We first met Bob Carlson when he came to Arizona looking for property to grow grapes. He called Josh and asked him, as the ‘vineyard broker,’ to help him and his sons start the search for the perfect property for their new family venture. We’ve since gotten to know the whole family, including his wife, Liz, his sons, Bobby and John, and we even had the chance to meet their daughter Katherine at a Page Springs Cellars Harvest Festival, when she was visiting from California. It is obvious that the family dynamic is very strong in the Carlson family; they play well together and can also roll up their sleeves and work hard together.
On the railroad tracks in Downtown Willcox, a row of homes with white picket fences welcomes visitors to the area. In one of those homes resides the tasting room for Carlson Creek Vineyards. Recently, I met with the Carlson men at their quaint tasting room to learn more about their wine, their family and their vision for the future. I was eager to learn what inspired this tight knit bunch to make the move to Willcox, Arizona.
Bob Carlson is a successful attorney practicing law out of San Diego and Las Vegas. Although his heart is now in California, he was raised in Chicago, Illinois. Fortuitously, he was born in the same hospital as Liz, grew up near her and the two ended up going to the same high school. Dating didn’t begin until later when Bob returned home for a leave from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and reacquainted with Liz at a high school party where the two hit it off. They celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary this year.
Although neither Bob nor Liz grew up on a farm, both of their families share a farming heritage. Bob’s father had yearned to have a farm, but his mom was having none of it, having first-hand knowledge of the difficulties of farm life from her childhood. On Liz’s side it was her father who grew up on the farm. Both families spent summer vacations visiting relatives on farms and that’s where Bob’s interest was piqued and slowly grew over time.
Bob traveled a winding road. He grew up in Chicago, and then left to Annapolis for college. After graduation he entered the Marine Corps where flight training landed him in California. Soon after he began to study law until he passed the bar. That’s when Robert Jr. (Bobby) was born, followed by Katherine and then John.
As the oldest and the first to fly the coop, Bobby also took a corkscrew-like path. After coming to Arizona to study in the Aerospace Engineering program at the University of Arizona, he decided that an engineer’s life was not for him. He grew a goatee, started painting and studied art. Realizing he was “too skinny to live the life of a starving artist,” he changed his direction, transferred to ASU and began to explore political science. Bobby interned for Congressman Trent Franks and subsequently Terry Goddard, learning both sides of the fence. After graduation he was recruited to work for Charles Schwab and continued there until the recession hit. During that time, he kept coming back to conversations he had with his dad and brother about buying some land and growing something together. Somehow those farming genes intervened and an idea was born. Maybe the family should grow grapes and make wine, but where?
That was when they met Josh and started looking at property around the state. Bobby knew about the emerging industry from friends that were wine enthusiasts and spent his time meeting with other winemakers around the state, doing his due diligence. Their conclusion: All the good wines came from grapes that were grown in the Willcox Bench, where “land is cheap, water is abundant, soil is good and weather is good.” They purchased 40 acres, have now expanded to a total of 85 acres and have plans to continue to grow.
Being quite a bit younger, John didn’t have a lot of experience with wine (Carlson Creek had their liquor license before he even turned 21) but did like the idea of being in a family business. He briefly considered law but he loved working outside, feeling a connection with the vines and having something tangible to show for his efforts. He took courses through UC Davis, both in person and via their online extension. This has become his passion as evidenced by every birthday and Christmas gift consisting of educational materials about grape growing and winemaking.
Bobby and John dived headfirst into learning everything they could about grape growing and winemaking. After working a season with Peter Lechtenbohmer, a local grower who was known in the area for his grape growing prowess, they committed to the project. John continued his education by interning with Rob Hammelman after Rob purchased Peter’s vineyard and renamed it Sand-Reckoner. At that same time, Bobby was with Eric Glomski interning at Page Springs Cellars. They helped with harvests at Alcantara Vineyards and Javelina Leap. Then they also helped to plant newcomer Zarpara Vineyards, their neighbor a few miles to the south.
During this time they began planting their own vineyard. In four seasons they planted almost 40 acres of vines. They’ve planted a wide variety of grapes including Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Grenache. White varietals consist of Malvasia, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling with some Moscato coming soon.
Because they started with raw land, they knew that it would take years before they could make wines from their estate vines, so they decided to ask Eric Glomski to help them make their first wines at Page Springs Cellars. They eventually transitioned to Arizona Stronghold and will soon move down to Willcox when the Aridus custom crush facility opens. As a family, they’ve defined the Carlson Creek style and have stayed very involved in the winemaking process, despite the distance, to ensure that the wine is developed to represent the flavor profiles they desire. What is their style? Together they describe it as “smooth and understated, but approachable with pure flavor, clean, not over the top and ‘pairs well with the glass’… they produce wines that are meant to be enjoyed,”… to stand on their own.
Although Bob, Liz and Katherine still live in California, the two sons have recently purchased a home and made the transition to living in Willcox full time. What they really love about the area and the local industry is that everyone is so supportive of each other. The vineyard owners and wineries have really created a family, a family that works together and plays together, just like the Carlsons themselves.
Everyone has a role. While Bobby and John share the responsibilities of everything from marketing, distribution, sales and production, the other family members also have roles. Katherine helped direct the design of the label and helped plant their first vines. Following in her father’s footsteps, Katherine is studying to pass the bar exam and plans to consult for the family business in legal matters. Liz is the backbone offering unlimited support and filling in the gaps. Some weekends you might even find her in the tasting room. Bob… well, he gets to be a farmer when he wants to, traveling to Willcox to help plant, harvest and crush. Of course, he has an integral role as the patriarch, helping his sons traverse the path toward creating a successful business and brand.
On a trip to Europe, John had a chance to see the how legacy has an effect on the families who live and work in the vineyards and wineries. The family’s influence is passed down generation after generation through the character of a wine. He was inspired by the demonstration of tradition and how everyone who has worked in the vineyard or the winery has some kind of impact on it, whether in the past, now or the future. This is what he wants for Carlson Creek.
What does the future hold for Carlson Creek? More vines, new varietals, expanded wine production and maybe… olive trees for olive oil production. The tasting room is likely going to move across the tracks into a historic building near Keeling Schaefer’s tasting room. They plan to be 100% Arizona grown and produced, and to continue to expand their distribution. They are proud of already being on wine lists at FnB and Beckett’s Table, and in AJ’s Fine Foods. Bobby might use his experience in politics to get more involved in legislative battles that could be on the horizon for the wine industry. They would also like to help spur the development of a viticulture and enology program at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Regardless where that winding road takes the Carlsons, we’re definitely going to see the legacy continue. Having something to pass onto the next generation, the family is committed to creating a future for their family, future generations and for the Arizona wine industry as a whole.
Article by Rhonni Moffitt/Photos by MichellJonasPhotography.com