A Grape Grows In Sonoita

After three decades of coaxing grape vines out of shaky soils, Baja Arizona’s wine industry is coming of age and bottling distinctive desert terroir.

November 1, 2013

FeaturesIssue 3: November/December 2013Purple

A place doesn’t have to make its own wine to be taken seriously. There are ships and trucks for those not blessed with the climate, soil, and talented fanatics to make their own. But having your own helps create an identity because wine, maybe more than any other agricultural product, is of the place where its grapes are grown. That’s the French concept of terroir. And less than 40 years since its infancy, southern Arizona’s wine industry has moved past the novelty of growing grapes in the desert.

So, while Southern Arizona may be best known in culinary circles for the chimichanga and the Sonoran hot dog, we’ve now got wine. Good wine. Sometimes great wine.

 It takes hard work and practiced hands to harvest undamanged grapes from the field. A worker at Callaghan Vineyards knows the drill.

It takes hard work and practiced hands to harvest undamanged grapes from the field. A worker at Callaghan Vineyards knows the drill.

Southern Arizona winemakers—making wine from grapes grown in the Sonoita and Elgin area 50 miles southeast of Tucson and more recently near Willcox, 85 miles to the east—have the ribbons, medals, and rave reviews from big shot wine critics to prove it. Southern Arizona has become a place increasingly capable of producing fine wines made from its own grapes. But, it didn’t come easily or instantly.

The story of this success isn’t a deep one. Less than 25 years ago, wine making in the desert still wasn’t much more than a long shot based on the heavy sweat and wild hope of some grape-growing hobbyists turned semipro. In the mid 1970s, a handful of adventurous sorts saw the similarities between soil and climate in southeastern Arizona and some of those places that produced great wines.

At the Aridus Crush Facility, grapes come in and bottled wine goes out. What happens in between is in the domain of Scott Dahmer.

At the Aridus Crush Facility, grapes come in and bottled wine goes out. What happens in between is in the domain of Scott Dahmer.

Gordon Dutt, a University of Arizona soil scientist, was probably the first to have any noted success, planting vines in the 1970s and making some decent wines under his Sonoita Vineyards label by the early-to-mid 1980s from grapes grown on land in Elgin. Just as importantly, he encouraged others who showed an interest.

A number of other smaller operators, some advanced hobbyists, made wine in southern Arizona from California grapes, and a few from small plantings grown in Arizona.

But it wasn’t until Callaghan Vineyards of Elgin scored a rave review from famed wine critic Robert Parker that people outside Arizona—and soon outside the United States—began to take Arizona winemaking seriously. Indeed, if southern Arizona’s wine potential ever became official, it was when Parker, of The Wine Advocate, blessed a 1993 bottle of Callaghan Vineyards’ Buena Suerte Cuvee with a score of 92. Suddenly, Arizona wine became more than a liquid gift shop gimmick peddled to tourists from a shelf next to the scorpion bolo ties and stuffed jackalopes.

Making wine takes good grapes, and growing good grapes takes backbreaking hard work, considerable luck with weather, disease and bugs—and some intangibles. And the grapes then must be in the hands of a talented and a highly determined, and often obsessed and quirky, winemaker. But first comes that hard work, most of it during harvest.

Todd and Kelly Bostock, a couple in their mid-30s, are the owners of Dos Cabezas Wineworks in Sonoita. By late September, the Phoenix natives have been working 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, for weeks. It’s not even 9 a.m., and it’s already hot, the smell of ripe fruit is thick, and bees are everywhere. Kelly wrangles boxes of Tempranillo grapes picked many days earlier and de-stemmed, and left to ferment to a desired level, toward the winery’s press. She and Todd scoop them out of the giant plastic boxes using five-gallon orange plastic buckets and dump them into a press. The German-made press is a horizontal, perforated stainless steel drum with a flexible bladder inside that, when filled with compressed air after the loading door is closed, squeezes the juice from the grapes, through the holes and into a huge steel pan below.

The plastic boxes are about four foot square, and just as deep. Todd tips the box so Kelly, standing on a short step stool, can scoop out the last grapes without falling in. Todd says he could get an attachment for their old forklift to allow them to dump the grapes straight into the press, but he likes to keep the process as “hands on” as possible. Somehow, it is these things, he says, that make Dos Cabezas’ wines different.

Workers at Dos Cabezas take a break from an early-morning grape harvest. Most wineries will use only five or six workers to harvest all their grapes.

Workers at Dos Cabezas take a break from an early-morning grape harvest. Most wineries will use only five or six workers to harvest all their grapes.

And there’s a lot of this hands-on work. While Todd may be the official winemaker, he says, “People don’t realize that if I just moved 3,000 pounds of grapes, Kelly moved 3,000 pounds of grapes.” Indeed, their purple-stained hands won’t return to a normal color until after this season ends.

Kelly keeps moving grapes around, through various stages of the process leading up to pressing, while Todd takes samples of already picked grapes packed in gallon-size Ziploc bags, crushes them by hand in the bag, and then uses an electronic tester to measure each sample’s acidity and sugar level. Then he tastes the juice and records the numbers and his impressions in a stained winemaker’s log book. He does this to every batch of grapes, juice and wine-in-the-making every day. It guides his decisions about what to do next, and will hopefully help him remember what conditions preceded vintages that will hopefully be considered great—or not so great—months or years from now.

“We’re finally overcoming [the notion] that people are surprised that it isn’t bad,” Todd says of fighting the novelty of growing grapes and making fine wine in dry, brown Arizona. “But, if you like drinking wine, it may not be your wine, but there’s a wine made in Arizona that will do it for you.”

As the winemaker for Dos Cabezas, Todd Bostock learned his craft through a combination of on-the-job-training in Sonoita and weekend classes at the University of California at Davis, the leading U.S. program for wine grape growers and winemakers.

But like other southern Arizona winemakers, he repeats the truism that “Southern Arizona isn’t California. When they first brought vines [to the U.S. from Europe], it was stuff intended for California. And we’re not California, so you don’t know until you put it into the ground.”

Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks aren’t afraid of a little purple juice.

Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks aren’t afraid of a little purple juice.

And that is why the experience of those who came first, albeit only a decade or even a few years before him, is so important—even trumping what one can learn from the grape gurus at UC Davis. Bostock apprenticed with Frank DiChristofano and later Kent Callaghan, then the winemakers at Dos Cabezas when he started there in 2002. “I don’t even pretend I could have done this without what I learned from them,” says Bostock, who became the lead winemaker in 2003. He’s talking of Dutt, DiChristofano, Callaghan, and another legend, Al Buhl, the founder and former owner of Dos Cabezas.

With nearly 30 varieties of grapes growing between Dos Cabezas’ vineyards—15 acres in Sonoita, and another 28 acres near Willcox—all of which ripen at different dates, the harvest goes on for a long time. “Our harvest gets dragged out over two months,” Bostock says. “For those doing just one [type of grape], it’s over in two weeks.” And that probably sounds inviting to the Bostocks right now. The couple have two boys, 11 and 5, and one or the other has to dash off from their grape wrangling to run kid errands—breakfast, school or sports practice, dinner.

“We’re finally overcoming [the notion] that people are surprised that it isn’t bad,” Todd says of fighting the novelty of growing grapes and making fine wine in dry, brown Arizona. “But, if you like drinking wine, it may not be your wine, but there’s a wine made in Arizona that will do it for you.”

A few miles away in Elgin, Kent Callaghan, the winemaker and local legend for that Parker review and rating, is the grumpy boss of the small, and mostly one-man operation. (Bostock, by the way, says it’s somewhat unfair, and maybe a little bit annoying to Callaghan, to be treated like a legend, the guru of the local vines and wines. “It must be hard for Kent,” says Bostock. “People talk about him like he’s some old guy. He’s not even 50.”)

Sarah and Rob Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner Winery watch the transformation of grape to juice at the Aridus Crush Facility.

Sarah and Rob Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner Winery watch the transformation of grape to juice at the Aridus Crush Facility.

But Callaghan has and continues to make some of the area’s most highly regarded wines. He’s still hard at it. This time of year, late September, he probably doesn’t have any time to think about what others think of him and his place in all of this.

Callaghan, who with his father planted a vineyard in Elgin in 1990, calls the Parker review and 92 point rating a turning point. But it was anything but easy street even after Parker’s blessing.

Even today, with Callaghan Vineyards’ wines having earned major awards and ratings, and the honor of being served at White House dinners, the name is hardly a license to print money. His friend, Lisa Barkley, handles the humble, cluttered tasting room and some of the marketing, and he has but one full-time employee, and only during harvest, when he rides herd on the pickers and brings in giant plastic boxes of grapes from the adjacent vineyards using a trailer made from an old, yellow pickup truck box towed by a small blue tractor. The rest of the year, it’s mostly just Callaghan.

A cluster of grapes at Callaghan Vineyards.

A cluster of grapes at Callaghan Vineyards.

He mutters and grumbles as he charges between giant plastic hoppers that hold recently harvested grapes outside and the succession of stainless steel machines, metal tanks and oak barrels behind the tasting room at the Elgin winery.

This isn’t some dilettante’s diversion, an amusing hobby for a gentleman farmer. This day, in the crush of the late harvest—Callaghan’s got a bumper crop of grapes and just learned from his assistant that more are ready—he looks like he could take over for Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs.” The only thing that isn’t about wine in this echoing, hanger-sized metal building is a big leg press machine with an impressive pile of weights on the bar. It’s pushed to the side, boxed in by barrels and boxes. Callaghan looks fit, but he doesn’t need weights to stay that way during harvest.

Callaghan says he doesn’t want the winery to get too big. He’d prefer to stay producing about 1,500 to 1,800 cases a year. To do that, and make a living, wholesale accounts for only about five percent of sales. The vast majority is sold through the tasting room, Callaghan says. And he says even the sales through the tasting room aren’t what they appear to be. “Everybody thinks it’s better when it’s busy, but we do better when we’re not busy. Tour buses do us basically no good whatsoever. More serious people buy more,” says Callaghan. Serious wine people don’t arrive on tour buses.

This year is a big harvest, and could produce more than enough juice for his purposes. He said that “interplanting,” replacing vines that were frozen out a couple years ago, has given him vines that are just now coming into production. It’s the sweet side of what was a bad time.

“We lost a lot of vines that winter when it got down to 18 [degrees] two nights in a row in Tucson [in February of 2011]. Down here it was eight degrees,” Callaghan says of the hard freeze.

Even with Parker’s and other critics’ continuing praise for Callaghan, Sonoita, and Elgin don’t stand alone like France’s Bordeaux and Burgundy, California’s Napa and Sonoma, Italy’s Piemonte and Toscano, or Australia’s Barossa.

Willcox is pushing wine the way it used to push apples and Rex Allen Days as a tourist draw and economic engine.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms says Sonoita is Arizona’s sole American Viticultural Area, or AVA. But let’s not get too excited. Minnesota has one and Arkansas has three. Getting an AVA doesn’t certify that you’re good, just that you have a recognized and definable geographic area. And with the kind of production coming out of the Sonoita and Elgin wineries, there isn’t going to be enough Southern Arizona wine to create a worldwide market.

The less recognized Willcox and Kansas Settlement areas of Cochise County, 85 miles east of Tucson and northeast of Sonoita, are also producing some fine wines of their own—and more quantity. The Verde Valley, near Cottonwood and Prescott, also has a growing wine industry, though most of the grapes for that area’s most highly regarded wineries come from Southern Arizona vineyards—mainly the Willcox area.

The wine fields at Callaghan Vineyards, with the tasting room/warehouse in the distance.

The wine fields at Callaghan Vineyards, with the tasting room/warehouse in the distance.

Hard rock band frontman-turned-winemaker Maynard Keenan of Merkin Vineyards, Arizona Stronghold and Caduceus Cellars has a presence near Cottonwood, but his and winemaking partner Eric Glomski’s (Page Springs Cellars) juice is coming from Willcox-area vineyards. Film and TV director-turned winemaker Sam Pillsbury, a Phoenix resident, also uses Cochise County grapes to make wines for his Pillsbury Wine Company.

Indeed, the production capacity needed to put Southern Arizona on the worldwide wine map may come from Willcox rather than Sonoita.

A couple miles east of downtown Willcox, next to the Willcox Livestock Auction, is an impressive, or at least large, series of steel buildings that is home to the fledgling Aridus Wine Company. Truck loads of grapes come in one side of the first building and cases of bottled wine behind several different producers leave from the last—or at least that’s the plan. The seven-figure remodel of a former Willcox apple warehouse is capable of putting out more wine than the rest of the Arizona wine industry, according to owner Scott Dahmer. He says this is a first for Arizona, the kind of place you’d see in California, the kind of one-stop facility that could help the industry reach critical mass locally.

“This is the largest crush facility in Arizona,” both in the number of tanks and square feet, says Dahmer, a former California wine country graphic artist.

Picking at Callaghan Vineyards.

Picking continues at Callaghan Vineyards.

“We can take it from bin to bottle,” Dahmer says. “I could have bought two Ferraris for what it cost,” Dahmer says of the fancy Italian bottling and labeling machines in the rearmost warehouse of the Aridus complex. And that’s just the bottling end.

This one-stop approach goes beyond de-stemming, crushing, and bottling. Aridus also offers the services of winemaker Rob Hammelman, who learned his craft working and studying in Australia, France and Colorado. Besides hiring out his talent and credentials—he earned an advanced degree in oenology from the University of Adelaide in South Australia—Hammelman is making his own wines under the Sand-Reckoner label.

Willcox is pushing wine the way it used to push apples and Rex Allen Days as a tourist draw and economic engine. There are already several tasting rooms in the Willcox area representing labels produced from local grapes, and there are plans to open even more.

Dos Cabezas, though its winery and tasting room are in Sonoita, has most of its acreage in Willcox’s Kansas Settlement area to the south of town. And Oregon Pinot Noir pioneer and legend Dick Erath still has more than 100 acres of suitable, but unplanted, land adjacent to Bostock’s Dos Cabezas vineyards and not far from those of several other vineyards.

Kent Callaghan mans the forklift.

Kent Callaghan mans the forklift.

Dahmer says he chose to do things backwards—starting with the winemaking facility before the vineyard to produce his own grapes. “We have land, but we’re just clearing it,” he says. “We’re doing all of the harvest processing for Sam Pillsbury, Erath, Sand-Reckoner, Arizona Stronghold, all of the Kansas Settlement area.” And he said a number of other winemakers, including well-established Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards and his own Aridus label, are putting in even more acreage, in his case near Turkey Creek, about 32 miles south from Willcox.

“This year we’re looking to do 200 tons [of grapes],” says Dahmer—five times what Aridus processed in 2012. Dahmer says that on a recent Saturday, the facility processed 40 tons, equaling the total for the previous year in one day.

Hammelman, the 36-year-old owner of Sand-Reckoner and the contract winemaker for Aridus, says the time is right for the expansion. (Hammelman got his start working a summer job at Dos Cabezas Winery—a generational lineage that proves the industry is coming of age). The massive production facility, with a cafeteria line of services ranging from partial to complete winemaking, will further spur growth in the local industry.

“There’s been huge growth in Arizona in the last five years,” Hammelman says. “If we decided to do it 10 years ago, it would have been almost impossible. Just everything that goes into it, from labor to attracting people into the tasting rooms.” And Dahmer says that while the Aridus plant looks massive, compared to other local operations, it’s exactly the kind of thing that you would see in California’s wine country. When producers and wineries get big enough, they buy their own facilities. Until then, Dahmer says, Aridus can give them the equipment and services to get them to that next step.

But the next stage will take driven and talented winemakers, as well as investment. With relatively young, but already experienced winemakers such as Bostock and Hammelman, both only 36, it appears that next generation is already here.

An Outsider’s Approval

When Dick Erath answered the phone in early October, the 78-year-old engineer-turned-winemaker had just come in from his Oregon vineyard where he had been fixing a propane cannon used to scare off birds bent on eating those precious grapes that the year’s cruel weather hadn’t murdered.

“Everybody wants the sugar,” Erath said, 50 some years into—and long resigned to—the facts of the vineyard owner and winemaker’s life. Making wine is always a struggle. Those grapes weren’t ruined by the 6.7 inches of rain that fell in September, ominously late in the Oregon season, and he wasn’t about to give them to the feathered freeloaders.

That the famous Dick Erath is dabbling in southern Arizona’s wine scene caused notice to be taken locally and nationally. It’s the kind of thing that serves as a de facto endorsement of the area to outsiders. After all, Erath and the Pinot Noirs he started making in Oregon in the 1960s and 70s were key in putting that state on the New World’s serious wine country map, just behind California. He’s been visiting southern Arizona for many years, and still has houses in Tucson and Green Valley, though he’s spending most of his time up in Oregon these days and has a contract with St. Michelle, the wine giant that bought his Erath label in 2006. But his vineyard near Willcox and his winemaking collaborations, most notably with Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas, continue to draw a lot of attention.

Although he made his name in Oregon on Pinot Noir, he’s an advocate for blends in southern Arizona. He thinks it’s likely that many of those varieties that originated in the hotter regions of Italy, including Sicily, and Spain that are more suited to Southern Arizona’s hot and dry climate.

Erath’s collaboration with Bostock, sold under the Cimarron label, consists of two blends, one of Spanish grapes, the other of Italian. But, Erath says, “We’re still trying to figure out which varieties are best” for southern Arizona’s hot, dry and high vineyards.

Erath said southern Arizona’s wine scene takes him back to his early days in Oregon. “Arizona now reminds me of Oregon 30 years ago,” says Erath. “We’re still trying to figure things out. We didn’t have so much of which varieties to plant in Oregon because we’re so cool up here we’re really limited in our selection. The issue we had is we didn’t know how to best plant, the spacing to use, what kind of training systems you use, and how to deal with our weather.

“The whole concept [in southern Arizona] is the same thing we did in Oregon. You want to pick a variety that fits the growing season that you have. I call it ‘a window in time.’ When you can fit that window, you’re going to make the best possible wine,” he says. But the industry is small enough that growers could use some help.

Asked if anything is holding Arizona’s wine industry back from the kind of success experienced in California, Oregon, and Washington, Erath says, “I wouldn’t say it’s holding [Arizona] back, but… There is a lot of stuff going on down there and it would be nice to get the University [of Arizona] involved,” says Erath. “We’ve discovered that there’s Pierce’s disease [an insect-borne bacterial disease that damages grape plants’ ability to move water] at some of the vineyards down there. There’s really no known cure for that. So, that’s an issue.” Another issue in disease control comes from the fact that, in Arizona, “you have the monsoons coming through the same time the grapes are getting ripe,” he says.

The answer, Erath says, will probably come from combining experience and research, which takes both growers, winemakers, and a dedicated university group. “You have to get close to Mother Nature,” Erath says. “’Snuggle up with Mother Nature,’ I call it.”

It so happens that the UA is ready to help, says Jeffrey Silvertooth, associate dean and director for economic development and extension in the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

While Silvertooth says the agriculture school was distanced from the wine industry in recent years, it is now working on a collaboration that could assist southern Arizona grape growers and wineries with needed research, and some training. Silvertooth says the local wine industry is still young, and too small to fund its own research, but could benefit from pooling resources to fund research through the UA. The college is also providing opportunities for students to complete the second half of a four-year degree in sustainable agriculture at the UA to those with a two-year degree in viticulture from Yavapai College.

In the end, Erath says, growing wine grapes is just agriculture, a lot closer to farming than most people drinking the product will ever know. And another thing: Erath wishes people would quit taking wine so seriously. “A lot of people worship wine. They should just drink it and enjoy it,” he says. ✜

Dan Sorenson is a freelance writer, musician, longtime Tucson newspaper reporter—and fan of the grape arts. (His hobbies include searching for $9 bottles of wine he wouldn’t feel bad about paying $50 for in a good restaurant. They’re out there.)

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