Like many who encounter the stunning red rock mountains and canyons surrounding the town of Sedona in Northern Arizona, Cara De Lavallade was awed by the region’s natural beauty. So much so that she left her career in Seattle’s thriving wine and restaurant scene to relocate to the high desert of the Verde Valley. In 2019, she took the helm as the beverage director for one of the Southwest’s top lodging destinations, Enchantment Resort, and its two restaurants, Tii Gavo and Che Ah Chi, the latter of which holds Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence for its wine list.
De Lavallade’s passion for wine has taken her to beautiful places before. Her decade-long professional wine journey began with a job at Local Vine, a wine bar in her native Seattle, where she returned after graduating college. “Everyone was so helpful and friendly. That’s very much the spirit of the wine community in Seattle,” she recalls.
As her expertise and experience grew, she went on to work with and direct wine programs at many of the city’s top restaurants, including the now-closed Stumbling Goat Bistro and Elemental, Tin Table, Terra Plata and the Barking Frog at Willows Lodge in Woodinville, another Best of Award of Excellence winner. She spent almost a year working and studying wine in Mendoza, Argentina, and also served as a sommelier for Silversea Cruises. She is currently studying for her Master Sommelier Exam. De Lavallade spoke with senior editor Kristen Bieler about the lure of restaurant jobs, how Arizona’s wineries are evolving, what she pairs with Southwestern cuisine and more.
Wine Spectator: Over the course of your career, you’ve held jobs in wine retail, as well as in wine distribution. What keeps pulling you back to restaurants?
I worked for a retailer in Buenos Aires, which was a fabulous experience. I got to refresh Francis Ford Coppola’s personal cellar there—that was fun! Then I moved to Mendoza to work for Vines of Mendoza for nine months and practice my Spanish. When I returned to the U.S., I took a job with an importer of Argentinean wines in the Northwest, but I realized I didn’t love sales. I didn’t want to live in my car. I wanted to get back to restaurants; I missed them. Now I certainly have a lot more empathy for people in wine sales jobs.
How did you end up leaving Seattle and moving to Sedona, Arizona?
My boyfriend accepted a position as the director of lodging at Enchantment Resort in Sedona in 2019 and asked if I wanted to move with him. After I visited and saw how gorgeous it is, and got a sense of the developing wine region, I had to agree with him: This place is stunningly beautiful and northern Arizona is not what I expected. So I made the move and then took the position as beverage director for Enchantment.
How have you changed the wine lists at Enchantment?
The wine cellar was very California-heavy, and many of our guests are from California. I set out to craft a more international and varied list and began by expanding primarily in Old World regions like Bordeaux, Piedmont, Tuscany and Rioja. But I’ve also made room for Sicily and Portugal and am even sneaking in more unusual wines from Slovenia and the Azores. Our clientele is fairly conservative in their wine selections, but that is changing, and I’m often able to introduce people to orange wines, pét-nat or natural wines for the first time.
You have also become a real champion of Arizona wines. How have you seen the local industry continue to evolve?
The Arizona wine scene kind of reminds me of what Washington’s wine regions would have been like in the 1980s. Producers have figured out how to grow grapes here and are now fine-tuning which varieties are best where, and attracting talent. The Verde Valley was just awarded AVA status last year, as Arizona’s third declared AVA, and the wine program at Yavapai Community College has become super important in developing this community, and for research and training.
This is one of the most extreme areas for winegrowing, and there is so much fascinating experimentation going on, with a strong focus on sustainability and dry farming. I’m still trying to familiarize myself with these wines and drink a lot of Arizona wine at home, and there are so many really delicious wines being made here today.
What are a few of your favorite Arizona wines that are currently on the wine list?
I pour the best of what this state has to offer, and have 25 Arizona wines on my list, and our guests are really interested in trying them. The price points are tricky. It’s hard to get value because production is so small at these wineries. I have three terrific wines by the glass right now: 2020 Rune Viognier, a balanced, citrusy, mineral-driven white; 2020 Sand Reckoner Malvasia Bianca, which is beautifully fresh and floral; and a Tempranillo-based 2016 red from Dos Cabezas.
Enchantment’s restaurants incorporate a lot of Southwestern cuisine, which features a lot of big flavors and spice. How do you craft a wine program that compliments the chefs’ fare?
I love a juicy round Grenache blend or a pure Grenache for this cuisine. It’s low in tannin and has a ton of fruit, so it’s a great foil for spice. For whites, Viognier offers a lot of roundness and juiciness, which pairs well. Malvasia is another great match, with an aromatic floral profile and lots of freshness and brightness to pair with a spicy dish.
Most restaurants and resorts were hit extremely hard by the pandemic, yet Enchantment thrived. Explain how that happened.
The pandemic hit right before our busiest season of the year—spring break. When we shut down mid-March, it was so bizarre to be on this property when we should have had 500 guests and have no one. We are on 75 acres of national park land, so the animals started moving in. There were deer everywhere, herds of javelina and many black bears. It was magical.
After eight weeks, we reopened, and we assumed it would be slow, but immediately the property was completely booked. Everyone wanted to get out of quarantine, and we were the ideal destination because of all the open space and outdoor hiking trails. People felt safe.
We had a record year at the property in 2020—and record sales for our wine program. It was the same in 2021. It’s crazy to think of, and I recognize that Arizona is a bit of a bubble.
What do you do when you are not working?
The Sedona area has so many incredible trails, we could go on a completely new hike every weekend and not repeat. We purchased a house in Cottonwood in 2020 and spend lots of time with our two dogs by the creek. We traded city restaurant-eating life for a life of hiking and being in nature.
What’s your biggest guest pet peeve?
I get frustrated when guests don’t want to talk to the sommelier because they believe the somm will be condescending or try to push them into ordering a more expensive wine. This perception is the fault of the wine industry to some extent.
I try to be very disarming and avoid any stuffiness in our service. When people try to resist the interaction, I see it as an opportunity. Recently, I had a guest who was very standoffish and said he wanted to spend less than $100 so I shouldn’t bother talking to him. I saw it as a chance to change his mind about what an interaction with a sommelier can be like, so I was incredibly friendly and showed him several Pinot Noirs in his price range. He ended up going with a Burgundy, which he enjoyed, and was very nice in the end.