Elizabeth’s big Christmas present was off to a pretty great start. In the first 36 hours we’d driven through a beautiful mountain section of Arizona, visited a national park, and had an awesome, moody low-light sunset in Sedona. But, in my considered opinion, nothing prepared me to wake up on a sunny morning in Sedona and see the red rocks in broad daylight. It was like being in Utah, except the canyons, cliffs, and mesas were so much more prominent.

We had a doozy of a plan today. This Saturday was the big “thing” on the trip that I’d booked as part of my Christmas present to Elizabeth: a winery tour! It kept cropping up when I was looking for fun things to do in the area and I thought, what the heck? It’s not our normal cup of tea, but some of the best vacation memories I have with Elizabeth are from atypical adventures.

The Aiden had continental breakfast included in the room charge, which is always a nice touch when you’re splurging on travel. It wasn’t the fanciest spread I’ve ever seen, but I’ve also seen far worse. There were pastries, scrambled eggs, toast, and fresh fruit to load up on, plus the super-addicting apple juice that all hotels seem to have that’s probably 40% sugar. There was not an adequate coffee option, so Elizabeth and I drove to the Local Juicery to find her a latte – and then left in disgust when the prices were obscenely high. Sedona is, after all, a rich people’s town first. Sedona Red Rock Coffee and Roastery was a little less out of control, so they earned her business. Then we had a little time to kill before the tour van would come pick us up between 10:00 and 11:00, so Elizabeth and I watched an episode or two of Parks and Rec from the hotel room before waiting at the lobby.

It was… strange. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Yeah, I’d gotten a confirmation e-mail, and Bliss Winery Tours had definitely charged my credit card, plus the instructions on the website had said the pickup window. But it felt weird not to have any other communication, right? My anxiety grew as we sat in the hotel lobby until finally at about 10:30 I called the company. No answer. I paced and fretted and called back, this time leaving a message explaining the predicament. By now I was feeling like a real jackass. Who screws up someone’s Christmas present this badly?

An operator was quick to call me back, which was good. What was less good was the obvious confusion in his voice as he said that they had no record of my reservation for today. What? I quickly checked my email for the 6th time. Yep, TripAdvisor had confirmed my booking with Bliss Wine Tours for this particular day, and what’s more had taken my money. By now I was figuring out how I was going to cut my losses – we weren’t even winery tour people! Just give me my money back and we could be hiking of Sedona’s famous trails in 20 minutes! – but when the guy went back through and checked his list, our name must have magically appeared. There was good news, too – there was a marathon being run in Sedona on this Saturday morning (we’d seen the runners while getting Elizabeth’s coffee, and all tours were running way behind due to the road closures around town. Bliss hadn’t even begun pickups yet, so they would easily be able to swing by and get us.

I was bemused by this. Not exactly the best look for your company when you somehow just fail to notice a reservation, but also they were super well-reviewed and Elizabeth had been so excited to take a wine tour. So I decided to put aside my doubt and let Bliss Wine Tours Sedona, “Sedona’s Most Luxurious Wine Tour”, take the wheel. Literally. Since, you know, we’d presumably have drank too much to drive ourselves.

The tour bus pulled up around 11:30 – somehow we were the first people on the bus, which made me even more confused. But the tour driver was a local member of the tourism board and he knew everything there was to know about Sedona – where Cindy McCain lives, where John Wayne used to film his Westerns, where Jennifer Aniston likes to shop, which rock formation is called Snoopy Rock. And it was a sunny, beautiful afternoon in Arizona, which made the time pass much quicker while the other half-dozen or so groups were picked up.

To understand Arizona wine country, one has to understand a little bit about the local geography. Sedona is just west of the Mogollon Rim, but to the west of Sedona lies a few more of those rugged Arizona mountain ranges near the town of Prescott. Between them is a broad valley through which the Verde River flows – about halfway down, Oak Creek enters it. It’s within this valley that some of Arizona’s finest wine country exists. Several of those wineries are readily available in close proximity to Sedona near the town of Cornville. Normally, Bliss Wine Tours is able to make a stop at 4 of those wineries, but given our late start we were going to have to push things pretty hard to make 3 happen.

And if Elizabeth and I were going to make 3 wineries happen, we were going to need food. I didn’t want to be super squirrely about it (after all, this was a sophisticated excursion full of sophisticated people of money), but like… I was hungry. The Aiden’s breakfast had been long ago. And if I was hungry, Lord knew what Elizabeth -slightly carsick from the bus and dangerously quiet with hangry-ness – was feeling. Fortunately for both of us, the cure to our ails was waiting at the first location.

Cove Mesa Vineyard is located right in the sparse downtown area of Cornville. Their vineyard is actually also occupied by an RV park for those pesky tourists, making it impossible to access the vineyard sometimes. Fortunately, they had a tasting room right off the road we could pull into. Our guide told us to try out the sangria if we had a chance – Elizabeth’s eyes lit up – and also passed around a clipboard to get our complimentary lunch orders. A charcuterie and fancy-ass wine? Now my day could turn around. Walking inside their tasting room only confirmed the feeling that I was out of my element in a world a little too refined for Nolan, but the great thing was that there was an easy fix to that. All I had to do was drink wine and either I’d fit in with the others on the tour or I’d be too drunk to care.

Elizabeth did get the sangria, leaving me to get a mixed flight with two red and two white wines. Cove Mesa was a little busy, so the food and drinks took just a touch longer than I would have liked, but we were also seated at a table with a dozen other people and one dog. When viewed through that context everything came in jig time.

It wasn’t the fanciest charcuterie, but sitting here writing this, my mouth is watering all over again. French onion dip really makes the whole thing shine. And if you needed fancy, Cove Mesa had me covered with 4 fancy and tasty wines to sip from left to right. I will admit that the white wines must not have made too much of an impression on my Luddite sensibilities, because I’m not even sure I could tell you a thing about them. Certainly the flavor of fresh-cut grass and fuzzy peach skins was missing. On the third one though – the 2022 Silk – it all came together. Damn, that was a good sip of wine. What’s more, I actually got the taste of black cherry and cocoa with it. The wine had those flavors without giving in and being sweet – instead, it was delightfully rich. The real kicker came when Elizabeth, a known and certified hater of all red wines, took a sip of her own and came out just as transfixed as me. Next to that, the 2022 Syrah didn’t stand a chance (although once again my apparently refined taste pallet was able to pick out the hint of green peppercorns. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t the 2022 Silk). We made grandiose plans to ship a whole case of it to our house that we totally meant to follow through on up until about 15 minutes ago as I was blogging this and realized the 2022 Silk has already been pulled from Cove Mesa’s menu. Rest in peace to the greatest glass of wine I have ever drank. You were taken from us too soon.

Cove Mesa had properly set the mood. The people we were on the tour with may have been rich and snooty (and honestly I do not think all of them were), but they all seemed pretty fun. It was a beautiful February day outside of the tasting room – perfect for the next winery, which actually had a traditional vineyard setup where you could hang out outside. The DA Ranch Vineyards are located about 3 miles north of Cove Mesa along one of the many bends of Oak Creek. While the previous vibe had been all about elegance, modernity, and poshness, DA Ranch exuded rustic farm vibes. The main building was a log construction with a wraparound porch. There was a big yard with a manmade stream flowing through it, a giant tree with a swing, and a pond that’s apparently stocked with fish (vibe check: we were in the desert, right?). There were even goats! DA Ranch took the “ranch” part of their title seriously.

That’s not to say that they couldn’t vint some good wine. (Vint is a word that I just learned when I thought to myself: “You distill whiskey, you brew beer. What’s the word for wine?”) Elizabeth and I both got flights this time – I was completely unconcerned about cost, having apparently budgeted far more money than we could possibly drink through in three vineyards, so I got the more expensive Ranch flight. This one, rather than coming in a little tasting flight, was served in the same (complimentary) glass pour-by-pour at the bar inside. It was sort of a neat method that let us sit at a table outside by the space heaters (it was a little chilly in the shade), or swing under the big tree, then go back to the get the next taste.

As if those generously-sized pours weren’t enough to get me buzzed, Elizabeth was super excited to see that DA Ranch was also selling mulled wine out of a big vat. I got a steaming cup of it and brought it back to our chilly table at the porch. It was very good for warming you from the inside and out.

Perhaps the best part of the Ranch from a certain perspective (Elizabeth’s) was how dog-and-people-friendly it was. There was a food truck out on the driveway selling barbecue. There was an engagement party happening in a little pavilion. There was even a fire pit with people gathered around it, drinking and roasting marshmallows in the midafternoon sun. And most of all: there were dogs. Everywhere. Running, following, sitting, sniffing. It was Elizabeth’s canine heaven, all in one winery.

By now we (and the other groups) were thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Our tour guide rounded everyone up for one last stop at a winery that was just one bend in Oak Creek away – Javelina Leap winery. This was a good capper for the tour because Javelina Leap didn’t go all-in on posh modernity like Cove Mesa, nor did it go all-in on rusticity like DA Ranch. Instead, our guide sold it to us an experience where you could get your wines, walk the grounds, and go to their old-timey barroom and purchase some chocolate truffles and cigars to finish off your afternoon. Bliss Wine Tours really knew their sequencing.

The wine here was potentially the most forgettable from my point of view. I’m not saying it was bad – certainly there’s nowhere that thrives on meritocracy quite like the cutthroat venture of winemaking – but if I’m getting a flight of 6 different types of wine, perhaps I can get a little more color variety than this.

I drank it all with gusto, though. You would too if you’d paid the good money to be here. While we sat at the hightop tables in the back of their tasting room, we chatted with the other tourgoers. Somehow Elizabeth manages to always make friends with every 60-year-old lady she meets, and this was no exception. There was another younger-ish couple visiting from Oklahoma whose names I’m not sure I ever learned and sure as hell don’t remember now. But the guy in the couple was down to join me for a post-however-many-glasses-of-wine cigar in the courtyard, which is good because I’m an extremely fraudulent cigar-smoker and needed him to help me cut and light it. It really did hit the spot, as I’m sure Elizabeth’s last glass of sangria and chocolate truffle did too.

Our tour bus rolled up around 4:30 to bring us back to Sedona. Although in hindsight it seems like the afternoon had gone by a little too quickly, maybe it was just as well. Because on the drive back through the rolling Arizona foothills toward Oak Creek and Sedona, the tour guide (who clearly had drunk-people-savvy) put on the kinds of songs you couldn’t help but sing along to. I’ve only ever experienced a singalong of the type we had on that bus in one other spot – June 2019 at the OKC Zoo on Adult’s Only night (also a night that featured a lot of alcohol). Our guide went to drop people off in the reverse order of when they were picked up, meaning Elizabeth and I would be the last ones on the bus. Given that, and given that we couldn’t drive anyway, we decided to just thank him and get off the bus at a stop near downtown so we could get dinner and do some gift shopping.

I’ve never done anything like this wine tour before. I worried it might be kitchy or small-time compared to a winery tour somewhere in California, and I also worried that it being the off-season for grapes would make this a weird time to do the wine tour. At about 10:30 that morning, I was worried about the very competence of Bliss Wine Tours Themselves. It seemed like there were so many ways that my Christmas present to Elizabeth could backfire. Nope. It had been an awesome (and not as expensive as I’d figured!) afternoon, there was plenty to do and sip at each stop, and it made for the type of memory that we love to collect. I don’t think we’ll ever go on an Arizona wine tour specifically again, but I’d give a firm recommendation to anyone else to do so. As for us, we had about 24 more hours in Arizona, and it was time to spend them on the Nolan and Elizabeth Meister bread-and-butter: hiking.

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