Tuesday 15 October 2019
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Featured Winery: Lighting Ridge Cellars

Ann Roncone: Always Improving on the Last Design—A Mechanical Engineer’s Approach to Fine Winemaking

Ann Roncone, winemaker and co-owner of Lightning Ridge Cellars in Elgin, was making wine long before she ever thought of opening a business.

“My farming career started off as a garage winemaker,” Ann said. “While working full-time in my wooly-wall cubical office as a mechanical engineer, I made garage wine for about five years before I realized my real love was grape growing and winemaking.”

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Ann went to a local, home-winemaker shop and purchased a kit consisting of a five-gallon bucket and a can of concentrate juice. The irony is that she never used that kit. Instead, a local vineyard owner sold her 200 pounds of Zinfandel and she was off. Then she decided to start growing her own grapes.

“So, I planted—vines in the front yard, driveway, backyard—anywhere I could fit them in. There weren’t many, maybe 30 vines, but I was in heaven. I was hooked,” she said.

Ann found a local winery, Savannah-Channelle in Saratoga, California, that needed some seasonal help.

“Now I was truly in heaven,” she said. “I would take a two-week vacation in the fall to work harvest, and periodically weekends to help out. Being a cellar rat was eye opening. It’s basically where I got my forklift and pallet jack training. I learned about cleaning, cleaning and cleaning for a winery. And, when the semi-truck with 20 tons of fruit comes up the driveway, you know it’s going to be a long day.”

When she decided to make the leap from her 21-year engineering career to winemaking, her husband Ron was skeptical, but over the years he had seen that this hobby of Ann’s was, well, more than a hobby.

They looked around California for vineyard property, but because of the high price of land they couldn’t afford much of anything. Ron was familiar with Tucson because he had done graduate work at the University of Arizona, so when they discovered the Sonoita/Elgin viticulture area, they decided to investigate.

“Making a trip to the area and trying Callaghan Vineyards’ wines was the clincher,” she said. “Quality wines in Arizona? Who knew? With the land prices being much better than anything in California, we began looking at property. Ultimately, Ron found a job in Tucson, I quit my job and we moved in 2004.”

Same drive, different field

Ann approached her second career as a winemaker in the same fashion she did mechanical engineering in the early 1980s. Back then, she began as a fledgling in a drafting room, where there were no computers—only drafting tables, pencils and erasers. And it had never occurred to her that engineering was a man’s field. She just wanted to be considered someone who did a good solid job.

“Being a young chick in a drafting room had to be as awkward for the supervisors as it was for me,” she said. “But, I fit in and was ‘one of the guys’ for many, many years.”

She likely never considered that the daily rugged work and strength required for running a winery and vineyard might be best handled by a much larger and stronger person. Her tiny stature has not been an issue—she is recognized throughout the Elgin/Sonoita wine community for her independence, and her willingness to pitch in and help with the most arduous tasks.

“I admit there are areas where I struggle with not being strong enough, though,” she said. “Cleaning barrels is probably the best example. Oh, I can still maneuver barrels onto and off of their racks, but it’s probably entertaining if anyone were to watch.”

Location, location, location

When the Roncones chose the Sonoita/Elgin region to look for vineyard property, they had various factors to consider including slope, sun exposure, cold air, drainage and water. They actually found two properties—one on Elgin Road, also known as Sonoita’s ‘winery row,’ and the other, a little farther out of the way, where their current tasting room resides.

“When we found the 20-acre parcel where the winery is now located, the biggest unknown was the weather,” she pointed out. “Micro-climates being what they are, we didn’t know as much about temperature and frost patterns on the new location as we knew about the Elgin Road region.”

Over the years, the climate at the winery location has proven to be excellent for grapevines. At about 100 feet higher than Elgin Road, they still get hit with frost, but the damage is much less than in the vineyard on Elgin Road.

Varietals and practices

Ann takes a minimalist approach to farming.

She explained, “We’re not organic, but I also don’t spray just to spray. I very much believe in monitoring the vines (leaf samples through the growing season) to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need. There’s planning involved in fertilizing (ahead of leaf sampling)—keeping it to a minimum and then monitoring. When it comes to pests, I always look for the least invasive products. For example, I want to get rid of insects that will damage grape leaves, but don’t want to get rid of spiders.”

Lightning Ridge Cellars grows wines that the Roncones like to drink, specializing in Italian varietals. Montepulciano has become their flagship red, but they also grow Aglianico, Primitivo, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Muscat Canelli and Malvasia are their white varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon is also grown to blend with Sangiovese for a Super Tuscan blend.

Hands down, Ann claimed the busiest season is harvest (end of August through the end of October).
“I liken the start of harvest to that initial hill on a roller coaster,” she explained. “I swear I can hear that click-click-click in the days nearing the time fruit is to be picked. When the first cluster gets clipped and dropped into a harvest bucket that is virtually when the rollercoaster cart has crested the top and you’re on way to a wild ride.”

Highs and lows…

Ann said, “When we hit a milestone, each one represents an arduous amount of planning, preparing, physical work and pouring over details to have completed.”

Milestones to date have included purchasing the properties, installing trellising by hand for the first seven and a half acres, planting that acreage, picking the first harvest, installing another seven and a half acres of trellising and vines, and building the winery/tasting room. Of course, each new wine release is a milestone too.

Operating a vineyard doesn’t come without its challenges, however. Issues with drip-lines and risers, underground leaks, mechanical and electrical issues, frozen pipes and the need for constant attention to watering the vines have all posed obstacles to their daily operation and to their vineyards’ success.
“Those all are issues integral to farming; they’d just be a lot more palatable if they weren’t so chronic. I’m seriously considering my epitaph to read: ‘And then… there’s the irrigation.’”

A recent low point hit her hard—the decision to forego their Elgin Road vineyard and pull up stakes. Literally.

She explained, “Over the past year, it had become more and more difficult to maintain two vineyard sites and the tasting room. Disappointment doesn’t describe shutting down eight years’ worth of effort and sweat equity. But, I couldn’t properly maintain the vines the way I needed to, so a tough decision had to be made.”

With a little help from my friends

Allison and Nicholas, the Roncone children, began helping in the vineyards while in high school and middle school, respectively.

“Because of the farming aspect of our business, they certainly know a hard day’s work—draining, exhausting, sleep-like-a-rock day’s work. They’re both great kids and work like hell when the job calls for it. Actually, they work like hell in all their endeavors. As a parent, that’s great to see. The only downside is their personal work schedules now—it’s a little harder to get them to come out and help Mom,” she said.

Ann continued, “The support and camaraderie of fellow vineyard owners has been one of the best parts of being in the Elgin area. I can’t thank Kent Callaghan enough for his insight and overall support. We had frankly riddled Kent with questions before purchasing our property. His generous open advice has been instrumental to the success of our vineyard.

“When I was lost in trying to figure out how to build a sprayer for my new vineyard, Chris Hamilton (Rancho Rossa) not only described a sprayer’s individual components, but gave me resources so I could source the parts I’d need. Todd Bostock (Dos Cabezas) and Tim Mueller (Canelo Hills) were also wonderfully helpful in our fledgling years.

“Then, I broke my ankle in March of 2012. I hadn’t finished pruning and was frantic. Kent and Megan Haller (Arizona Hops and Vines) came to the rescue. Winery friends are the best!”

Plans for the future

The practice of “always wanting to improve on the last design” from her engineering days is one she also applies to the winery. Ann is continuously focusing on ways to better the winery, and is looking into the future with exciting plans.

“We have two lovely Bocce ball courts, and my onus now is to do some landscaping to warm up the area and provide more outside seating. I truly love the views from our winery, and want our customers and friends to be able to sit and enjoy the views as much as I do,” she said.

As for the wine selection, several new wines are scheduled to be introduced by Lightning Ridge Cellars: Aglianico (this year), Nebbiolo (next year) and Sangiovese (two years from now).

Overcoming each daily challenge of running a winery, whether large or small, Ann has successfully found a way to turn a hobby and love for winemaking into a career.


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