If saguaro cacti, dry deserts and roadrunners come to mind upon the mention of Arizona, it’s time to think again. The Copper State is home to some 210 mountain ranges and one of the snowiest cities in the country (Flagstaff). It’s also one of the oldest continuously farmed regions in the Americas.
Part of that agriculture includes a robust wine industry centered around three regions: Sonoita/Elgin, Willcox (home to about 74 percent of the state’s vineyards) and Verde Valley.
Where the Vines Are
Sonoita AVA (est. 1985)
Willcox AVA (est. 2016)
Spanish missionaries may have planted grapes in Arizona during the 16th century, but its modern wine industry took off in the 1980s, led by the University of Arizona’s Dr. Gordon Dutt, who performed much of the early research in the ’70s, mapping the state’s soils and climate zones and likening them to Burgundy’s conditions. In 1979, he opened the state’s first commercial winery in Sonoita. Others followed.
Among those pioneers was Kent Callaghan. His parents bought land in Elgin in 1979, and Kent and his father, Harold, planted the Buena Suerte Vineyards in 1990.
“There was literally nothing going on in the industry,” he says. “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.”
Top Grapes by Acreage
Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah
Grenache, Zinfandel, Merlot
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.
Callaghan has also mentored many local winemakers, including Eric Glomski, who calls him “the Ironman of winemaking.”
When Maynard James Keenan, best known as front man of the rock band Tool, and himself a descendant of Northern Italian winemakers, started Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards in Verde Valley in 2004, the local wine industry got its star turn.
Glomski, founder of top-ranked Arizona vineyards Page Springs Cellars and Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, attributes the success of the past decade to winemakers “understanding the landscapes and what grapes grow well there.”
Top Grapes by Production
Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon
With its diverse topography and elevation ranging from 3,200 to 5,000 feet (the average elevation for vinegrowing here is 4,300 feet), Glomski says that while Arizona looks like parts of the Rhône Valley, Italy and Spain, “there are some notable differences that we’re learning to manage, and some of us have gotten our butts kicked in the assumptions we’ve had wrong.
“I think over time we’re going to see continued experimentation. There’s so much diversity—I think we’ll be able to grow more grapes,” he said.
Michael Pierce, director of enology at Yavapai College’s Southwest Wine Center, says the first wave of plantings included popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Colombard. Then, he says, “Arizona had to become true to itself.”
“Established regions have styles that I think winemakers kind of have to answer to because of customer expectations,” he says. “We don’t have to do that here. It’s nice to be and work here and establish a winemaking tradition. We’re looking for the one that will produce world-class wines that people will know have come from Arizona.”
Under Vine: 950 acres
Basic Permitted Facilities: 80
Total gallon production (2015): 278,504
Bonded and Licensed Wineries: 83+
Calling those local offerings “wines of character,” Callaghan says “Our area does not make wines for everyone.”
“These are not fruit forward,” he says. “They have tannin and structure from the red soils and fruit in the background. They are dense, burly wines that age well and, in our case, need age. They’re not flashy upon release.” But, he added, “The wines tend to be distinctive and tend to be high quality.”
Going for Quality
Though a 2013 USDA survey reported plantings of 35 grape varieties, Rodney Keeling, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association and owner of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards, says “The Rhône collection is probably the biggest in Arizona right now.”
“We’re very grassroots, very experimental…planting every variety and seeing what shakes out—we’re just trying to discover the varieties that work for quality wine,” he says.
Pierce perhaps summarizes the collective mindset of producers.
“We’re not looking to do one-off things, kitschy stuff you buy with your fudge when you go on the Pink Jeep tour,” he says, referring to a popular local touring service. “We’re creating these things that no one thought were here.”