Although we are all familiar with the concept of farm to table, it may mean different things to different people. To some it means getting the freshest product available. To others it means reducing their carbon footprint by purchasing products from farms located nearby, thus utilizing less fuel and producing less carbon emissions. And yet to others it may mean supporting your neighbor, the local farmer.
In our quest to bring products from the farm to our table we might commit to purchasing our vegetables and fruit from the local farmers market. We may also purchase our beef from the OX Ranch in Wickenburg or the eggs for our omelet from Hickman’s Family Farms. But there’s one often overlooked item on our table that can also come from a local farm – the wine in your glass.
Although the industry has been gaining momentum over the last few years, most Arizonans are not aware that there are vineyards throughout the state, let alone some great, quality wines being produced from those vineyards. And on top of that, most people overlook the fact that grape-growers are, of course, farmers. Just like the corn fields and cattle pastures you pass while driving through rural Arizona, vineyards are attended to and cared for by farmers.
Rod Keeling, of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards near Willcox in southeastern Arizona, comes from a farming background. His grandfather was a lifelong Arizona farmer producing cotton, alfalfa and grapes west of Casa Grande for more than 50 years. Rod left the farm in his brother’s hands and moved to Tempe where he became an influential player in its revitalization campaign. When it came time to retire, though, he knew it was the time to move back to the farm – albeit one with a twist – a vineyard. He feels that “great wine is grown in the vineyard by farmers” and that his heritage will supply him with the support, skill and knowledge to grow great wines on Rock Creek.
A great wine, they say, is produced from a combination of passion, expertise and terroir. Although wine experts disagree on an “exact” definition, terroir is commonly composed of three components: climate, soil type and topography. It takes a farmer to truly understand how to utilize these components to make a great wine. It boils down to centuries of farmers awakening at (or before) dawn to train, prune, feed, water and love their grapevines. Traditions have been carried on for generations at the historic chateaus in France, the villas in Italy and estates in Germany. Now Arizona is starting its own traditions.
The process, of course, does not end with the grape. Traditionally you will find that the vineyard owner is also the winemaker. Wine has been produced since the 1700s in Arizona, starting with the Franciscan missionaries in southern Arizona. Now you will find almost 30 producing wineries throughout the state stretching from the Sulphur Springs Valley in southeastern Arizona, to the Sonoita/Elgin area in the south (our state’s only official AVA) and in northern Arizona, predominantly in the Page Springs/Cornville area. The wines have gained national recognition, having been poured on more than one occasion at the White House and garnering high ratings from such notable wine connoisseurs as Robert Parker. Because Arizona’s vineyards are still relatively young it helps create a much more personal atmosphere at the tasting room. Most of the time when you take a wine tasting tour you will meet the winemakers, vineyard owners and tasting room staff… and most of the time they are the same person. To help enhance the magic that is already inherent in wine you will hear the stories about growing the grapes, such as the difficulties if keeping the deer away or the unique ways they have to scare the birds off. You may also hear about the cold spell last winter that damaged part of the crop. If you take the time to get to know the owner it creates an added depth to your wine drinking experience. You understand that the flavors you taste in that glass of wine come from a combination of blood, sweat and tears, along with patience, pride and passion.
Due to the fact that the Arizona wine industry is in its infancy, it can still be difficult to find a local wine on your wine list or in your corner market. However, if you take the time to look, you’ll find many of the places that support farm to table practices are also carrying Arizona wines. Whole Foods Market carries many local favorites and AJ’s Fine Foods has an entire section of their wine cellar dedicated to Arizona wines. Tapino Kitchen and Wine Bar is supporting the cause by serving incredible dinner events, called Locavore Dinners, showcasing the products of local farmers and pairing it with a local wine. What sets this event apart from other winemaker dinners is that you can actually be paired with the farmer or winemaker and dine with them at your table. The concept is a brilliant way to connect with the farmers and find out that they are just like you and me. It creates an opportunity to ask questions and truly learn the back story of growing the crops that end up on our dinner table.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Educate the sommelier or cellar master by letting them know that you support local farmers and ask them the research the local wines. Be sure to patronize stores that support local farmers. Search out restaurants and wines bars that pour Arizona wines. It is imperative that we become active in the process and help business owners learn what we want. When they are assured that their customers will visit more often and order meals or wines made from local products, it will shorten the distance from the farm to the table and it becomes a win-win for everyone.
Lastly, don’t forget to visit the wineries directly. Take the time to find out which wines you love – there is a wine for everyone! Stop and listen to the wine grower’s stories, get involved with the harvest, volunteer to help with the bottling, and most of all, ENJOY THE WINE!
Article by Rhonni Moffitt. Photo from Shutterstock.
Originally Published in Arizona Vines and Wines Fall 2008 Issue