The story begins with two teenage boys at parachute school. Told to find partners to help with safety procedures, Mark looked at Marc, or possibly Marc looked at Mark, and said (insert goofy teenage voice here), “Do you wanna be my buddy?” The question was asked almost 30 years ago at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and Mark Beres and Marc Moeller have been best buddies ever since.
Beres went on to be a Special Forces pilot through two tours of duty, picking up an injury in Afghanistan and eventually retiring in 2006. He moved to Tucson to work at the aerospace company Raytheon. Moeller rose to become a training pilot on Air Force Two, the plane that carries the vice president and other dignitaries. “Yeah,” he says. “I was responsible for flying people like Clinton, Cheney, Biden, Condoleezza Rice.” He retired in 2011, and along the way Beres and Moeller became close friends with another pilot, Tom Kitchens.
So far, so conventional. But what happened next was a flying leap. The buddies, who had racked up years of experience flying some of the most advanced planes and helicopters in the world, decided to open a vineyard together in southern Arizona—and called it Flying Leap. It seemed an atypical and unpredictable move for the three highly disciplined individuals.
When I ask Marc Moeller about it at their vineyard and tasting room on Elgin Road, next door to one of the area’s leading names, Callaghan Vineyards, Moeller is doing his fortnightly job of topping off the barrels, replacing the evaporated wine, called the Angels’ Share, with fresh wine to keep air out.
“We always knew we would leave the Air Force one day, and wanted to be in business together—but we didn’t know what that business would be. We thought of starting our own small airline, and thought of opening a helicopter manufacturing plant. But about five years ago, Mark fell in love with the Arizona wine industry and decided he wanted to open a vineyard.
“When he told me about it I told him not to open one of those hobby vineyards. If we do this, we do it as a proper business, we do the research, we draw up a business plan.”
When they told Kitchens about the idea, his response was fairly typical: “What? A vineyard in the desert?”
It was the very potential of a vineyard in the desert that Beres and Moeller had seen in their research. Neither of them was a total novice when it comes to wine and farming. Moeller is a first-generation American of Swiss-German heritage, and his family has run a vineyard in Switzerland for several generations. He’d already been making regular trips back to Switzerland, which offered him the chance to learn wine making firsthand.
Beres’s family were cantaloupe farmers in the Walla Walla Valley, one of Washington State’s premier wine-growing regions. “I’m a red-necked farm boy,” he says. “[I] grew up working on farms and vineyards.
“One of our secrets,” he explains, “and why we’re doing well in wine, is that we’ve segmented our business into farming, winemaking, and the business side. Vineyards have nothing to do with winemaking. They’re two totally separate skill sets. Yes, they come together but they involve different skills. Where some small vineyards go wrong is the same person tries to do everything, and they can’t always do it. Marc is the winemaker. He knows that stuff. I have my input, but basically leave it to him. I look after the vineyard side.”
Where the two are similar is on their meticulous approach to research.
“We did a lot of research and data-gathering before we started the company,” Beres says.
“That’s what Marc and I are like. We want to know everything before we make a decision. We’re engineers and mathematicians so it’s in our DNA. We studied Napa, and I mean we studied Napa. Why are some wineries successful and some not? What are they doing right and wrong? Why do customers go back? We found that the customers who go back to a place and buy more wine from a place enjoy a more low-density experience. That means a more personal experience. You’re not in a crowd, not doing a tasting where you can’t get near the bar. Low density means you get time with the people who make the wine.”
That’s certainly the case at Flying Leap’s Elgin tasting room. It’s the winegrower himself, Marc Moeller, who is pouring and describing the tasting wines. So far, the wine they are selling is partly the production they inherited when they bought the Canelo Hills Vineyard in January 2013 from the previous owners who were getting ready to retire. They then brought in grapes from Lodi, California, to make their own first bottlings as Flying Leap; this summer, they’ll release their first estate wine, a 2013 grenache rosé.
Moeller even comes up with many of the labels, with the help of a graphic designer, although Kitchens designed their new tempranillo label. It’s a play on the temperance card found in a deck of tarot cards. “But we don’t believe in temperance,” says Moeller. “We believe in tempranillo.”
Kitchens also came up with Flying Leap’s logo. It has three elements for the three partners, but also resembles three vine leaves, an airplane propeller, and a variation on the Celtic Knot, a symbol of friendship and tradition. It’s done in copper, to represent Arizona.
Indeed, given that less than 1 percent of wine drunk in Arizona comes from Arizona, part of the mission of Flying Leap is to get Arizonans to drink locally. One way they’re hoping to increase access to their wines is by opening tasting rooms outside of the one at the vineyard, in Bisbee, Willcox, and, as of March, at St. Philip’s Plaza in Tucson. Why go this route rather than through distributors?
“If you look at the numbers, the revenue stream is about the same,” Moeller explains. “Yes, you’ve got the bricks and mortar to pay for, and the overhead, but at the end of the day the distributors take such a big cut that you only get a small percentage. We also wanted to get our wine out to the folks in a more personal way. We want them to know us and like us. If people are going to drink more Arizona wines, first they have to know they’re available, and that it’s good. But we are working with distributors too.”
“And I’d like people to drink Arizona wine,” Beres adds. “I’m into the locavore movement. I believe in that. I support local businesses and hope people will support us. Sure, the guy down the street might charge a little more for something than you pay at WalMart, but he doesn’t have their economies of scale. Besides which, he’s my buddy and his kids go to school with my kids.”
And the guys at Flying Leap are still leaping.
“We have plans for more tasting rooms. We have our eye on some locations, but I don’t want to give all our secrets away,” says Beres. “We’re also adding a new building here, as we need the cellar space if we’re [going] to expand, and we’re opening a wedding venue.”
Their plans for expansion don’t stop there. Marc Moeller is planning a trip to New York and then Kentucky to learn the art of distilling. Flying Leap hopes to be making and selling grappa, vodka, and grape brandy by 2018. The three buddies may have traveled around the world as Air Force pilots, but clearly they’re still intent on going places. ✜
Flying Leap Vineyards. 342 Elgin Road. Elgin. 520.455.5499. FlyingLeapVineyards.com.
Mike Gerrard is an award-winning travel writer who divides his time between the United Kingdom and southern Arizona. He has written for National Geographic and American Express.