The winegrowers are trying to be optimistic about climate change. It’s worth a try, I think. Why spend your days imagining forests desertified? Ice caps melted? Polar bears drowning? Humans are basically optimists and people who grow grapes are good at looking at the bright side of things. In Canada, thanks to global warming, vintners are hoping they will be able to raise Cabernet Sauvignon grapes soon. The vintners are adapting to incremental, but eventually extreme, change. And they’re patient. They’re planting now for an eventual future.
Arizona is the opposite of Canada. Here, winegrowers are worried about the temperatures climbing too high, even for Cabernet. Canada might worry, as the glaciers melt, about too much water. Arizona worries about water disappearing.
Arizona has a long wine history, dating back to the sixteenth century when Jesuit priests tended vines and made wine for ceremonial purposes. Most of the grapes in Arizona are grown in Willcox or Sonoita, in the southeastern part of the state, where white oak forests give way to grasslands, which give way to rows of vines. Along the perimeter? Prickly pear cactus. Who would think cactus and grapes go together? No one. Or no one except Gordon Dutt who, as a soil scientist, knew that soil surprises. In 1973, he discovered the pH in the red soil of very southern Arizona to be identical to the red soil, terra rosa, in the Cote d’Or region of France. And so, if soil is at least half of the bargain, why not plant some vines? So he did.
He thought at first that the harsh Arizona sun might bleach the grapes or produce grapes with too low acidity. But that didn’t happen. So Gordon Dutt bought a few more vineyards and opened the first winery in Arizona, Sonoita Vineyards.
He had his share of setbacks. Hail. Drought. Sharpshooters—mosquito-like insects that infest grape vines. All the vines died. He had to replant and wait three years for the vines to produce fruit. He staved off the next infiltration by planting blackberries around the vineyards and spraying them with insecticide. The poisonous blackberry vines killed the sharpshooters, the grapes went on to make wines that won awards. Now run by his granddaughter and her husband, the wine is sold across the country.
There are people who sought this state out, who chose these varied climates on purpose. Even wine people. Between Sedona and Cottonwood, the road to Page Springs turns flat and dismal. Like cow-flat and chaparral dismal—the kind of scrub plants that hug tightly to the ground, tucking away from the sun. Looking at the scrappy leaves on the chaparral, you’d think there is no way anyone could grow anything delicious here, let alone grapes. But then you turn left and there is Oak Creek. Birds fly outward from the watercourse like there’s somewhere better to go. They figure out quickly that there is not and return. To the right, as the road twists by the creek, riparian vegetation abounds with cottonwoods, willows, reeds. To the left, full-on desert sand. You get whiplash between the contrasts—lush to the right, vapid to the left, abundance to the right, scarcity to the left.
But that variation presents challenges and benefits to winegrowers. If the tiniest variation can lead to different outcomes, then unless you know all the permutations of variation, the outcomes will not turn out as you had hoped. I sit on a deck overlooking Oak Creek with Eric Glomski, the co-founder of Page Springs Winery. A small vineyard extends toward the river. Glomski planted two varietals, mainly Grenache, near the bottom of the river where the river materials are mostly gravel and sand. Grenache is known to be vigorous and he thought the gravel would keep the vines in check, vigor-wise, allowing the grapes, which like warm air, to produce a good mixture of sweetness and acid.
But he was wrong. Lower is not always warmer. The river valley drains cold air all the way from upper Oak Creek and the edge of Flagstaff. Cold air is denser and flows down the valley across the bottom of the vineyard that had been planted with Grenache. They realized that the lower-elevation of the vineyard is radically colder. Eight years later, he still hadn’t gotten a crop off those vines.
Glomski shakes his head like he can’t believe this happened to him, after all that research, after being a river ecologist, for God’s sake.
“We tried all these different things—built straw bales to act as a wall, a fan that takes air from the ground and shoots it into the sky. Years and years late, we finally pulled out those Grenache vines one-by-one and planted a French-American hybrid. GewÜrztraminer and Soave-blanc. That’s just one of many examples that you learn about microclimates by farming. When you live a lifestyle where your economic sustenance is directly linked to the cycles of nature, you have no choice but to become very conscious of those things.”
In such a variable climate, adaptability makes or breaks a winery, and climate and soil make or break grapes. Because of Arizona’s diverse topography and climate, one can reach from around the state to find grapes with different textures and tolerances. Eric Glomski brings grapes from Sonoita to Page Springs to blend and complicate the grapes he grows by Oak Creek. But the signature flavor comes from the primary place the winegrowers established their own vineyards. Glomski and Dutt chose to plant their vineyard in a particular spot because of the soil, its volcanic material, an extrusive igneous rock, a blackish kind of gray basalt. Underneath that basalt is a bed of limestone. Layers of complicated soil make complicated grapes. Limestone is one of the golden jewels of winegrowing because it has a high pH that limits the vigor of the vines. You want the vines to suffer so they put more energy into the fruit. Choosing your soil means you manage the suffering. The climate variations tend to manage you.
Saguaro and sauvignon are not words you usually use in the same sentence. It’s September and 107 degrees and I worry about the Village of Elgin Winery, which processes its grapes the old fashioned way, meaning they stomp the grapes with their feet. Boiling grape juice, burning toes. But there are some similarities to Europe. Oleander shrubs line the freeways just as they do in France. There is a little of France in every vineyard, if you look for it.
When I told Mark Beres of Flying Leap Vineyard about Glomski’s poor Grenache and asked if he had any similar stories, he told me that he didn’t mean to change the dirt. But he did, on accident.
“One of the more interesting issues we’ve had to tackle is soil pH. As you know, soil pH is a very, very important thing with regards to grapevine growth. Grapevines prefer mildly acidic soil, but can thrive anywhere from a pH of 6.4 to 7.7,” he said. “When we first pulled soil samples on our Block 1 field in 2009, the static pH of the soil was 7.1. This was absolutely ideal. However, we forgot a few things along the way. Our area is widely covered with several layers of bicarbonate—caliche, high calcium rock below the surface. When surface water perks down through this, it becomes basic.” Essentially, by the time the water gets all the way down to the leach gravels below, it has turned into alka-seltzer. “When we drilled down to the leach gravel and began to pump this water up to the surface and drip it on our vines, we were essentially applying basic water onto our perfectly balanced soil. In two years, we increased the soil pH from 7.1 to 8.1, and I about had a frickin’ heart attack.
“Solving this pH and nutrient dilemma required a lot of engineering work and money. This year, we designed and built a rather elegant acidification system for our irrigation, and we began to apply specific combinations of liquid acid and dry elements to both replenish the soil and adjust its pH. We also began a clever composting routine to throttle the changes with organic matter, necessary salts, and decaying plant material.”
In Arizona, every big band of climate and soil and moisture has little tiny bands within it. There are little bands within the big bands at every winery. Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks underscores what Glomski knows about adjusting whole vineyards. Two times in a row, he planted Grenache and, in the winter, the temperature dropped, uncommonly, to below six degrees. Fatal for Grenache vines. He started planting more whites—viogniers. He says, “That’s one of the first things I learned. To give up my taste and let the grapes guide me.” We talked about how that’s one great thing about trying to grow grapes in the desert—you try to change the desert, the vines, the wine, the grapes, but in the end, the wine, the vines, the desert changes you.
Possibly because Arizona is a relatively new winegrowing region, and definitely because everyone is watching what you do with water, Arizona growers try to grow grapes as sustainably as they can. Sustainability is the slow version of adaptability’s quick neediness—you want these vines to last far into the future even as you tinker and manipulate them. Vineyards are meant to be old. For vines to be old, they need an earth healthy enough to grow old upon. Kief Manning, winemaker and co-owner of Kief-Joshua Vineyards, works with the earth by paying attention to sustainable growing methods.
“We have been talking to a local nonprofit in the area that is devoted to maintaining and developing agricultural diversity and sustainability in the Southwest to figure out proper planting schedules and species [like clover, vetch, mustards, legumes] to be used as non-irrigated cover crops in the vineyard to help build soil structure, promote nitrogen fixing bacteria and plants, water infiltration and maintain the biodiversity of our native soils,” he said.
By growing cover crops between vines, you keep water in, pests out. Less water, fewer pesticides. Winemakers, because they have to wait so long for grapes to pan out, can see into the future. They would like that future to include “biodiversity of our native soils.”
In Arizona, with winemaking, sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of water. It’s too much. One of the hardest things to deal with is the monsoon. It almost always rains in Arizona during harvest. Grapes take on water. It’s not so bad for the Cabernet grapes; they’re loosely packed and can dry out the next morning but for grapes like Pinot Noir, it’s rough. Pinot grapes’ skins are so tight, that when the water gets in, it can’t get out. The grapes rot from the inside.
Kent Callaghan has been dealing with desert and monsoons since 1990. “We planted Zinfandel in 1990 and I worked with it—or fought with it—for 17 years before grafting the two-acre block over to Graciano, a high quality red grape from Rioja. Our monsoons created major rot issues for Zin. I tried just about every trick in the book to alleviate the problem—leaf pulling, cluster thinning, deficit irrigation during berry enlargement—but nothing worked. Graciano buds late, has no rot issues, and produces very high quality wine.”
It seems simple to switch the varietal but it takes years to wait for the grapes to grow, to understand what the problem is, to finally decide to pull the vines, to pay for new ones, to wait for those new vines to produce drinkable fruit. Todd Bostock said that what surprised him most was how long everything takes. That he wasn’t selling award-winning wine right off the bat. “We were going to do stuff nobody has ever done. It does a number on your ego. Nature is the steward.” The Arizona wine-pioneers had warned him: you’ll be lucky if your vines survive the year. “And then, we did what everyone does. Planted rootstock. Watched 90 percent of our vines die.”
You want the vines to suffer so they put more energy into the fruit. Choosing your soil means you manage the suffering. The climate variations tend to manage you.
Bostock is taking the long-view now, even though his wines have been tasted around the world, even though he sells cases of wine across the country. “I hope now that I have a healthy vineyard to give my children, my grandchildren.” Maybe it’s easier to adapt when you think about your grandchildren inheriting the ground you left them.
What makes me optimistic is this: Winegrowers can imagine the force of cold air, the will of red grapes, the size of a barn, the humidity of a valley, the effect of a slope, the amount of sulfur on a grape, the rate of water flowing through Oak Creek per minute, the burble of the spring, the sway of a Cottonwood, the birth of a child, the first taste of apple wine, Bostock’s inheritors, Dutt’s great-grandchildren—and they can fashion a response in order to bring out the nature of each place in each wine.
What each winegrower had in common was his ability to tell where his wine came from—not just what winery but what vineyard. By paying attention to all the details, each time they adapted to the threat of sharpshooter, the acidity of limestone, the cold of Oak Creek, the mustard greens between the vines, the drought, the near-mildew, the climate changing, the Jesuit Priests and the six life zones of Arizona, in one glass, they could locate themselves in a specific moment in a specific place. The accretion of all that mental and physical work is unique. Each one tastes like your vineyard and only the smallest bit like cactus. ✜
Nicole Walker is the author of the essay collection Quench Your Thirst with Salt and a book of poems, This Noisy Egg.
Photography by Jeff Smith.