On Labor Day in 2015, I arrive at Kent Callaghan’s winery, Callaghan Vineyards, in Elgin. I see Kent unloading six large, half-ton white plastic bins off a trailer and onto the crush pad, employing a pallet jack and brute strength. He is working by himself—pretty common for him and fellow Arizona winemakers. Callaghan notices me, and waves as he wrestles another bin off the trailer. Without looking up he says, “This place is f›››››g insane.” He does not elaborate.
Once he gets the bin off the truck, he shakes my hand and expands on his statement. Elgin had been pounded the last few days with heavy rains. Indeed, harvest season for the last couple years has seen heavy rains as tropical storms and hurricanes out of the Gulf of California have pounded the region. These deluges complicate harvest. You don’t want to pick grapes right after a rain as they will soak up some of that rain and dilute the flavor. However, the longer you delay picking, the more susceptible the grapes become: to mold, or being eaten by birds, or whole clusters getting destroyed by hail.
After Callaghan has the bins off the trailer, he uses the forklift to lift one to about eye-level and place it alongside a stack of wooden pallets. On the other side, he has an empty bin. Taking a large pitchfork, he climbs on top of the stack and begins bailing grape clusters out of the half-ton bin into the empty bin. When the second bin is one-third full, he reconfigures his set up with another full bin and bails out one-third of those grapes into the once empty bin. He is taking grapes from multiple bins and reconfiguring them to create a sample more representative of the vineyard. Grapes are grown and picked in linear rows and therefore can vary in quality and ripeness depending on where they are in the row or vineyard. This mixing is important when you are fermenting in small batches.
Once he has his first mix-bin full, he moves it to his destemmer, hops on top of another stack of pallets, and heaves 1,000 pounds of grapes with his pitchfork into the destemmer. Over the next six hours, Callaghan repeats this process until all 6,000 pounds of grapes have been processed.
As Callaghan moves to pick up the last bin of destemmed grapes with the forklift, I hear the sound of running water. It starts as a trickle and then becomes steady. I look around to see where it is coming from and notice grape juice and grapes running out of a growing crack on the bottom of the bin Callaghan has just lifted. I yell to him and he jumps off the vehicle and runs to drag an empty bin, shoves it flush with the leaking bin, and anxiously begins bailing the grapes out with a five-gallon bucket as juice (read: money) leaks onto the ground.
Monsoon clouds forming over the Santa Rita Mountains in the late afternoon begin their march across the Sonoita Plain. We hear occasional rumbles of thunder. The day has begun to wane and it begins to sprinkle. Callaghan covers the bins hurriedly to keep them from collecting rain. Over the next week or two, the grapes will ferment in these bins.
A couple weeks later, I return and watch Callaghan and his youngest daughter, Claire, press the wine. They load the grape must using five-gallon buckets into a fine mesh cage that has a bladder in the middle filled with compressed air. As the bladder expands, it presses the grapes against the mesh and separates the solids from the wine. After the wine is pressed and pumped into a holding tank, Callaghan removes the grates covering the opening and rotates the press to dump the pomace on the floor and shovel it back into a bin.
The wines will sit in holding tanks to settle before they’ll be pumped into barrels to sit for the next 10 to 24 months before they are blended and bottled. All told, the 2015 harvest ran just over four months and Kent processed around 50 tons of grapes, which eventually yielded 3,000 cases of wine.
It’s Labor Day of 2016. I am back at Callaghan Vineyards as another grape harvest has commenced. When I arrive, Callaghan is again hard at work, processing the first of the whites that had been picked in late August. He is once again weather watching as Hurricane Newton marches north through the Gulf of California and is worried about the forecast three to five inches of rain. I ask him about the harvest so far. “So far, so good,” he says. “We’ve had about half the rain we had last year, which makes everything a little easier. Definitely less rot pressure this year and no hail—yet. The [June] heat really tested the vines early, which is good. This made for tougher skins and earlier cessation of vegetative growth.”
Callaghan is excited by the growing focus on locally produced food and drink. Arizona wine is the ultimate local product. Wine grapes are 100 percent dependent on the place they are grown; more than just about any beverage, wine is a direct reflection of the environment in which it was grown: the water, the soil, the weather, the terrain, and the tradition in which it was made. In many ways, Callaghan has defined that tradition. In the Arizona wine industry, he has been the mad scientist who planted vines and then ripped them out, tested new methods, helped out the newbies, and continued to refine his process.
His goal, as a winemaker, is to grow grapes that he does not have to mess with; he wants the vineyard to be where he tinkers, not the winery. Over the last 26 years, he has continually tinkered with what he is growing. He has also focused on diversification: “Something is going to get f›››››g every year. It could be heat, or a late freeze, or birds, or hail, or rot, but it is going to happen.”
Through diversification, he has been able to hedge his risk. Through constant research and exploration of other regions, he has figured out inventive ways to blend varietals that are atypical of other wine-growing regions.
Over the past year, Callaghan has also been involved in launching the Arizona Vignerons Alliance (AVA), a group of winemakers working to promote authenticity and ensure quality of Arizona wines. Winemakers can submit wines for AVA-inclusion. If the wine meets the AVA’s criteria, it allows the producer to use the AVA designation on a particular wine from that vintage. “The Arizona Vignerons Alliance data collection”—on soil composition, acre yield, pH, and brix at harvest, among other factors—“on wines submitted for inclusion will encourage growers to plant things that make sense for Arizona and steer people away from what is marketable,” he says. For example, Arizona is not well suited for pinot noir, even if pinot noir is extremely popular with drinkers. Part of the work of the AVA is to shift the drinker’s perception. “I hope we can get people to focus on wines, maybe three-to-four varietals, that are high-quality and help move Arizona’s wine industry forward. I think we need to explore atypical blends, that are not seen in other wine growing regions.”
What excites Callaghan about Arizona wine, and making wine in general, is a continuous search for the right varieties that are best suited for our region. He turns to me and says, “We should head in for some research. You know anything about Grüner Veltliner?” ✜
Callaghan Vineyards. 336 Elgin Road, Elgin. 520.455.5322. CallaghanVineyards.com.
Seth Cothrun, a native of the Sonoran Desert, has documented his nomadic wonderings for more than 20 years. His photos can be found on Instagram @sethcothrun and at SethCothrun.com.