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Sonoita Wine Country

05 Jun 2019 by BizDESIGN in FEATURES

By June C. Hussey –

A Taste of Success

Millions of Americans love a good wine with their steak or fish or duck – but who knew that the picturesque rangelands around Sonoita, an hour southeast of Tucson, would ever be acknowledged by experts as bona fide wine country?

Over the past 40 years, adventurous winemakers have been discovering that grapes love the sunny days and cool nights of high desert grasslands as much as cows do – not to mention humans who relish a glass of wine and a quick escape from the desert heat. Today this scenic area, previously best known for ranching, great steaks, horse racing and rodeos, is now also attracting wine lovers in droves.

How many is a drove? Last summer Arizona Hops & Vine, a relative newcomer on the Sonoita winemaking scene, attracted 3,000 campers over a three-day weekend to enjoy local wine and live music under the stars. Their so-called “Bad Decisions” event will be recreated at Patagonia Lake this summer in order to better accommodate the anticipated crowds on Aug. 9, 10 and 11.

Grapevines, Winemakers Take Root

Steak lovers and wine lovers alike can thank Spanish missionaries for bringing cattle and winemaking to the new world. Centuries later, in 1973 to be exact, University of Arizona soil scientist Gordon Dutt, along with Blake Brophy, established the first experimental vineyard on the Ignacio de Babocomari Ranch near Sonoita. Dutt developed a system of water harvesting utilizing hillside berms to reduce erosion and provide the amount of water needed to irrigate, and modern winemaking was officially underway in Arizona. In 1978, Dutt founded Sonoita Vineyards, focusing on French varietals because of the soil’s close resemblance to that of Burgundy, France. Sonoita Vineyards became the first to be licensed shortly after the state passed a Farm Winery Law in 1982, and it continues to flourish today. Dutt, 89, lives in Tucson.

The Sonoita region’s rocky soil, rich in minerals, coupled with the romantic notion of making and drinking wine have since attracted a parade of hearty winemakers to the Sonoita/Elgin area – Arizona’s first recognized American Viticultural Area. 

Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards was among its early leaders. When Kent and his father, Harold, planted the Buena Suerte Vineyards in 1990, Kent told Lana Bortolot of Wine Enthusiast magazine, “There was literally nothing going on in the industry. I think there were three other vineyards in the area. There was not a lot of creative thinking…planting basically what you’d plant in California.”

In her Feb. 7, 2017 article, “Raising Arizona: Outsider Wines Travel to New Heights,” Bortolot wrote, “Callaghan has come a long way, as have Arizona wines in general. His current winery, Callaghan Vineyards, was named an Arizona treasure in 2006 by former Gov. Janet Napolitano – and his wines have been served at the White House three times.”

To this day, fellow winemakers and neighbors say they are grateful that Callaghan mentors newcomers, generously sharing his AVA-specific knowledge with those eager to learn. Today, out of some 96 licensed wineries in the state, 14 operate in the Sonoita AVA, with two more on the way. All are eager to be discovered by the uninitiated.

Despite today’s high concentration of wineries along the Arizona/Elgin Wine Trail, the bulk of Arizona’s wine grapes are actually grown in nearby Cochise County, an area geographically blessed with a slightly wetter and more temperate climate. Frosts as late as May in the Sonoita region can make fall harvests unpredictable. Winemakers must be prepared to rely on grapes grown outside of their AVA to meet their production requirements. A small producer like Lightning Ridge – 1,000 cases per year – typically uses 85% estate-grown fruit, with the balance coming from Willcox. Sonoita Vineyards frequently sources supplemental fruit from Willcox and Lodi, California to produce its 4,000 cases a year.

Economic Impact

Ride the range today between the Huachuca, Santa Rita and Whetstone Mountains on horseback or Range Rover and you’ll see rows of grapevines peeking out from among the flowing golden grasses that otherwise characterize the Sonoita/Elgin area. Its production scale is and will always be a far cry from the bounty of Napa or Sonoma, but its setting is uniquely appealing and easily accessible from Tucson.

After summer monsoon rains, the vines grow plump and grasslands verdant, creating a pleasing escape from the searing desert. Grazing longhorns don’t seem to mind sharing their fertile landscape with local farmers toiling in the face of petulant weather gods in order to bring forth their precious harvest. Many a farmer would agree with winemaker Karyl Wilhelm’s observation that “mother nature can be a mother.”

Passion Over Profit

Profit is not the only measure of success when one is living off the land. Much like neighboring ranchers, Sonoita winemakers tend to pursue their profession out of a passion for their craft and for the agreeable lifestyle.

“I think we’d all say we’re a success in the fact that we’re doing what we love doing – and we’re able to sustain what we’re doing and grow,” said Lori Reynolds, Dutt’s granddaughter and third-generation Sonoita winemaker. “But none of us are wearing minks yet.”

“It’s difficult to describe how hard the producers of Arizona wines work,” said Jean Snell, who with her husband, Pete, opened a tasting room at St. Philip’s Plaza in Tucson. “We have the utmost respect for the knowledge they have in all the diverse aspects of producing wine – farming, weather, chemistry, winemaking, production, distribution, marketing, social media and more. Many have one or two employees; some have just their family to make it all happen.”

While these Sonoita AVA wine producers may be comfortable enough wearing sweatshirts, wine-thirsty consumers have in fact helped turn Arizona’s wine production into a $25 million industry, yielding as many as 300,000 gallons in a good year. According to the Arizona Winegrowers Association, the decade between 2006 and 2015 saw the industry grow from nine to 97 licensed wineries in Cochise, Santa Cruz and Yavapai Counties.

Still, growth in Arizona lags far behind demand. According to Julie Murphree, outreach director for the Arizona Farm Bureau, at 2.8 gallons per person, Arizona’s per-capita wine consumption is slightly higher than the national average – and in-state wine production meets just under 1% of the state’s demand.

The recent signing of Senate Bill 47, designating the Santa Cruz Valley as a National Heritage Area, could be just the boon the area needs to take its economic impact to the next level. According to Vanessa Bechtol of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance and Visit Tucson, many such designated areas see a significant increase in tourism following their designation. That could mean increased job creation and wine sales on the vine-studded horizon.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Meanwhile, many Sonoita winemakers work their fingers to the bone on a shoestring budget. “We wear many, many hats, all of us. We’re making it, growing it, producing it, and then selling it in the tasting room. So it’s every day. We’re up before the sun doing this,” said Wilhelm, owner of and winemaker for Wilhelm Family Vineyards.

Finding reliable, affordable help is an added challenge with the high cost of living in Sonoita so it’s a seven-days-a-week labor of love for these small business owners. They couldn’t do it without relying on and supporting one another in the fields and in their tasting rooms.

“We don’t see each other as competitors,” said Reynolds. “We’re neighbors and we each bring something a little different to the table. Megan (Stranik of Arizona Hops & Vines) has an amazing Cabernet on her table that I love. Karyl (Wilhelm) has a Temperanillo that I love – lots of rich flavors. And Ann’s Multepulciano (Ann Roncone of Lightning Ridge), I would bathe in it,” Reynolds said. 

“We do different things and we are recognized as being unique in what we do,” added Wilhelm. “Yes, we all do wine, but everyone’s palate is different and everyone is getting a different experience when they walk into our different tasting rooms or when they walk into different events that we all have. I think that enriches this whole area.”

There’s an old joke among winemakers – “to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large fortune.” Yet one need not necessarily have a large fortune to start making wine in Sonoita AVA, as long as one is resourceful.

Arizona Hops & Vines, owned by sisters Megan Stranik and Shannon Zouzoulas, opened seven years ago for less than $100,000, according to Stranik. “We planted everything from cuttings, salvaged poles from the dead vineyards in the area,” Stranik said. “The dump would call me and we scrounged everything. If you look at our tasting room, it literally has trash screwed to the ceiling because the ceiling caved in and insurance didn’t cover it. But people come in and say, ‘That’s so cute.’ Seven years later, we don’t have any money in the bank but we don’t have any credit cards either.” 

Tasting on the Trail

Before being bitten by the winemaking bug, Arizona native James Callahan, of Rune Winery, Vineyards and Tasting Room, graduated with a history degree from ASU. He interned in Walla Walla, Washington, New Zealand and Sebastopol, California before making wine for Pillsbury and Aridus in Willcox. In 2013, he started Rune, an off-grid winery and tasting room in Elgin.

Camping in a tent on his property in the beginning, he planted vines and constructed a bare bones infrastructure over time. Today Callahan’s outdoor tasting room is supported by a Quonset hut filled with merchandise and powered by solar panels. When nature calls at Rune, a porta-potty answers. Enveloped by the fresh air, quietude and breathtaking views of nature inside such a light footprint, one could easily sit in his Adirondack chairs sipping wine all day. And why not? 

Rune’s motto is “every wine has a story” and every wine produced there has a label depicting a dramatic block print scene in black and white. Callahan said that each label represents a piece of a bigger story. If he were to someday publish a book of his intriguing labels, it would most certainly sell well alongside his tasty wines. 

Excited to be visiting Rune was John Boulet, a Tucson cardiologist now living in Green Valley, an easy 45-minute drive. Boulet said, “We love Arizona wine. We’ve been drinking it for years and it keeps getting better. We love tasting the different varietals that tend to work in this region.”

Boulet said he likes to bring friends to Sonoita every couple of months. “They’re amazed to learn about it. It’s interesting to watch people enjoy Arizona wines,” he said. 

Another Rune taster, Arlene Hamper, was introducing Sonoita wine country  to friends from Montana. She said she visits at least twice a year, enjoys talking with the winemakers and meeting interesting people. She also rarely misses the Blessing of the Vines, a springtime tradition at Sonoita Vineyards. 

These guests’ remarks sum up the feelings of many – a visit to wine country is about far more than trying and buying wine. It’s about fun and adventure. It’s about experiencing the grapes as they grow on the vine, ferment in the vat, finish in the bottle, then emerge full and unique on the palate.

Pairing Arizona Wines

Novelty can be a great differentiator. Throwing tradition to the wind, Arizona Hops & Vine pairs wine in their tasting room with snacks like barbecue potato chips and Cocoa Puffs cereal. Don’t knock it until you try it. You could discover a new breakfast wine.  

Doug Levy, chef and owner of Feast, the popular Tucson eatery on East Speedway, both serves and sells wine from a well curated list of recognized wine regions like northern Italy and southern France as well as lesser known but equally pleasing areas of Arizona, including Sonoita AVA. Levy and his wine buyers pick their wines with an eye toward quality-to-price ratio as well as wines that are food-friendly, interesting and representative of their region or varietal.

“Arizona has a couple of great microclimates that are viticulture-friendly, especially for Mediterranean varietals, but for others as well, and winemaking here has steadily gotten more consistent and serious since we’ve been pouring them. The wines coming from Arizona now are markedly better than they were 20 years ago,” Levy said.

He said he enjoys introducing his guests to Arizona wines and together with his staff is always happy to suggest pairings. Among his personal favorites are the Callaghan Petite Manseng with his shrimp and octopus salad and the Dos Cabezas Aguileon with his duck breast. Feast also offers wine dinners with Arizona winemakers. In the past, such dinners have featured Sonoita AVA winemakers Callaghan Vineyards, Dos Cabezas and Rune. 

“As a general rule, people are pretty pleasantly surprised when they try Arizona wines,” Levy said. “I think they’re dismissive at first, thinking it’s not possible to raise grapes in the desert. But once we explain the varying types of climate and soil in Arizona, they’re usually willing to try and the wines quash any preconceived notions about Arizona wine.”

Spinoffs

Even though the United States consumes more wine per capita than any other country and wine is produced in all 50 states, according to the Arizona Wine Growers Association, no man or woman can live on wine alone, regretfully. Therefore, to supplement wine sales, savvy Sonoita wineries are branching out. 

For example, Flying Leap distills spirits and packages spices under a subsidiary label Arizona Rub. It sells products at seven retail locations around the state. Wilhelm Family Vineyards opened Tastings & Tapas at Ventana Village Shopping Center at Kolb Road and Sunrise Drive in Tucson last year, pairing their Spanish style wines with tasty Spanish inspired bites prepared in their commercial kitchen. To take wine and adventure to the next level, Wilhelm also organizes and hosts winemaker cruises to different destinations every year – next stop, Italy. 

Even non winemakers are riding the wine wave through Southern Arizona. In February 2018, Pete and Jean Snell – who have owned a PR and marketing agency and Fleet Feet, an athletic shoe store – opened Arizona Wine Collective, a Tucson tasting room in St. Philip’s Plaza. It features wines from up to 18 different Arizona wineries. Believers in local products, Jean said their mission is to turn more people on to Arizona wines.

“After Fleet Feet we were exploring and trying to figure out what our next endeavor would be – so Pete started working part time at Callaghan Vineyards,” Jean said. “Wine and wine tasting had been our hobby for many years, and Pete wanted to know more about the process of making wine.

“That’s when we discovered that many people really like Arizona wines, but it was not readily available in Tucson. We explored a number of scenarios and came up with a tasting room where people could taste, drink and take home wine from multiple Arizona wineries in one cool spot.

“Truthfully, many folks – including some Arizona winemakers – thought we were crazy to have only Arizona wines,” Jean said, “but we’re passionate about Arizona wine and confident in our ability to make it shine.”

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