By Greg Gonnerman
Whether you’re a casual wine drinker or a hobbyist winemaker, you’ve probably toyed with the idea of starting your own vineyard and winery and making wine to sell to the public. But where do you start? Let’s take a look at the experience of Mark Mabry, a hobbyist who recently made this transition.
AZ V&W: What’s your day job?
Mark Mabry: My education is in nursing and I’m an RN, but about seven years ago I started a small construction company and became a licensed contractor. I’m also the wrestling coach for Benson High School.
AZ V&W: How did you get started making wine?
Mark Mabry: I started making wine from Welch’s concentrate in gallon jugs, then I progressed to grapes, various fruits and wine kits, and I also made beer. I planted my first vines nine years ago. I started with just a few dozen vines, but quickly progressed to several hundred. I now have over a thousand vines which include Tempranillo, Grenache and Zinfandel. Along the way I got some great advice from experienced Arizona grape growers and winemakers like Leo Cox and Peter Lechtenbohmer. People sometimes ask me how I learned to make wine; that’s a bit like asking how someone learns to cook. For most of us it’s learning by doing.
AZ V&W: What made you decide to transition from hobbyist to commercial winemaker?
Mark Mabry: I’ve seen a lot of growth and opportunity in winemaking in Arizona, and I knew it could be a viable enterprise. In recent years my grape harvest had gotten to the point where it could support commercial wine production, and as the volume of wine I was making continued to grow, I found myself giving much of it away. Although I enjoyed sharing my handiwork, I figured I might as well earn some money from it. About five years ago I thought I might try becoming a commercial winemaker.
AZ V&W: What about the practical considerations and pitfalls of growing grapes and making wine on a commercial scale?
Mark Mabry: At its basis, this is farming. As grape growers we are both the beneficiary and the victim of Mother Nature. There are endless possibilities for disaster in this business. Leaf Skeltonizers, late spring frosts, and hail could easily wipe out your entire crop for the year or even cause damage that takes several years to recover from. I’ve been told that a vineyard will take all of the work you can put into it, and I’ve certainly found that to be true. There’s always something to be done now, but with only 24 hours in the day you have to set priorities and focus on what must be done, leaving the rest for another day. Transitioning my winemaking into a commercial operation has required a new focus on presentation. For example, I’m filtering most of my wines now. This is a bit like just cooking for yourself and then one day starting a catering business. You have to start thinking about your product a lot differently.
AZ V&W: There are a number of legal hurdles to clear when starting a commercial winery. What did you find to be the biggest challenges?
Mark Mabry: Several issues came up… things I never would have thought of. For the most part getting the proper approvals and licenses at the federal and state levels was not an issue. But mine was only the second winery to go through the permitting process in Pima County, so this was still largely an unfamiliar process for them. Working through this with them delayed getting licensed by about a year. I had to deal with a number of zoning issues. First, my winery was too close to the edge of the property. This required getting a variance which cost quite a bit. It also required sending mailings to neighbors and attending zoning hearings. With that issue resolved they then informed me that I needed an additional use permit since my vineyard was not agriculturally zoned. This required another zoning variance, which meant paying more fees, attending additional hearings and sending out another round of mailings to my neighbors. Other issues cropped up but various county officials were helpful in sorting out what was necessary and what wasn’t. I’d advise anyone interested in going commercial to really do their homework up front. Locations that may be fine for recreational purposes come under a whole new level of scrutiny when you propose a commercial project. We have cleared all of those hurdles, though, and now we’re ready for business.
AZ V&W: What kind of wines are you making and how did you arrive at your decision?
Mark Mabry: The choice of wine types has been driven by what’s been successful over the years that we’ve been making wine as a hobby. We’re going to produce a dry Tempranillo and an off-dry rosé made from Tempranillo. Tempranillo, of course, lends itself to a dry red but can also make a delicious blush as well. With Grenache being very light, a blush wine or rosé seems to be a good choice. We’re also going to make a Zinfandel, but we’re still trying to decide what style to make. With the Zin we’ve made many wonderful Nouveau style vintages and entirely by accident we recently came upon a late harvest style. Now we need to evaluate all these options as well as what the consumer wants.
AZ V&W: How did you chose your winery name, Rancho Maria?
Mark Mabry: It’s named after my wife, Maria. She’s been a huge part of this undertaking. We did this together. My children Mark Jr. and Marissa also put in hundreds of hours, and many of my friends also pitched in at times.
AZ V&W: Where are you located?
Mark Mabry: We’re in eastern Pima County in the southern foothills of the Rincon Mountains. Our elevation is 4200 feet and the soil here is granite rich. It’s a great place to grow wine grapes.
AZ V&W: Now that you’ve gone commercial, where can we find your wines? Will you have a tasting room?
Mark Mabry: Due to the remote location of vineyard and winery, we don’t anticipate opening a tasting room. We may collaborate, though, with other Arizona winemakers and present our wines in their tasting rooms. We also plan on sharing samples of our wines at various wine events throughout the state. Anyone interested in following our progress can find us on Facebook under RanchoMaria Vineyards or they can visit our website at RanchoMariaVineyards.com.
Greg Gonnerman is an amateur grape grower and winemaker in Mesa, Arizona, and he’s also a founding member of AZ WineMakers