2014 Ocotillo Wine from Trident Winery. This is one of the strangest wines I’ve ever tasted… and you need to try it too.
Wine can be fluid in terms of definition, if you’ll pardon the pun. While most often made from grapes, the key is fermentable sugars which eventually become alcohol, which can be provided by any fruits. But then you have the weird stuff that ferments, like herbs, and flowers. Being somewhat of a misfit myself, I’ve always been intrigued by these vintages, but they are so hard to find. So when I heard a rumor on Facebook about an Ocotillo Wine being made by Ray Stephens at Trident Winery down in Pine, Arizona, I had to go on an adventure to investigate. As I discovered when visiting their tasting room, Trident Winery focuses almost entirely on the misfit wines that nobody else is doing in Arizona, and that is a glorious thing. All of their wines save one are made from fruits or herbs grown somewhere in Arizona. There are wines made from such varied things as heirloom desert melons, star anise, blueberries and even wines from prickly pears.
The genesis for the idea of the 2014 Ocotillo Wine, according to Mr. Stephens was twofold. When he was a kid, an Apache elder taught him how to make a traditional tea using Ocotillo blossoms harvested from the desert near Saguaro Lake. While the tea is traditionally made to soothe muscle pain and upset stomachs, Mr. Stephens drank it simply because he liked it. “Five years ago I was making some tea from the flowers one day, and said ‘I wonder if I can make wine from that.’” After a couple of test batches for what he describes as his “Frankenstein experiment,” our intrepid winemaker had come up with a winning formula.
To make this wine, the first step was harvesting what Mr. Stephens described as “a nauseating amount of flowers,” (about 60 pounds’ worth), which were harvested in the Sonoran Desert near Saguaro Lake using special tools designed to pick the flowers without hurting the plant or himself. The flowers are then boiled into a tea, which provides the flavor of the wine. However, as the intrepid winemaker notes, “The flowers have no sugar or the proper acidity that makes yeasts happy… I have to convince the yeast that everything in there came from grapes, when nothing did. I have to babysit this fermentation every time. So I have to add a few organic nutrients to it. It’s the kind of thing where you say every year that you’re never doing this again… And then you do it again the next year anyway.” Said organic ingredients are added in a process known as chaptalization, which provides the fermentable sugars so that the yeasts are able to make this into a wine.
As for the wine itself? It’s so strange that it is hard to describe, almost lurking within that space of apophatic mysticism where we can only describe what this wine is not. In appearance, it holds the same color as a glass of older viognier (a darker, golden yellow), but that’s where the resemblance to anything you’ve ever drunk ends. The nose of this wine is both floral and woody, and also has a note reminiscent of anise. Despite the high alcohol content (15.5%), the nose isn’t hot at all. The palate is similarly strange, and tastes like nothing I’ve ever tasted before: a combination of bright floral sweetness with a slightly bitter, woody edge. There is nothing that could be described as “fruity” here. The finish of the 2014 Ocotillo Wine is intensely floral, lasting for a minute and 25 seconds. Pair this wine with Asian food— in fact, I feel like you could even heat this wine up in a sake carafe and serve with sushi. If this wine were human, it would be a renegade botanist adventurer, perched high on a desert cliff, painting a landscape he had never seen before while trying to stab a rattlesnake with his paintbrush at the same time. It is a wine which you must experience for yourself.
When you visit, I advise you to try everything that Mr. Stephens and his wife Julie suggest. Tell them I sent you. (Go to one of his wine dinners, too. I haven’t been yet, but by all accounts, they are phenomenal.) All of their wines are absolutely unique, and unlike anything else you will have seen before. In total, 125 cases of the 2014 Ocotillo Wine were produced, and 125 cases of a 2015 vintage will be bottled soon, which Mr. Stephens thinks is even better! The new vintages will also feature their new logo, which depicts a three pronged spear, representing Trident Winery’s commitment to be a good custodian of the air, the water, and the planet.
You can find Trident Winery located at 3465 Harps Way, in Pine, Arizona. Ray also teaches a winemaking class on Wednesdays! Trident is open on weekends, or by special appointment. Give them a call at 928-642-0618.