Sonoita Is the Kitschy Center of Southern Arizona's Wine Country

Don't forget to stake down your tent!
Don't forget to stake down your tent!
Courtesy Arizona Hops & Vines

We were driving along Highway 82 in Southern Arizona, looking for Swanson Road, on our way to visit Sonoita Vineyards and its surrounding wineries. The drive south from Tucson was surprisingly beautiful once we'd cleared the city: rolling hills of green, donkeys grazing in fields.

The GPS told us we had gone too far, so I steered into the next driveway to make a U-turn, and that's where we saw the sign: "Tasters Wanted." I turned to my friends and inquired, "Hey, do we want to taste anything?" The cheer in response was clearly in the affirmative.

Up the dirt drive we went, reaching at last a canopy. A man in tiny lamé shorts held up by rainbow suspenders and a sparkly bowler leaned into the car window and asked if we were there to camp or just taste. Camp? What? It seems we had stumbled upon Bad Decisions, an event combining beer, bacon, wine, chocolate and cheese—and a meteor shower.

Since 2012, Arizona Hops & Vines (3450 Hwy. 82, Sonoita, 301-237-6556; azhopsandvines.com) has hosted this overnight festival combining the great loves of its founders, Huntington Beach-raised sisters Megan Austin Haller and Shannon Austin Zouzoulas. The first event hosted about 100 people, but it has steadily grown since then, with an expected attendance of anywhere from 2,500 to 4,000 this August. "It was all bizarre and random," Zouzoulas says of the inaugural festival. Just last year, the local media called it a "mini Coachella."

Starting at 10 a.m. on Aug. 13, campers and guests will be welcomed to an Adult Summer Camp, with kickball games, cornhole, bocce ball and more. "Expect the usual craziness," Zouzoulas says. Actual kids are welcome, too: There's a Sober Shack—where you'll find homemade sodas, carbonated lemonade and candy—a petting zoo (mind the sheep! They bite!) and more games.

My friends and I return each year, marveling at every new touch. While the first time, we were directed to a small parking area by a guy in tiny shorts, in subsequent years, there were deputies on hand to show us to a parking space among seemingly hundreds of other cars. In addition to the colorful one-person bathroom in the kitschy main building, the organizers added increasing numbers of portable potties in a discreet location. One year, there was a canopied area for the local beer club, and the next, there was a beer truck offering several varieties while the beer club was stationed by the entrance, with its own souvenir glass. An extra stage popped up, more food options appeared, and shopping opportunities arose. "It's grown," Zouzoulas says, "but it's kept its kitsch."

This year, the Hops & Vines sisters are adding a shaded VIP area by the stage, with its own bar. "It's like an all-access pass," Zouzoulas says. "I want to hand-pick the people to be VIPs, like people who have supported us, people who have gone to Bad Decisions every year."

In addition to adding more bands and restaurants to the lineup, they're opening the event up to small wineries and more local breweries, so there will be increased tasting options. We look forward to discovering which of Hops & Vines' varieties will be available, as well as whether the sisters will bring back the amazing sangria they were selling in 2014. But, really, we're happy as long as there's frozen Fluffer, their sweet sparkling wine run through a slushy machine.

You'll want to keep hydrated, of course, but you'll also want to soak up the alcohol with some eats. The commemorative stemless tasting glasses are emblazoned with "Drink Now, Pork Later," so there's little surprise at all the delicious piggy products, including an intensive buffet—crowned by bacon-topped cupcakes!—from the local Mama's Hawaiian Bar-B-Cue. We're hoping the kettle-corn guy will be back—and we promise to pace ourselves this time.

Monsoon conditions lead to rainbows
Monsoon conditions lead to rainbows
Courtesy Patrice Marsters

Since August is monsoon season in Arizona, there's a chance of sudden, unpredictable weather. Last year held some spectacular sights, including flying tents and canopies, thanks to strong gusts. We weren't rained on, though the storms came close, but we spotted several rainbows gracing the camping area and vineyards.

As the day-drinking winds to an end (non-campers are asked to leave at 6 p.m.), we usually end up relaxing on the shaded, raised wooden patio outside the main tasting room, listening to the bands, enjoying some pork-topped nachos and sipping refreshing alcoholic slushies while watching crazy clouds roll through. The most amazing sight last summer was a fast-moving cloud formation, with what looked like a dark hand reaching toward the crowd alongside the vineyard. As the clouds broke apart, I looked at my sister for affirmation that it really happened, that I wasn't suffering something heat-and-alcohol-related. But we all viewed the same natural spectacle. (And it wasn't really that hot, either. Arizona's wine country is about 10 degrees cooler than Tucson.) "It's like Napa," Zouzoulas says, "but with more of a quirky, laid-back, OC attitude."

Upcoming Events

That laid-back attitude is mandated. All Bad Decisions attendees are expected to follow the event's Ten Commandments, the first of which is "Don't be a jerk." Thankfully, we've never encountered anyone at Hops & Vines who would fit that description. We've been welcomed into circles of friends, given space at tables and offered chairs. But don't take that communal hospitality for granted. The staff will cut you off if you've had too much, and they take no responsibility for anything you may do there—"that includes ended relationships, weight gain, hangovers and any awkward encounters."

Those staying overnight not only avoid having to designate a driver, but they are also treated to a stunning view of the Perseids meteor shower, as well as s'mores and—in the morning—mimosas and muffins.

If you're not much of the camping type ("I camp inside the winery on one of our couches," Zouzoulas says, laughing), you can grab a bite just down the road. Cunningham's Ranch House Restaurant (3250 Hwy. 82, Sonoita, 520-455-5371) offers home-style foods and more pie varieties than you'll find at a Polly's. While the front rooms are crammed with all the Americana you can take, the back room is dedicated to John Wayne, as much—if not more—an icon in Arizona as he is in OC. A little farther down the road, you'll find the Steak Out (3200 S. Sonoita Hwy., Sonoita, 520-455-5205; www.azsteakout.com), a reminder of the region's history as a cattle-ranching community. In the large dining room, which features an open kitchen and a country band most weekend nights, you can feast on its signature cuts of beef, all served with a family-style salad. Members of the Wystrach family, who own and operate the place, can be spotted regularly, making sure everyone there has what they need. If all those bad decisions have caught up with you, the farmhouse-style building housing the Sonoita Inn (3243 Hwy. 82, Sonoita, 520-455-5935; www.sonoitainn.com) is within stumbling distance.

The next morning, you should check out the area's other wineries, the best of which is Sonoita Vineyards (290 Elgin Canelo Rd., Elgin, 520-455-5893; www.sonoitavineyards.com). Arizona's first winery has a large tasting room offering several award-winning varietals. (It makes sense that this is where Haller learned the trade—and became a master!) Be sure to try the vineyard's famous Angel Wings, and if you're lucky, whoever is manning the tasting bar will serve up your Peach Sparkles with a hibiscus flower. Don't forget to say hello to the owners' aging pup, Tiger!

The Sonoita Mercantile Country Store and Deli (3235 Hwy. 82, Sonoita) offers a chance for gas, snacks (including many hard-to-find old-fashioned candies), souvenirs and, if it's the right time of day, fried chicken before you head out of town.

On that first Bad Decisions weekend, we did finally get back on the highway, and we did find Swanson Road, but it wasn't really a road, which I guess we should have realized when we saw its sign, which is red, not green. Not that that stopped us from traveling down that non-road. . . . We only make the best bad decisions!


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