Wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses against the glaring sun, Mark Beres clipped a cluster of petit verdot, a red grape varietal that’s one of the dozen grown on 15 acres of land owned by Flying Leap Vineyards south of Willcox. Called “small green” for its tendency to ripen late in the colder climate of its French homeland, petit verdot grows well in the sandy acid soil owned by Beres and his two business partners. “This is such good stuff,” Beres said, picking a grape off the vine and popping it in his mouth.
Flying Leap is one of around 100 vineyards that operate in three distinct areas in the state, including the Verde Valley in central Arizona, the Willcox area, and Sonoita, which is marked as one of the nation’s American Viticultural Areas. Here vintners are trying to carve out a business in the rugged territory that gives Arizona wine its distinctive flavor.
Flying Leap’s vineyard is tucked downslope of the granite peaks of the Dos Cabezas Mountains. At an elevation of 4,359 feet, the vineyard gets sunny days and cool nights, a combination that Beres called “perfect for wine grapes.”
The harvest began at Flying Leap in mid-September. Four workers quickly snipped grape clusters from the vine and dropped them into plastic trays in deft, practiced movements. They stacked the trays and hauled them to huge plastic bins, where thousands of grapes would be trucked to the winery’s crush facility near Elgin, 80 miles to the west. They were working hard, drinking water from Camelbacks and wearing gaiters over their boots to protect against any errant rattlesnakes hiding in the brush beneath their feet.
Beres picked at another vine, a white grape called piquepoul blanc, or “lip stinger.” “Look you cannot make good wine with bad grapes,” he said. “Unlike beer or whiskey, wine’s character, quality, and price are tied directly to where the grapes are grown.”
Yet, despite the relationship of a wine to its terroir, the taste and flavor a wine acquires from its environment, some wine producers in Arizona may be intentionally mischaracterizing the source of their wine, labeling it as “Arizona wine” when the grapes in fact come from elsewhere.
For Beres and other wine growers, selling grapes produced in California or New Mexico as Arizona wine presents a threat to the state’s growing wine industry.
This threat surfaced in January of 2015 in a contentious court case. According to court filings, the co-owner of Sand-Reckoner Vineyards, Rob Hammelman and his wife, Sarah, sued the owners of Aridus Wine Company, which operates a custom crush facility in Willcox; they argued that the company was engaging in “unfair and deceptive” practices by “misleading labeling and marketing its wines.”
Hammelman went further, writing that three of Aridus’ wines were sourced using California grapes, but that its label gives the impression that all of Aridus’ wines were produced in Arizona. Aridus’ label describes the Arizona desert as “both inhospitable and devoid of life, but behind this facade exists a landscape teeming with life. This wild, untamed terrain is home to Aridus.”
Other winemakers filed their own briefs in support, including James Callahan, owner of Rune Wines in Sonoita, who wrote that “referring to the desert terroir in the description Aridus is intentionally misleading consumers as to the origin of the wine.”
Because the riskiest part of producing wine is growing grapes, Arizona winemakers want to defend the brand, and the slight premium, that comes with growing grapes in Arizona’s rugged terrain.
While frost and drought are well-known problems, the possibility of blight, or disease, is a constant concern. Crops have even been destroyed by wind-blown smoke, including several crops damaged by the 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire near Sierra Vista.
Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards knows this all too well. Frost wiped out one of his crops in 2006; in 2010 he lost another crop to hail. And, yet these risks also help make Arizona wine distinctive. “Everything is a double-edged sword. Easy growing conditions usually yield pleasant, boring wines,” he said. “There’s a reason people plant vineyards on hillsides around the world and it has nothing to do with easy.”
In 2010, Callaghan was able to buy fruit in Arizona, but for his next two vintages, he bought California grapes as a way to stay in business, he said.
“Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot. We’re all on the edge,” said Rod Keeling, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, a group that lobbies for the state’s wine producers. “We had frost after frost, but all it took was two to four degrees and it changed,” said Keeling, who owns Keeling Schaefer Vineyards. “I went from almost going broke to four good vintages,” he said.
“It is much cheaper for someone making wine in Arizona to buy their grapes from other sources,” said Sam Pillsbury of Pillsbury Wine Company. “Many winemakers do so, preferring out-of-state sourcing of grapes to the time, expense, and bone-crunching hard work involved in raising your own grapes in the Arizona earth.”
“It’s pretty damn hard to make money in this business,” Keeling said. Winemaking is 80 percent janitorial, he said. “Something’s always broken when you wake up. Imagine your house. Now multiply that by 50 times and you’ve got a winery.”
For consumers, knowing the origin of a wine at a glance can be difficult. The Lanham Act, a 1946 law that prohibits false advertising, as well as regulations enforced by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau offer strict requirements for labeling, but there are still loopholes that can make the origin of a wine fuzzy.
“Generally speaking, the requirements for labeling are easy, but there are parts that are counterintuitive,” said Thomas Ale Johnson, a graphic designer who has produced many labels for winemakers. “You can’t call a wine ‘fortified’ because people might think it has vitamins,” he said.
Wine labels also uphold products with a protected designation of origin. “A new dessert wine can’t be called Port wine; the TTB will say no, just like you can’t call any new sparkling wine Champagne,” he said.
However, wineries can use the appellation “American” because that designation just means the wine was produced in the United States. Other wines can use the term “vinted,” a word that simply means produced. That could mean almost anything, Johnson said.
“Really, the best indicator is to look for good descriptions about the region,” Johnson said. “The ground is the key element.”
A wine that was grown, produced, and bottled in Arizona is an Arizona wine, Johnson said. Johnson said that the size of the state’s wine industry actually makes this easier. “You can just get in touch with the winemakers,” he said. “They’re going to be proud of what they made, and they’ll talk about their wine.”
Rebecca Safford, co-owner of Tap & Bottle, agreed. “Every vineyard that we sell, we’ve spoken to or met the people who run it,” Safford said. “As a retailer, I want to know where our products come from … From a pragmatic view, Arizona wines are pricey,” she said. “But, Arizona wines have a lot to offer, and I feel like I can stand behind them.”
Keeling said that transparency is essential. “Authenticity is how we position our wine brand,” he said. Six years ago, he said, he told an association meeting that the group needed to work on authenticity, and he “got ripped. People weren’t happy with me,” he said.
“We have to be clear with the label because it’s unfair for people who aren’t putting in all this blood and sweat to reap all the branding benefits of Arizona wine,” said Beres. “Arizona wine is more expensive because of all the work that goes into it.”
Until recently, the lack of consistent crops made it hard for wine producers to get grapes grown in the state. But that situation has changed over the last few years as more vineyards have come online. Because of hot, sunny weather, good rain, and improved operations, some vineyards are so successful that they will leave grapes in the field as compost for next year’s crop, said Keeling. And yields are improving.
At Flying Leap, Beres showed off a system of sensors that are connected to two giant fans. When the air temperature threatens to freeze the vines, the fans—which resemble helicopter blades pitched vertically—begin to spin, dragging warmer air down to the grapes. Beres said that he’s also actively tweaking the chemistry of the soil to get better yields, and experimenting with European vines grafted to American roots.
But challenges remain. There’s a “constant battle to defend business rights,” Keeling said, especially as the Arizona wine industry grows. The Willcox region faces two challenges—water and development. The area sits above a closed basin, so groundwater remains the only potential source of water, even as there’s growing competition from new pecan growers and other large-scale agriculture.
However, Keeling thinks the wine business will remain and grow to become a powerful influence on rural communities. “How in the world does a town like Willcox have good schools, clean water, and do all the things they want to do?” he asked. “They need economic development and the wine business has the potential to really change some of the rural communities.”
For Willcox, this means a chance to relive the agricultural days of post-World War II, when 26,000 acres were cultivated in Kansas Settlement, an area of farms established in the early 20th century. There in the sandy soil in that part of the sky islands area, where the desert lowland is punctuated by vast mountain ranges, farmers grew a variety of cash crops, including cotton, sorghum, field corn, and alfalfa.
Today, Kansas Settlement is at the heart of the state’s most productive wine region. In 2013, the Willcox area produced around 74 percent of the state’s wine, according to a report by the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. The growth of the wine industry doesn’t mean just farms but also tasting rooms and restaurants that have opened among downtown Willcox’s abandoned storefronts.
“There’s a lot of pride and accomplishment here that comes with trying to do something really, really well,” Beres said. “It is like a drug, and you’ll do anything to do it again.” ✜
Arizona Wine Growers Association. ArizonaWine.org.
Paul Ingram is a Tucson-born writer, photographer, and multimedia producer based in southern Arizona. He can be found scribbling in a notebook at one of the city’s many taco shops.