When sisters Megan Austin Haller and Shannon Austin Zouzoulas bought a property in Sonoita for a vineyard, everyone told them their little house on the hill couldn’t be the tasting room. It was falling apart, and a load-bearing wall divided the space awkwardly. So one day in frustration, Haller took a sledgehammer to the wall and knocked it down. The ceiling promptly threatened to cave in. A contractor jacked up the beam, and the sisters disguised the support by putting a wine barrel around it. Now the barrel is a repository for wishes: Customers spill their hearts on scraps of paper, toss them in the barrel, and every summer solstice, the sisters set the scraps ablaze. So far, the sisters’ wishes—to run a combination winery and brewery called Arizona Hops & Vines in the heart of the Chiricahua grasslands—have come true.
“We knocked down a wall,” Haller says, “and it just opened everything up.”
It was not without some doing. Until recently, Arizona liquor laws prohibited a winery and brewery to operate on the same property. But after meeting with people at several levels of government, the sisters couldn’t figure out why; the rule seemed arbitrary, an outdated phrase to protect distribution profits. Word soon spread and lobbyist Mark Barnes contacted them to see how he could help.
Some senators they met with were wary of the reaction of distribution lobbyists who might oppose a change in the law; others wondered how they could spin the move as a positive for re-election. But when Barnes connected them with Senator Don Shooter, a “crazy” and charming Republican from Yuma, an unlikely piece was fit in place. “Senator Shooter didn’t seem to care,” says Haller. Zouzoulas agrees: “He was a blessing. He just fit right into the calamity that is this place, and he drove it forward.”
Senator Shooter escorted the bill through committee meetings, and at the final hearing, as Haller describes it, “He was going to introduce us, and we thought he was going to talk about small business or entrepreneurs or job creation to get us going for the board, and instead he stands up and says, ‘Well, it’s pretty girls and beer, what else do you need to hear?’” (His actual quote: “This bill has beer, has beautiful ladies, it has wine. This is a bill we can all unite on.” Zouzoulas’ reaction: “It was a very chauvinistic moment, but he’s charming.”)
“Even though I don’t necessarily agree with [his] politics,” Haller says, “he made it happen. He was straightforward with everybody. And that’s exactly the same thing that makes this place so special. People who came to us, they just felt moved by this and they helped us with it.”
The sisters continue to break through walls. The day before I visited, the time had come to buy more grapes for the next vintage, but a neighboring winemaker had advised them against the expense: They’d run out of barrel space for new wine. No matter. “If I don’t have the barrel space I’ll go get water bottles and fill them up,” says Haller. “We want this to work so badly that we’ll keep moving forward at all costs.”
The renegade winemakers serve Cheetos and barbeque potato chips with their fine wines, which sport names like First Crush, Imbibe, Zinnerpeace, and the wildest experiment, Drag Queen: a hopped white wine that sold out last spring. Their hop field, the first commercial one in Arizona, sits in a low spot on the property where the frost sets in. While frost is a death kiss for grapes, the hops thrive in this patch where the water gathers. They grow thick enough to choke the weeds, and their bitterness deters the insects. Just as the environment shapes a wine, it influences the hops too; breweries have already called looking for a taste of Arizona. (After the sisters harvested their field into a big bucket that weighed just ten ounces, Four Peaks Brewery called and asked for forty pounds. “I hate them,” Zouzoulas quips about the hops. “I want to make them fat.”)
Come New Year’s, a new label of zinfandel will be added, dubbed The Lobbyist in honor of Mark Barnes, “because it’s a very persuasive wine,” Zouzoulas explains. They’ll serve it alongside their first Shooter IPA at their New Year’s Eve Speakeasy. They’ll be releasing a new blend called Gracias around Thanksgiving to give thanks for everyone who’s been involved in making Arizona Hops and Vines grow. “It’s been a community effort one hundred percent,” Haller explains. “That’s what pushed the law forward. And that’s what pushes us forward every single day—the connection with the people we’re doing this with; not for, but with.”
The next project they’ve set their sights on is serving other local brews alongside their own, which will take some legal footwork, buying a separate property where Zouzoulas will hold the brewery license and sell beer to Haller, who will have a license for tap microbrews in the tasting room. The law prohibits them from creating a restaurant or brewpub in their little house on the hill. But if they want it, it’ll happen. Gazing over the hops and vines, impossibility just seems like a solution waiting to be found. ✜
Arizona Hops & Vines. 3450 Highway 82. Sonoita. 888.569.1642.
Emily Gindlesparger traded the forested Southern Illinois for the mountains of Tucson, where she teaches yoga and writes about adventures on bicycles, cliffsides, and wine trails.