“Would you like to open something?” Ray asked.
I could barely contain my enthusiasm, you see, I was surrounded by over a thousand bottles of handcrafted wines with vintages going back more than two decades in the wine cellar of Ray Lo Tempio of Rio Verde. Ray is a hobbyist who has taken his passion for wine so far that it can barely still be called a hobby.
As he opened the first bottle, a Pinot Chardonnay from ‘98, I asked him how he got started.
Ray went on to say that while they may have had a family tradition in the Old World, his father hadn’t made wine, so he and his brother turned to several different books on the subject. This break with Old World winemaking traditions probably worked to their benefit.
“My friend Bob used to make wine with a fellow from Italy and they followed more of an Old World approach,” Ray said. “They would make wine in a beer keg or other large vessel in the fall, leaving it in the same vessel through the winter, spring and following summer, drinking from it the whole time. There was way too much air exposure and by March it would be oxidized and taste a bit of vinegar.”
After Ray moved from Phoenix to Rio Verde, his friend Bob also moved to the same area and they’ve made wine together ever since, although they do employ modern techniques. As Ray opened the second bottle, a Cabernet Sauvignon from 2002, I asked him about his day job.
“After the military I worked in occupational therapy for a number of years. Later I worked for the City of Phoenix as a carpenter/plumber, but I’ve been retired for about 10 years now,“ Ray told me. “I was forced to retire due to a health problem, my kidneys failed.” He went on to explain, “It had nothing to do with wine, but they’re not sure what caused it. It may have been due to chemical exposure earlier in life.”
Fortunately for Ray, one of his brothers was able and willing to donate a kidney, and in spite of having some other health problems later, he’s now feeling better than ever.
“Where do you get your grapes and what are your favorite varieties?” I asked.
“Well, I do have 10 vines of various types in my backyard, but those are mostly for show,” Ray explained. “I presently get all of my grapes from Peddler’s Son Produce. I have worked in the past, though, with some pasteurized and concentrated juices. Right now, we’re making 19 different types of wines; the varieties include Nebbiolo, Zinfandel and Barbera, among others.”
I asked Ray what advice he might share with a less experienced winemaker.
“Be patient, keep air out of your wine, and keep everything very clean…these are the most important things to remember,” Ray said.
As we enjoyed his 2002 Cabernet, Ray shared with me stories of his many travels around the world. His time in the military and later in the Air National Guard gave him many such opportunities. As I sat there savoring that incredible Cabernet listening to stories of dear friends, faraway places, many good times, and sadly, a few bad, I realized that wine is more than a beverage. For Ray, making wine and sharing it has played a central role through most of his adult life. He has gifted wine for numerous weddings, shared it at countless parties, and even consoled friends with it when a loved one would pass. His passion for wine also offered him a much-needed distraction during his health issues, and more recently it has provided opportunities to build many new friendships through his Rio Verde wine club.
Ray’s talents aren’t just limited to making wine. Without any background in architecture, he designed his home in Rio Verde from start to finish. He gave me a full tour of his high-efficiency home.
“What’s this pipe for?” I asked, pointing to a large PVC pipe extending from the basement floor through the first floor.
“That’s a custom radon-venting system. It vents radon, naturally produced by the Earth, outside of the house.”
Our tour continued upstairs where he showed me classic Italian design details and Venetian plaster in several rooms—a technique he taught himself.
As we polished off the last of that fantastic Cabernet it occurred to me that some would describe Ray as a Renaissance man. He would surely reject that description though. For him, constantly learning new things and challenging himself in new ways is just a way of life.
Article and Photos by Greg Gonnerman
Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Arizona Vines & Wines.