Nestled in the small, haunted mining-turned-boutique town of Jerome, Arizona, Passion Cellars’ tasting room on Hull Street welcomes locals and tourists alike to experience the results of their harvests. Why the name “Passion Cellars?” Well, the story begins with the day they opened the doors in Jerome on February 15th, 2012. It was the perfect weekend to open on the most passion-filled day of the year – Valentine’s Day! But what was an equally quirky twist of fate is that opening day also fell on the “Feast Day” for the Bulgarian Saint Trifon the Pruner, who coincidently was the patron saint of vine growers and winemakers. Another equally compelling reason the name “Passion” was selected is that the Jerome tasting room is located directly across the street from “The House of Joy”, which was once a brothel back in the 1940s when Jerome was a bustling mining town. Weary and lonely miners away from home for months at a time would frequent the haven to be entertained in the evenings by beautiful girls who were eager to please. And lastly, Passion also seemed like the perfect name because every one of their employees has a great deal of passion about not only the wines they produce, but also about being part of the growing wine industry in Arizona, confident that it will ultimately produce world-class wines.
The small but mighty team consists of Jason Domanico (the owner and winemaker), Lundon Crow (the manager) and Cody Burkett (playfully referred to as the resident “wine monk/critic” and as his business card attests to, “Gentleman Adventurer”). The enthusiasm and passion that oozes from these grape-worshiping mavericks is contagious and – well there’s no other way to describe it – intoxicating! These boys are reminiscent of the cool, charismatic kids you always wanted to hang out with on the playground. But make no mistake – they take their craft very seriously. They are committed to putting Arizona on the map when it comes to blending exceptional grapes that produce brilliant wine varietals. I met with the team on a crisp, clear December afternoon where they eagerly gathered to tell me their stories and invited me to sample their award-winning offerings.
Jason (owner and winemaker) worked successfully for many years in corporate America including software design and other ventures, but he always had an underlying love for wine. And although his grandfather was a winemaker in both New York and Italy (producing wines primarily for personal consumption), he himself never thought he would ever actually end up making wines until the opportunity presented itself, and he jumped on it. And evidently it was a smart decision. According to wine monk Cody, watching Jason blend grapes is almost a spiritual experience. “He has an amazing palate, and this innate ability to not only taste the wine, but feel it as well. He’s got this intuitive capability that is just phenomenal. He’s one of the best blenders I’ve ever worked with, which is precisely what attracted me to this winery.”
Although there is certainly a technical side to producing wine, a good winemaker like Jason has an innate sense of what flavors go together and provide a good balance to the finished product. As Jason describes it, “I believe that there is a spiritual side to winemaking that I inherited from my grandfather – a “feel” if you will. And by constantly tasting throughout the blending process I know what to add, and how much of it to include in order to produce an end product that will be outstanding.” Jason is especially excited about growing the Sangiovese grapes here in Arizona. According to Jason, these grapes (that originate in Italy) have shown a great deal of promise for Arizona climate and soil.
Passion Cellars has one harvest per year that runs from late-July until around the end of October. Each harvest yields roughly 6,000 to 10,000 bottles, depending on the volume of grapes they harvest. They planted their very first vines just this year (Corvina grapes) and they will begin to harvest those grapes on or around 2019. In the meantime, they are buying only the highest quality grapes from neighboring vineyards and blending them in unique ways, using up to five different varieties of grapes for each creation. Although they only have two acres planted thus far, they have another 15 acres in their 5-year plan. Currently they age their white wines in stainless steel and their reds in oak barrels. They chose stainless steel for their whites because doing so produces a crisp, bright, fresh result.
The grapes that are used in their wines are grown in the Wilcox area of Arizona (where 74% of the grapes for Arizona’s wines are grown.) These grapes are produced with water that filters through limestone, giving the whites a bright, crisp component and the reds a deep, spicy hint as a result of the minerals present. The oldest vineyards in the Wilcox area date back to the 1970’s.
There is a haunted canyon in one of the mountain ranges near Wilcox that is called “Hell’s Half Acre” where the Sangiovese grapes for this particular wine are grown. According to Cody, “This wine was a little bit cantankerous to produce. We ran into a lot of problems in the process of making it. Basically, anything that could go wrong did – it became our ‘problem child.’ However the signature of a good winemaker is that they can create a great wine, regardless of what happens during the process.” And the results of overcoming all of those obstacles was that “Hells Half Acre” was awarded a silver medal in the “People’s Choice” category at the 2014 Festival at the Farm in Phoenix, Arizona. And as I experienced my first taste, there was no doubt in my mind as to why. It is perfectly balanced with a great flavor profile.
I left my Passion Cellars experience with a good taste in my mouth – both literally and figuratively! I think Passion Cellars is the winery to watch going forward. Their commitment to and love of their craft is evident in every step of the winemaking process, and their growth will be exciting to witness in future harvests to come.
Passion Cellars Winery has two tasting rooms – one in Jerome (which opened first) and one in Wilcox connected to their operational winery. Their tasting room in Jerome is open Sunday through Thursday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, and on Friday and Saturday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Their Wilcox location is open Friday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm, and during the week by appointment only.