Sand Calculator

Rob and Sarah Hammelman bring a mix of soul and science to both their winery in Willcox and the new Sand-Reckoner tasting room in Tucson’s Warehouse Arts District.

July 10, 2017

BuzzIssue 25: July/August 2017

Walk into Sand-Reckoner’s stylish new tasting room in Tucson’s Warehouse Arts District and one of the first things you’ll see is an encaustic-and-fabric wall piece of evocative organic shapes in shades of green. This untitled abstract by Miles Conrad—co-owner of the Conrad Wilde Gallery, which shares space with the tasting room—is not only riveting in its own right but also captures the marriage between art and science that defines Sand-Reckoner’s wines.

The name of the Willcox-based winery, opened in 2010 by Rob and Sarah Hammelman, foregrounds the science partner of the match. It’s an allusion to “The Sand Reckoner,” a treatise by Archimedes, the Greek philosopher and mathematician who attempted to reckon—calculate—the grains of sand in the universe. The concept resonated with Rob, bringing to mind “the sandy loam soils in which our grapes grow, our connection to the cosmos, and the infinite calculations required to create the wines that express this soil on a root level.”

Sarah can attest to the myriad calculations that Rob brings to bear on the winemaking process. She says, “Rob will puzzle out the precise components of a blend over a month and a half. I don’t know how he keeps it all straight in his head.”

Rob and Sarah Hammelman founded Sand-Reckoner in Willcox in 2010 after traveling around the world in pursuit of wine.

The names—or lack thereof—of the first wines produced by Sand-Reckoner emphasize science, too; they’re designations more likely to be found on graphs or in equations than on wine bottles. The letter “X” was assigned to the Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc-Tempranillo-Petit Verdot blend, for example, while the number “5” identifies the winery’s Sangiovese. Sarah explains, “We’re keeping it simple and in the same realm of science as the sand calculator.”

At the same time, Sarah says, “You can’t make a wine solely on the basis of math and chemistry, or at least not a good one. There has to be an art to it, a soul, an essence that lies outside the numbers.” She elaborates, “Our goal is to make wine that is true to itself and the place where it was grown. We’re not looking to impose on the wine, maybe just to nudge it in a certain direction with barrel aging or stainless steel aging. Mostly, we’re looking for the wine to express itself.”

Sand-Reckoner’s stylish new tasting room in Tucson’s Warehouse Arts District opened in February of 2017.

Having spent the summer of 2000 working in Sonoita at the pioneering Callaghan Vineyards, Rob was already familiar with the terroir of southern Arizona. It was a circuitous journey back to the area, however, one that took him first to southern Australia, where he got an advanced degree in oenology at the University of Adelaide; to Colorado, where he was the winemaker at Two Rivers Winery; and to Gigondas, France, where he was brought to the 2,000-year-old cellars of Château de St. Cosme by Louis Barruol, a 14th-generation winemaker in the Rhône Valley.

Sarah was working the harvest at Two Rivers when her path intersected with Rob’s. She left for Etude Wines in Napa to learn how to make Pinot Noir, but when Rob got the job in France she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to accompany him. After their stay in Europe, they went to Napa to find work together, but discovered that a bad economy had caused the usually fluid winemaking industry to batten down. There were no jobs available. That’s when they had their “aha”—or, to bring it back to Archimedes, “Eureka!”—moment.

Sarah explains, “We always travel with wine, and the case we had with us then had a bottle of Callaghan wine in it. We realized how different it was from what we were drinking in California—how interesting. We both got really excited about it.” Seeking a vineyard that was already planted so they could immediately start making their own wine, they found Sweet Sunrise, a large farm on the Willcox Bench that sits between the Chiricahua and Dragoon mountains at 4,300 feet. Malvasia Bianca, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Syrah, and Zinfandel grapes were already planted in the three-acre vineyard. The Hammelmans added Sagrantino, Montepulciano, and Petit Verdot grapes.

Rob describes the process of getting to know their vineyard: “As we refined the winemaking style over the years, we began focusing on each specific varietal and picking times. We’re picking our whites and our Sangioveses a little earlier, for example, to emphasize their acidity, their freshness.” Not only do the Hammelmans hash out the final taste of the wine together before they bottle it—“Happily, we have similar palates, so there’s very little clashing,” Sarah says—but they also work through every stage of getting it to market themselves. “We’re old school,” Rob says. “All the whites and rosés don’t even go through a crusher machine. They’re crushed by foot and hand-raked into the ratchet basket press by hand, then barrel fermented and left on the yeast—the lees—just for a little added complexity and structure.”

The first two years, the Hammelmans produced 400 to 450 cases of wine using only fruit from their vineyards. Now, about 2,000 cases are bottled under the Sand-Reckoner label, several incorporating grapes from other southern Arizona vineyards—which are now being highlighted in a new small-batch vineyard series.

The first of the series, introduced this summer at the Willcox Wine Festival, is a Syrah from the one-acre Red Tree Ranch vineyard—a “passion project” as Sarah describes it. The fruit produced at this 5,000-foot-high vineyard is very different from that grown at Sand-Reckoner. Sarah says, “You might describe their Syrahs as northern Rhône, with a bit more acidity because it’s cooler, and ours as southern Rhône, a little fuller and rounder.”

Another difference between this wine and those previously produced by Sand-Reckoner: It’s called Red Tree Ranch Syrah rather than being identified by a letter or number. “We wanted to pay homage to the sites in the new series because they’re so spectacular and the growers that we work with are so wonderful,” Sarah says. “We thought they should have their names on the front.”

Also new at Sand-Reckoner is the switch over to screw caps, even on most of the high-end reds. Rob says, “About 90 percent of New Zealand and Australian businesses have embraced them. In the U.S. there’s still the perception that a screw cap means it’s going to be a cheap wine, because those are the first wines that were bottled that way.” The Hammelmans did a little in-house experiment on their “R” blend (Zinfandel-Petite Sirah-Syrah-Mourvedre), bottling half with a screw cap, half with cork. “We found we’re enjoying the screw cap version better,” Rob says. “We’re liking the fresh herbal characteristics that go along with the screw caps as opposed to the sweeter vanilla that we’re finding under the cork. Both are good wines, but they’re definitely different from one another.”

Because Rob and Sarah are so hands-on with their Willcox vineyard—and because they have two small children—they only manage to get to Tucson about once a week. That’s not a problem. The tasting room is in the very capable hands of Tana Fryer, best known around town for Blu A Wine and Cheese Stop, a gourmet retail shop she had at the Mercado San Agustín. “I was selling Sand-Reckoner wine at Blu, so I had a long-standing relationship with Rob and Sarah, and I really know and love their wine,” Fryer says. She also really knows and loves cheese and other wine complements, and the tasting room is the perfect outlet for her catering skills. Among her creations is a Plant Plate for vegans that includes dried fruit, olives, pickled vegetables, and double-cream cashew chive cheese.

That is not to suggest that the Hammelmans were not as hands-on in the creation of the tasting room as they are in crafting their wines. They pored over every detail, from deciding to host a microgallery in the space—it’s now on the First Saturday Art Walk—to commissioning the striking piece that greets visitors. “It was inspired by an illustration in one of our anatomy-of-grapevines books,” Rob says. “It suggests the cellular structure of the vines, and the nerve impulses that give them their energetic nature.” Rob and Sarah also gave artist Miles Conrad grape leaves from their vineyard to work with.

“It’s neat hearing people come in and talk about the artwork,” says Sarah. “A lot of them think it looks like a cactus, maybe a cross-section of a saguaro, or other things.” Perhaps it’s a kind of Rorschach test for Sand-Reckoner’s patrons, with the guessing getting more creative as the evening and the wine tastings progress. ✜

Edie Jarolim is a freelancer who writes mainly about food, travel, and dogs. Her latest book is a memoir, Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

This untitled abstract by Miles Conrad—co-owner of the Conrad Wilde Gallery, which shares space with the tasting room—captures the marriage between art and science that defines Sand-Reckoner’s wines.

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