was own her own vineyard, grow her own grapes, make her own wine. She also wanted to do it in a place that fit her image of the Old West which meant most of Californias wine regions were out.
Being a vintner gives you the freedom to move where you want to be, said Wahl. I said, I really want to go west, experience the whole cowboy thing.Which explains how Wahl ended up in Sedona, Ariz., home of the spectacular red rock vistas, a glut of shops selling spiritual tchotchkes and, perhaps, a burgeoning wine industry.
Oak Creek Vineyards like Page Springs Cellars a few yards away and Echo Canyon Vineyard a mile or so in the other direction are not actually in Sedona. The three vineyards, which make up the Sedona wine region, are located in Page Springs, a stretch of land some 10 miles south of Sedona.Place yourself in the right spot in Page Springs, and you could easily imagine yourself a world away from the dry desert of northern Arizona. At the Lo Lo Mai Springs campground, the lushness of the trees, the muddy ground and, yes, numerous springs that bring water to the surface is reminiscent not of the arid Southwest, but of the damp Southeast. On a May morning, a couple of miles down Page Springs Road, my wife, Candice, and I went for a run at the Page Springs Fish Hatchery, which induced another out-of-place experience. The trail through the hatchery was cool, shaded by all sorts of trees. More remarkable were the sounds: birds, all kinds of birds, whose calls and songs competed in spots with the gurgle of rushing water. A short walk away, no doubt, people were struggling with the heat and dryness, while we passed through this oasis.Page Springs, which runs just the few miles from Highway 89 to Cornville, is actually part of an enormous underground aquifer. According to Wahl, whose knowledge of the area seems solid, it is one of the worlds deepest aquifers, and runs to San Antonio, Texas. The well on her property goes 425 feet down. The area was settled in the 1940s by a Chicagoan named Page who grew potatoes and corn, which he sold to Camp Verde, an old military post.The Southwest has been in drought for eight years, but that hasnt thrown a blanket on the winemaking aspirations in Page Springs. In 2002, after six years of labor, Jon Marcus opened Echo Canyon Vineyards. Marcus determination and success lured Wahl; the next to follow was Eric Glomski, who opened Page Springs Cellars on land owned by his family.
The trio of wineries give off a scent of newness. Connie Baxter Marlow, a former longtime Aspenite who now owns and runs the lovely Page Springs Bed and Breakfast with her partner, Andrew Bailey, didnt even know there was a budding wine industry in the neighborhood when they bought the property last year. Marlow was looking to get out of Aspen, where she said her spiritual interests were looked at as odd. Sedona has been a most comfortable fit.At Page Springs Cellars, the very first grapes yielded by the property which could well pass for a California vineyard are probably being picked right now. (Till now, Glomski had been making wines from grapes grown in central California.) Wahl doesnt expect her Oak Creek to surpass 1000 cases for the next two or three years at least. She supplements the grapes from her three-plus acres from Arizonas more established wine region, centered around Willcox, to the south.But all the vintners are pleased with the quality of their early vintages. As Carol Lawlor, the tasting room manager at Page Springs Cellars, notes, the soil and climate conditions are analogous to Frances Rhne Valley. Its a stretch to compare; the Rhne is one of the oldest wine-producing areas in the world, while the Sedona region, if it were a consumer rather than a producer, wouldnt even be of legal drinking age. Still, there are similarities. The Page Springs wineries, according to Wahl, produce big, big, big reds and crisp, clean, fresh whites, but will never produce Pinot Noirs, which require cooler temperatures. But the Shiraz is abundant and yummy, and my wife loved a 2004 ros, which she described as sweet and bubbly in my notes. Page Springs Cellars is one of four places in North America to grow Cabernet Pfeffer.Page Springs does have some natural advantages. For one, thanks to the arid climate, bugs are not much of a problem, and Wahl doesnt spray her vines. For another, there is an all-for-one spirit behind the nascent Page Springs wine industry. Marlow and Bailey bill their B&B as the gateway to Sedonas wine country and offer package deals with the wineries. Many of Sedonas leading restaurants offer Page Springs wines; the Heartline, a popular spot with a charming outdoor patio, proudly touts the local product. On our visit, the tasting rooms were quiet enough that the servers and growers had plenty of time to talk about their wines and methods.The spirit of SedonaAnd then there is the Sedona aura.
The practical-minded Wahl says she doesnt believe that the unseen forces said to inhabit the Sedona area have anything to do with the quality of the grapes. The vortices, the four electromagnetic energy centers grouped around Sedona, take a backseat to the hills, the daytime sun and nighttime chill, and the waters of Page Springs in producing good grapes. Im not that kind, said Wahl. Im more down-to-earth about it.To see how wine mixes with the areas pervasive spirit world, a visit to the Jerome Winery is in order. Jerome is an amazing place, an old copper mining town located on top of Cleopatra Hill. In terms of strict altitude, Jerome, at 5,200 feet, compares better with Denver than with Aspen. Still, one look at the town, and you see that it deserves its title as Americas most vertical city. Some 20 minutes from Page Springs, Jerome is located not, like Aspen, at the upper end of a mountain valley, but on the mountain itself. Picture driving halfway up Aspen Mountain, and finding a full-blown, bustling town there. Also unlike Aspen, Jerome seems to have retained almost all of its rootsy charm, especially in its architecture.Apart from not being having its own vineyard owner John McLoughlin makes his wines in Lockford, Calif., south of Sacramento, but sells them in Arizona the Jerome Winery is a perfect slice of the region. The place, high up in Jerome (actually, everywhere in Jerome is high up, but the winery is above most of the town), was established nearly three years ago in what was originally the nurses quarters of United Verde Hospital, and then part of the Jerome Grand Hotel.The winery offers tastings of five wines (for $5) and its own line of olive oils and spiced olives and such. And in between pourings, visitors can treat themselves to the standard Sedona attractions. Bill is a psychic reader, who has his tarot cards at the ready for a session in a side room. We dont have a singer, so theyre stuck with me to entertain the tourists, he said. His co-worker, Jeri, specializes in dream interpretations.Keeping Bill and Jeri company are the ghosts. Four of them, to be exact, including the Prankster, the ghost of a 19th-century winemaker. Jerome made the Travel Channels list of the top five-most-haunted places, which Jeri chalks up to the heat and the metal in Cleopatra Hill. The heat causes the vibrations of metal. That stirs up a lot of activity, she said. Everybody has at least one ghost or two, added Bill, a former insurance agent in Phoenix.
If Page Springs is to establish itself as a destination on the wine-lovers map, Sedonas restaurateurs need to pull their weight better. My wife and I asked three locals for restaurant recommendations. The three, all chosen for their connections to the areas food and wine industry, had some variation on the same puzzling answer: I dont eat out. Theres nowhere good around here was the common refrain. We found that hard to believe for an upscale place like Sedona. Until we sampled the local fare. Some months later, another Sedona resident informed us that her favorite dining spot was the local health-food supermarket which we already knew.Maybe the shortage of good cuisine has to do with the abundance of beauty and spiritual outlets; in a place like Sedona, balance is important. Candice and I drove the wrong way, and for once, getting lost was the best part of the trip. Instead of driving directly to Page Springs, where we were staying, we went into Sedona, at sunset, as the red rock castles were being brilliantly illuminated. For years, I had heard of the surpassing beauty of the town, and I wasnt disappointed.The next day was devoted to climbing some of those mountains, which are close in to the town. Brins Peak afforded a long, strenuous walk, staggering views, a close encounter with a javelina, and a few moments of too much verticality. Those accustomed to well-marked trails are warned: The Arizona red rock mountains are more of a scramble than a hike. Bell Rock was less challenging, but no less rewarding. I cant say I felt the energy of the vortex, but I did experience a moment of natures sublime artistry.Page Springs B&B affords a perfect spot from which to explore all of the area. For those who have a deep interest in the spiritual, Marlow and Bailey, filmmakers and photographers, have filled their spacious, hillside spot with art and crafts from indigenous cultures from around the world. There is a library, photo galleries and musical instruments, as well as the expertise of the hosts. For those who dwell closer to the physical world, the four rooms with such themes as the Maya Suite and the Maui Room are luxurious.Sedona is an easy 15-minute drive from the B&B. The sprouting wine region of Page Springs is even closer.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is email@example.com