Arizona's Wine Industry: A New and Vibrant Enterprise - By Dr. Jack August

 

 

Over the past few decades Arizona has developed a robust, profitable wine industry. Yet viticulture in Arizona predates the territorial period and extends back to the era of the Spanish missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fr. Francisco Eusebio Kino pioneered wine production in what is now Arizona. In the principal biography of his life, and in his own writings, Kino took pride in his agricultural enterprises including growing and harvesting grapes. In 1663, the supply ship Capitana delivered “the grapevines and young pomegranates and quinces” he had requested from the mainland. “And we planted them,” he wrote, “Trusting that in their time the Californias or Carolinas will produce wine for many masses.”

Kino subsequently migrated north and east to the Pimeria Alta, the vast borderlands encompassing today’s southern Arizona and the northern reaches of the Mexican province of Sonora. There, he industriously explored and mapped the region, built 24 missions, established ranches – and cultivated plots of vegetables, orchards and vineyards.

At his headquarters, Mission Nuestra Señora de los Dolores near Cosari in Sonora, where he lived and worked from the founding of the church in 1687 to his death in 1711, his green thumb yielded pomegranates, fig trees, peaches, quinces and “grapevines for wine.” In his own memoirs, the Jesuit raved of the fields of wheat, maize and beans, stands of European fruit trees, rows of vegetables, and vineyards “for Castilian wine for the missions” throughout Pimeria Alta.

Today there are nearly 50 licensed and bonded wineries throughout Arizona.  The first experimental vineyard in modern Arizona history, Sonoita Vineyards, was established in 1973 by A. Blake Brophy and Dr. Gordon Dutt. The tasting room was simple, situated on a hill overlooking rolling plains southeast of Tucson. Over the years a room for wedding receptions and large meetings was added. Whites and reds were served to adventurous patrons in the mid-1970s and Sonoita Vineyards continues to produce high quality wine. According to the Arizona Wine Growers

Association, climate and soil studies have revealed that this region is similar to Ribera Del Duero, Spain, southeastern Australia, and southern France.

From these modest beginnings the wine industry took off in three regions of Arizona where soil conditions and altitude combined to make ideal conditions for the establishment of vineyards. The Sonoita Area, the Willcox Area, and the Verde Valley Area have become established and well-known. Recently, some adventurous California expatriates have staked out land near Kingman and are producing wines that have gained increasing notice.

One of the Sonoita Area’s premiere growers, Callaghan Vineyards, founded in 1988, boasts a small, special tasting room. The Callaghan family--Kent, Lisa, and their daughter--have created a booming business. Callaghan wines have received praise from wine critics; one was served at Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement dinner.

Further south, the Rancho Rossa Vineyards near Elgin, Arizona, maintains a distinct operation. It is one of the largest family-owned wineries in the area and produces about 1100 cases of wine each year from 24 acres of estate fruit. Rancho Rossa is the only vineyard in the Sonoita Viticultural area that is 100% estate.  This means that the winery uses only the grapes grown there. Their 2004 Syrah won the 2005 Governor's Choice Award for Best Red Wine in the state.

In north central Arizona, there is a celebrity element to Verde Valley’s vibrant wine industry. Caduceus Cellars, a winery in Jerome, is owned by Maynard James Keenan, an innovative musician and singer known for fronting the progressive Grammy Award-winning rock band, “Tool.” The winery is named for an ancient symbol of commerce and staff of the Greek god, Hermes. His tasting room in Jerome, which is open 365 days a year, debuted in 2009. Caduceus' first wine, the limited edition Primer Paso (2005, 2006, 2007), sold out, and other awardwinning wines followed. Keenan has been a Verde Valley presence ever since.

Early in his foray into Arizona wine making, Keenan formed a partnership with another vintner, Eric Glomski. For several years they worked together until they went their separate ways in 2014. Glomski is recognized as an industry

“pioneer” in the Verde Valley and the “area’s best known vintner.” He is a rock star of sorts in his own right, winning 10 awards at the Jefferson Cup in 2011.  According to Master Sommelier and certified wine educator, Laura Williamson, “the amount of energy he has spent eradicating doubts that Arizona could produce high-quality wines has been infinite.” Glomski’s Page Springs Cellars and Vineyards, founded in 2003, is located 15 minutes south of Sedona, produces primarily Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenach, and Mourvedre. 

In fact, in 2006 when out-of-state distributors introduced a bill that would have prevented small Arizona wineries from selling their products directly to consumers and retailers, Glomski, along with Rod Keeling, of the Willcox Area’s Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards, and Phoenix water law attorney Robert Lynch, spearheaded prowinery legislation and personally lobbied state politicians. They were successful.  Glomski’s efforts benefited the Arizona wine industry as a whole and since this victory the number of federally bonded wineries in Arizona has more than tripled. 

The most recent area to attract new vintners is Kingman and Mohave County.  In 2006 California auto shop kingpin Carlos Cella noted the soil in and around Kingman was sandy, gravelly, unpromising-looking dirt. He sent a sample to a lab in Irvine, California and the testing results were “really good,” he recalled, “better than my vineyard in California.” Cella sparked one of the unlikeliest of things in Kingman: a wine scene. If one plots Arizona’s most respected and productive wine regions – Verde Valley, Willcox and Sonoita—they all reside in the 3,500- to 4,800-foot range, about twice as high as Phoenix.  Kingman sits at about 3,500 feet above sea level, the “sweet spot” for Arizona wine. “That’s about the elevation of the Willcox bench,” one vineyard broker asserts, referring to the fertile neighborhood in southern Arizona wine country that such well-regarded growers as Pillsbury Wine Company, Sand-Reckoner Vineyards and Bodega Pierce call home. The advantage of higher elevation is cooler temperatures akin to the great wine regions of Europe and California. 

Cella, his wife and some partners took their chance in Kingman. They called Verde Valley’s Glomski, who runs a sizable “custom-crush” concierge winemaking business in addition to his other operations and took the new growers’ grapes for processing. Glomski bottled the first estate Zinfandel and Merlot vintages this year. Other vintners are taking a chance on Kingman. 

Time will tell if Kingman ultimately joins the list of official “wine trails” sanctioned by the Arizona Wine Growers Association (arizonawine.org). Thus from an experimental winery in southern Arizona in the 1970s to the most recent efforts in northwestern Arizona, these agricultural pioneers have developed a new and vibrant industry.

 

By Jack L. August, Ph.D.

Arizona Food Industry Journal • October 2016