We had just screened Starlight Hotel at the Cannes Film Festival and I was finally free. I grabbed a rental car with my family and we headed west. I found myself in the Rhone Valley, at a winery picked at random, holding a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape up to the light.
I had grown up in New Zealand drinking Aussie Cabs and Shiraz, and thought good reds were jammy, oaky, intense wines.
This was a new experience. This wine was luminous. I held the glass to my nose. It was swooningly fragrant. I could feel an opening up, a sense of a warm breeze on the vines. I sipped. It was curiously embracing and complex, yet clean with a long elegant finish. I could feel the sun shining on the grapes. It was warm, feminine and gently inviting, instead of blow-your-head-off potent. I thought to myself, “This is a wine I would like to make.”
Twenty-five years later, we boarded a long floating luxury hotel in Arles, the Rhone River our road ahead. I wondered what the trip before us would reveal over the course of the next eight days; and what we would find about the wines Eric Glomski and I had brought to this valley that inspired them.
It wasn’t that I was concerned that our wines wouldn’t measure up. I was just curious to see what we would discover; whatever that would be.
I had just spent a week driving around with my family in the Camargue and Dordogne. When we stopped at restaurants along the way, I made a point of only ordering their house wines, because I’m cheap, and because I wanted to see what the base house wines were like.
Each place had three by-the-glass house wines: a pink, a white and a red. They were inexpensive, perfectly OK and utterly unremarkable. But they all had good structure and, of course, went well with the food because they never dominated, and dutifully refreshed the palate.
As I sampled these regional offerings, a common comment from Arizona restaurant owners ran through my head: “Why are Arizona wines so expensive?” Being in this French environment allowed me to see things in a new perspective and I felt I could now answer this in a practical way.
I had tried to make wines like these French house wines. Low-priced and low-impact. It just couldn’t happen that way in Arizona (and that’s not a bad thing).
I, like my Arizona colleagues, cannot compete on price point. We are small, boutique wineries that don’t have the luxury of being third-, fourth-, fifth- or even sixth-generation family businesses. Cost of scale and lack of history dictates higher prices.
The other stunner—there was no way we could produce base wines like those French house wines. It’s not the winemaking; it’s the terroir. The fruit just doesn’t come off the vines like that. We tried to produce this style of wine with our WildChild series that we introduced in 2009. Our cheapest wine, the WildChild White turned out to be intense, fragrant and complex. Wine Spectator gave it an 88. Go figure.
That was my first discovery. The second evolved while I was on the cruise.
We found a pattern had emerged: after every winery visit, Eric and I would be approached by a number of fellow passengers with a kind of conspiratorial, “You know, your wines are better than any wines we have tasted here so far.” Of course, Eric and I were inclined to agree, but we decided to conduct a fairer test.
For all 150 cruise-goers, we compared one of each of our favorite wines with a high-end French wine of the same variety and vintage.
Mine was a Pillsbury 2010 Viognier, which I compared to a 2009 E. Guigal Condrieu.
I honestly thought the Guigal had a very slight edge on mine; it was remarkably similar but was slightly smoother on the finish. It did have detectable French oak, which I purposely avoid. Although, we didn’t have an official vote on the comparison, a number of people told me they thought mine was better. And, even though I don’t take a lot of stock in this casual appraisal, I have no problem being almost as good as a wine produced by the largest wine producer in the Rhone Valley founded 66 years ago from vines maybe five times older than mine—and this only my second vintage. Eric’s wine produced a similar result.
So back to the question: “Why are Arizona wines so expensive?”
Unless you make billions of gallons a year, have invested in your vineyard and winery over multiple generations, or want to go out of business in no time at all, our boutique Arizona wineries will not be producing cheap wines. We simply don’t and actually can’t make wines as cheap as the less expensive French wines. However, we are a lot less expensive than similar high-end French wines. My Viognier is $38. The Guigal Condrieu goes for $65 or more.
They are just as good. And they are ours.
Article by Sam Pillsbury
Photos by Rhonni Moffitt
Originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Arizona Vines & Wines.