Master Sommelier Greg Tresner knows what it’s like to be one of a kind—he was the first (and is still the only) Master Sommelier in the state of Arizona. In a state better known for the Grand Canyon, desert and snow-topped mountains than for wine, Tresner has been defining the state’s wine scene at The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., for more than 15 years. Over that time he has seen the sommelier profession and the wineries of Arizona grow, as well as his extensive wine list showcasing the best of the Phoenician’s restaurant
two wine cellars. And Arizona is benefiting from Tresner just as much as Il Terrazzo—Tresner regularly serves as a judge without cupidity for state-wide wine competitions.
So where should you start on a wine tour of Arizona? What does it take to make it as a Master Sommelier? Tresner tells all.
First and foremost, can you describe what it’s like to be the only Master Sommelier in Arizona? Are there advantages or disadvantages to being the only one?
I wish there were more! One of the advantages is being in a position to be offered to taste many wines. The disadvantage is finding the time to do it.
You grew up in Washington, which is a place that many great wine producers call home. So, why Arizona?
Washington has 2 climates, separated by the Cascade mountain range stretching from British Columbia to about mid-Oregon. The western bay and ocean side is maritime with rain and wind for many months. The eastern side is continental -- dry, hot summers with cold, snowy winters. I grew up on both sides. When I first came to Tucson, Arizona, I was accustomed to a drier environment. However, the scorching summer months did take some getting used to! I studied wine and participated in tasting groups and when an opportunity to work at Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician came by, I applied. Since 1998, I’ve had many great experiences related to working here.
How has the wine scene in Arizona changed over the past 20 years? Do you believe it will continue to grow?
When I was in Tucson, I was fortunate to meet some of the industry founders: Dr. Gordon Dutt, R.W. Webb and Kent Callaghan who had established wineries circa 1988 – 1998 and earlier. Today there are approximately 40 business enterprises, whether it be vineyard management or winery operations. Some of today’s influential wineries include Sand-Reckoner and the Arizona Stronghold network of winemakers and labels. Other wine professionals and I are invited to a blind tasting event sponsored by the local newspaper and the AZ wine growers. More than 150 wines are analyzed and favorites are chosen. The number of entries and quality has increased every year, so there’s definitely positive growth. There were maybe 50 wines submitted 16 years ago. There is one AVA (American Viticultural Area) which is Sonoita, about an hour’s drive south of Tucson in southern Arizona.
For people who aren’t familiar with Arizona wine producers, who are some producers that readers should keep an eye out for?
Callaghan, Dos Cabezas Wineworks, Sand-Reckoner, Page Springs and Caduceus are just a few one should investigate.
What are the wines that you specialize on when shaping the cellar at Il Terrazzo? Is there something that makes your cellar different than other cellars in the area?
The focus is Italian, which is the restaurant’s flavor, and California. Travelers look for West Coast wines when coming west. From Italy, I like to represent what the country is best known for: Barolo, Roero and Barbaresco from Piedmont; white wines from the northeast and Frascati; red wines from Tuscany and the Veneto region; and sparkling from Moscato d’Asti and Prosecco.
You previously championed “The Change Up” blend from the Behrens Family Winery. Are there any other blends that you’ve fallen for recently?
That wine has an excellent picture on the label and I ordered it as an homage to our local baseball spring training, which is coming up here quickly in the metro area. I also like Le Volte dell’Ornellaia from northwest Tuscany, Italy, for its blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon; moderate price and consistent quality.
The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz
What are your thoughts on the increasing interest in the sommelier profession that is reflected in documentaries like Somm and Esquire Network’s TV show Uncorked?
Somm has really spread the word about the profession and offers an account of how difficult one works to achieve goals in their chosen profession. I’m constantly responding to guests who liked the film. In Uncorked, one sees a candidate getting helpful, individual counseling for service and wine tasting challenges.
You claim to have always had an interest in wine, even so much as to make “super grape juice” as a kid. Do you think that’s the type of interest it takes to make it to the top level?
Well, that adds to the fun side of the business! People start from everywhere, but essential abilities to focus on aroma and taste are key, as well as a love of travel.
If you could give only three pieces of advice for someone interested in exploring the wine scene in Arizona, what would it be? Are there any specific places you would recommend visiting?
1. Cochise county near the town of Willcox on highway 10 to New Mexico, about 4 and a half hours from Phoenix. This is a growing area with the largest tracts of vineyards in AZ with beautiful views of Geronimo’s stronghold.
2. Sonoita and Elgin are small communities south of Tucson with wineries to visit. There’s ranches and grassland and an older fairgrounds and race track.
3. Verde Valley, Jerome, and Sedona have small vineyards and cooler weather; 3500-4500 feet in altitude. You’ll find excellent tasting rooms and phenomenal views of red sandstone!
Is there is anything else that you believe is important for readers to know to understand your profession and the wine scene in Arizona?
It is important to keep trying to be a better educator. I’m constantly working at it and hopefully will get there someday. One will find AZ wines positioned in most Phoenix Metro restaurants by the glass and bottle. There is great support here.
For more on Master Sommeliers, check out our feature on Esquire Network's show "Uncorcked".