Nestled in the heart of Santa Cruz County, this wine-loving, historic ranching town may be Arizona’s best-kept secret
There’s plenty to learn and love about Santa Cruz County. Bordering Mexico—and serving as the gateway to an important port of entry, Nogales—the county has been honing its favorable climate, numerous recreational activities, and the sheer beauty of its surroundings to grow into a gem of Arizona culture and hospitality.
There might be no one who better understands the abundance of the county’s lifestyle offerings than Jesse Drake. An Arizonan for most of her life, Drake grew up on a ranch near Hereford. Today, she oversees the Santa Cruz County Planning Department, a job that requires nearly every development application to pass her muster. Her description of the land, community and people portray her strong affection for the region and its natural vitality.
“The community as a whole is beautiful and historic,” she notes. “The Santa Cruz River runs north out of Mexico, and provides a lush, riparian habitat of cottonwood and willow trees, where an enormous number of birds make their home. And on the eastern side of the county, the town of Sonoita is surrounded by stunningly beautiful rolling grasslands; it’s truly a place where antelope play.”
Once a thriving cattle-ranching region, Santa Cruz County can still claim its share of ranches, but mainly in the east, Drake explains. And, she says, there’s active mining south of the legendary town of Patagonia, which is helped by the railroad, whose line runs regularly north and south in and out of Mexico, hauling passengers and cargo.
The region is an increasingly popular destination for sportsmen, as well. Game hunting—deer, quail and javelina—is a big draw to the area. So is bird-watching, whose enthusiasts have found a veritable sanctuary for different avian species in Santa Cruz County’s gently rolling hills.
On the line
The county’s growing reputation as a destination is somewhat focused on the tiny communities of Sonoita-Elgin. In the late 19th century, these adjoining settlements were founded as an outcropping of the new railroad line that was built along an 88-mile stretch from Benson to Nogales, paralleling Sonoita Creek. (Today, walking the elevated berm of what’s called the Railroad Trail is a popular tourist attraction.)
Drake points out a particularly significant aspect of the region, one that residents of Phoenix and other large metropolitan areas often bemoan.
“What we don’t have is ‘light’ pollution,” she says. “Santa Cruz County enforces a dark skies ordinance to limit light pollution, which helps support the aims of the Harvard-Smithsonian Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins. Relatedly, it also helps amateur astronomers scattered around the county who contribute meaningfully to knowledge of the sky, planets and stars.”
Ripe for business
With all of its many charms, perhaps no single industry has affected Sonoita and its environs’ recent growth so much as its burgeoning viniculture. No fewer than 14 wineries have sprouted up in the area over the past few decades, and there are several more about to open. The vineyards have, in turn, spawned a variety of new retail businesses that are also thriving.
“The growing wine industry is branching out into distilleries, breweries and even a local mead producer,” Drake says. “A lot of fun activities and events at the wineries and other businesses are generating more visitor traffic.”
Sonoita Vineyards, near Elgin, is the oldest commercial vineyard and winery in Arizona. Perched at an elevation of 5,000 feet among rolling grasslands, the 60-acre vineyard is surrounded on three sides by soaring mountain ranges.
The vineyard got its start in 1973, when its founder, Dr. Gordon Dutt, began experimenting with wine-grape growing. Lori Reynolds, the current winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards, is the founder’s granddaughter. A native of the region, Reynolds followed her grandfather’s vision, immersing herself in winemaking studies and taking years to acquaint herself with the knowledge and skills necessary to make premier wine.
“Out here in the high-desert grassland, it’s that perfect elevation paired with our really temperate climate that make this particular microclimate really ideal for growing grapes,” she says with authority.
“The ‘terroir’ here is great for winemaking, but this is such a beautiful, picturesque region that it’s become more and more of a destination for people—and I mean a permanent destination, where people are moving to live,” she continues. “I think they’re seeing the same thing my grandfather saw when he came here in the ’70s: They have a vision for what life can be like here and they’re acting on it.”
Drake echoes Reynolds’ enthusiasm about the area’s attractiveness for new residents. “Our moderate weather, low real estate prices and proximity to Tucson (one hour) really are attractions for new residents,” she notes. “Add to that all of our historic sites and a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities, including boating on two lakes.
“Plus,” she adds, “we have numerous types of guest lodging, from charming bed-and-breakfasts to comfortable resorts with or without golf, along with guest ranches that offer horseback riding.”
But it’s the wine business that nearly everyone views as the catalyst for new growth in the region. As Drake emphasizes, “The wineries are adding to the economy in Sonoita and elsewhere. Their growth has, in turn, generated a need for more lodging and dining establishments.”
Local business owner and Sonoita native Grace Wystrach couldn’t agree more. “The arrival of the vineyards has been the biggest change in the Sonoita area that we’ve witnessed in a long time,” says Wystrach, longtime owner of the local Steak Out Restaurant, the nearby Sonoita Inn, and the Sonoita Mercantile & Shell Station.
Wystrach and her husband purchased the restaurant in the late ’70s on something of a whim, she says. And that whim has now stretched to a lifelong business for the couple and their six children.
“When I was growing up, Sonoita was nothing more than a gas station stop,” Wystrach reminisces. The Wystrach children all grew up working in the restaurant or the inn, she says, adding that even after 40-plus years, the Steak Out remains a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.
Like the town where it’s located, there’s a certain sense of history and nostalgia about the restaurant, and the fact that diners order their food from a menu that, for the most part, hasn’t changed much since the 1970s, lends itself to that nostalgia. “We cut our own beef and grill it over mesquite coals,” Wystrach says matter-of-factly. “Our customers seem to like it that way.”
Building on success
It’s not just food and beverage businesses that are doing well in Sonoita. Local business owners and husband-and-wife team Ray and Yolanda Chap own and operate Empire Homes Inc., a sand and gravel and excavation company. Two generations of Chaps have been running the business in Sonoita for the past 31 years. Over time, Ray Chap says he’s seen real change occurring in the community.
“We’re definitely growing,” he says, adding that his company is busy and “doing extremely well.” And, like many other local businesspeople, he points out that a part of his success is owing to the influx of vineyards and their wide-ranging impact.
“We’ve done a lot of work for the new wineries and restaurants here locally,” he says, “but that’s just a part of our service area. We work within a 100-mile radius of Sonoita, serving Santa Cruz County, Cochise County and parts of Pima County.”
Ray and Yolanda have no plans to leave Sonoita and relocate anywhere else, however. “We enjoy living and working in this small community,” Yolanda says. “It’s close to Tucson and Sierra Vista and it’s a really nice place to live. That’s why we choose to operate our business here.”
Story: Bruce Farr
Photos: Mark Lipczynski