Tuesday 15 October 2019
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By Rhonni Moffitt

Kent Callaghan is recognized as one of the pioneers of Arizona’s wine industry. His vineyard is located in the heart of Sonoita’s Wine Trail. As proven by his consistent awards and the high ratings his wines receive, he is a talented winemaker and takes his craft very seriously. Kent is a determined and focused individual with strong opinions when it comes to wine. This is his life . . . in the vineyard, the winery and the tasting room . . . and it comes through in his award-winning wines.

Kent Callaghan

Kent Callaghan. Photo courtesy of Rod Keeling.

While Kent was in college earning his degree in Philosophy he didn’t envision winemaker or grape grower as his life’s path. His parents, Harold and Karen, had purchased a home in Sonoita while Kent was in school and he would come to visit them on the weekends. He fell in love with the area. After Harold had been making wine at home for a few years and had been successful in many different business ventures, he decided it was time to try his hand at planting a vineyard and opening a winery. Kent thought his parents were crazy. Then he had a 1987 Reserve Cabernet from Sonoita Vineyards, which was very good, surprisingly so. It had a similar personality to a good Rioja. The Arizona wines he had tasted previously weren’t memorable but this wine was different, it had advanced characteristics, a good drinking wine. Hmmmmm, maybe his parents weren’t crazy?

His father came to him in 1988 and asked him if he wanted to join in this new venture. Kent agreed. These two new business partners took some extension courses at UC Davis, including one of the first Rhone varietal courses but soon realized that the only real way to learn was to just do it!

Kent tells of his mother cooking great dinners for the family and enjoying the many bottles of wine that were passed around the table. This probably led to the creation of their restaurant called Karen’s. Soon Kent was buying the wines for the restaurant’s wine list. This increased his exposure to an expanded variety of wines.

In 1989 they planted their first vines on a two acre plot, which no longer exists. Then in 1990, they planted their current vineyard. They started with 17 acres. Plantings included two acres of Zinfandel and the rest was Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. They also planted a three-acre experimental block including a row of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Barbera, Clairette, Nebbiolo, Marsanne, and Mourvedre with a focus on Rhone varietals, in order to see what worked in this environment. This block was eventually ripped out and replanted with Mourvedre in 1997. Also that year he started grafting Petit Verdot and got a crop in 1998. Then in 2000 he started grafting Tempranillo on root stock. His Zinfandel has been grafted over to Graciano, a variety that Kent is very excited about. And finally in 2007 he planted Grenache and Tannat (a variety that Kent says micro-oxygenation was created for).

The Callaghan family started with sixty acres. Throughout the years they’ve brought that down to a more manageable 49 acres, selling part of the land to Tim and Joan Mueller of Canelo Hills for their vineyard and winery. Callaghan Vineyards currently has 25 acres under vine.

There were only a few other vineyards in Arizona at the time Kent got started so it truly was an adventure. Dr. Dutt at Sonoita Vineyards was making wine and Al Buhl had purchased Dos Cabezas from Bob Webb. Arizona Vineyards in Nogales had been established since 1985. Santa Cruz Vineyards (no longer in existence) was around as was Bill Staltari of San Dominique in the Verde Valley. Talk about the Wild West of wine!

Kent believes the single biggest factor in being a good winemaker is drinking a huge variety of wine. Not just popular wines like those from California or a Chateauneuf du Pape, but a serious variety of wine, new world, old world, everything! By drinking different varietals from different vintages you can learn about how a wine can age. A single varietal can change from year to year. He gave the example of Mourvedre. Some years it can be tannic and then others can have red fruit character, yet they can come from the same vines. Both can be really good wines. “Sometimes you try to pull an outside pitch, but it is often better to slap it to right field,” Kent says. “Drinking the wine can help you figure it out.”

Patience is a common thread among winemakers. Kent is no exception. He says that’s a virtue that winemaking has taught him. As a new winemaker, he used to “freak out”. Tasting a barrel sample is very different from tasting bottled wine and you can’t always know what to expect when you’re new. Not everything requires a reaction; sometimes the wine will be fine all on its own. This is knowledge that has come over the years. It is a long process and you only have one opportunity each year.

He also believes that confidence is imperative in creating a good wine. He never doubted that Arizona could produce great wines. He was certain! Did he think that the wines he made could compete with California? Absolutely! He came in knowing that it’s not a second rate place.

If you ask Kent what his greatest achievement has been in his winemaking career, he will tell you that the Wine Advocate reviews mean the most. He’s been submitting his wines for years. Robert Parker has reviewed his wines in his publication from the beginning. He’s consistently been covered in the Wine Advocate reaching high 80s and into the 90s. A few of the quotes . . . “Callaghan Vineyards has once again produced some authoritatively-flavored, distinctive wines” (1993 Buena Suerte Cuvee – 92); “I continue to be super-impressed by the wines emerging from this high quality producer in Sonoita” (1992 Cabernet Sauvignon – 90); “Callaghan never cheats on flavor” (2004 Claire’s – 90); “Can’t afford a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet, check out Callaghan’s 1993 Chardonnay” (1993 Chardonnay – 94). Why does this matter more than the three times his wines have been poured at the White House or all the Wine Spectator ratings or Jefferson Cup awards? Because “whether you like Robert Parker or not or agree with his palate or not, he has incredible experience in the wine world. “

Regarding his wine philosophy, Kent feels that to make a really good wine you have to work the vines to really understand the journey of the fruit, taking the time to understand the intricate details of the terroir. He admits that he feels this way because it’s the path he’s followed and it has worked for him. He gives the example of strolling down a country road versus speeding through at 75 miles per hour. If you walk through the countryside you will have a completely different experience and see things in a entirely different way. He loves walking through his vineyard and knows the vines intimately.

Kent would like to see distinctive wines being made in Arizona and he feels strongly that blends are the correct path. Not traditional blends, but unique Arizona blends. You can already see them being made throughout the state. Just because you have a Grenache and Syrah, doesn’t mean that they have to be blended. “Aglianico would be great with Grenache. Killer stuff”. Comparing Arizona wines to California wines is like comparing espresso to brewed coffee. Many California wines are pleasant and fruity, but lack depth and intensity. The Arizona wines may be a bit abrasive and tannic, but they’re full of character and layers. That’s what Arizona wine means to Kent.

Although Kent didn’t see wine in his future when he was starting out, it has definitely become his passion now. It shows up in his wine and in the reactions of those who drink it. Kent has become an icon in Arizona, although he’d never admit it. His parents have since moved onto Washington, leaving the vineyard and winemaking to Kent, his wife and two daughters. The path was unexpected and it was definitely a challenge, but I don’t think he’d trade it for anything!

Still Searching . . . by Kent Callaghan

It seems that Arizona winegrowers have finally found a handful of grape varieties that perform well in our macroclimate. I’d put Petit Verdot, Tempranillo and Mourvedre at the top of the red list. Malvasia Bianca (first planted by Al Buhl) stands alone at the top of the white category. Other growers would also list Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah as top reds and Viognier as a great white.

At the same time, it is difficult to believe that other, less well-known, varieties might not equal or surpass our current favorites. Growers are trialing Aglianico and Montepulciano, both from Italy. The first is rightly famous for its complexity and age-worthiness. The latter is a workhorse and yields substantial, gutsy wines. Graciano is a highly regarded red from Rioja, Spain that is also slowly gaining a foothold in Arizona. Similar to Mourvedre in appearance and habit, it produces deep, structured wines. Albarino (NW Spain), Petit Manseng (SW France), Picpoul Blanc (S. Rhone), Roussanne (N. Rhone) and Vermentino (Corsica) are a few of the white varieties also in the experimental stage. All retain excellent acidity in our warm climate.

You might wonder why anyone would plant one of the previously mentioned esoteric varieties. Simple answer. To establish and maintain enduring credibility, Arizona growers must plant the grape varieties that consistently produce the highest quality wines. It is a time-consuming, often painful, process. But there is no other way. Fortunately, we have many open-minded people in the business. The next decade is going to be interesting (and fun to drink through).

Callaghan Vineyards
336 Elgin Road
Elgin, AZ
Hours: Fri-Sun 11am-3pm

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