Wine Nerd Extraordinaire & Pioneer Spirit
Article & Photos by Nathan Brugnone
Hailing from one of the hottest areas in the U.S., Brett Cook has put himself on the map as one of the most knowledgeable and friendly hobby winemakers in Southern Arizona. Brett’s fermentation hobbies began in the 1980s while attending Portland State University. While studying engineering as an undergrad, Brett had batches of both beer and wine on the docket most of the time, switching his focus solely to beer making when grapes became increasingly hard to find. And as the saying goes, “it takes a lot of beer to make wine.”
Fast forward a bit. One day while sitting on his back patio in the outskirts of Tucson, Brett started to wonder what he would do with all of the extra grapefruit produced by his two trees. Bingo: wine. Having never made wine from this fruit before, he jumped on Jack Keller’s website to find a recipe. (For the uninitiated, Jack Keller is somewhat of an online Yoda for amateur winemakers.) To Brett’s surprise, the wine was spectacular. Brett had found his calling: engineer by day, winemaker by night.
It wasn’t long before Brett was in the pursuit of the seminal wine fruit, Vitis vinifera. This path led Brett to the Arizona grape-growing pioneer Peter Lechtenbohmer. At the time they met, Peter had 30 years of grape growing experience, including time growing table grapes in Maricopa, and wine grapes in Yakima Valley, Washington. Brett met Peter on his property in Kansas Settlement in Willcox, AZ, specifically on a portion of land that Peter coined the “Willcox Bench.” Brett enrolled in the final session of Peter’s viticulture course and Peter became Brett’s grape growing mentor.
Via many lessons, Peter educated Brett on the special considerations a grape grower needs in Arizona. Some of these nuggets of knowledge became cornerstones of practice when Brett put in his Tucson vineyard, Casas Adobes. Of utmost importance was information about soil preparation, varietal selection and rootstock choice—the things only wine geeks really jive about. And it wasn’t long before Brett had to get creative and evolve his vineyard knowledge into practice.
Problem number one: clearing a space for sixty Barbera vines. At first this didn’t seem like a huge undertaking. After all, how much prickly pear is there to remove from a 1/16 of an acre? For Brett, there turned out to be something to the tune of 4.8 tons – the max capacity of the roll-off 40-yard dumpster he had rented. Thankfully, underneath all of it, there wasn’t an ounce of caliche, the nearly impenetrable ground layer that hampers the deep rooting necessary for vines.
But other problems arose. One morning Brett awoke and took a stroll through his vines to find that one of his plants had mysteriously lost all of its leaves. The next day, two vines hung there as bald as Yul Brynner. Brett looked all day for signs of disease and insect infestation but saw none. That night, however, he strapped on his caving headlamp with a mission. What he found was as terrifying as what cavers refer to as “Rapture,” the moment when one is in the middle of a cave and simultaneously experiences claustrophobia and vastness. Right before his eyes marched his own personal Chupacabra, a foot-wide swath of leafcutter ants dismantling a vine with vicious efficiency. Rather than burning leafcutter ant mounds, as some Amazonian people do to ward off evils, Brett applied some tangle-foot to the grow tubes. Now the Barbera vines are as healthy as one could hope and their fruit garners numbers that would excite even the most skeptical professional winegrower.
Originally thought of as a retirement plan, the future looks bright for Brett’s winegrowing hobby. Brett has gotten an early start searching for land and connecting with fellow Arizona winegrowers. To further Arizona winemaking, he believes that pioneers and novices alike need to share their triumphs and tribulations. He looks forward to research coming from Arizona academic programs and has a special passion for varietal breeding, a practice that may lead to the development of “Arizona’s Cabernet,” as Brett calls it. Time will tell.
Follow Brett on his website, www.cooksplace.us.
Nathan Brugnone is a founding member of AZ Wine Makers (www.azwinemakers.com) and has produced award-winning wine. His passions include those of many Trustafarians: music, winemaking, cuisine, writing, comedy, and world peace, in that order.