Looking around at the Arizona wine industry today, it is amazing how far it has come. From its humble beginnings, back when Gordon Dutt (and company) generated interest in the area through their Four Corners Study, it seemed that anyone with the slightest interest in wine grape growing or winemaking could jump right in and take advantage of our wonderful climate, as well as our abundant and affordable land, and become a “gentleman farmer.” I remember when Tom Brady, one of the original founders of Terra Rosa Vineyards, told me that once he planted his vines and reaped his first harvest, he intended to sit on his porch with his feet up and enjoy the rewards of his bounty.What an unbelievably steep learning curve we had to climb; I was totally hooked.
I bought 20 acres of land in Elgin, and when a partially planted vineyard in Kansas Settlement became available, I bought it from Bob Webb and Tom Beham. Because only 20 of the 40 acres had been planted, I had to decide the appropriate varieties for the remaining acreage. I wanted to grow grapes that would produce the wines that I personally liked, but I also wanted to develop grapes that would grow well in this specific terroir of the vineyard site. My mantra became somewhat existential at that point (maybe from hanging around too much with philosophy major Kent Callaghan), it was essentially, “This above all, to thine own site be true!” This was not an easy task and I was quickly finding out how little I knew. I purchased a copy of Jancis Robinson’s book Vines, Grapes & Wines and subscribed to Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal. These became my bibles. I also began networking with anyone who had any academic or practical vineyard experience.
One of the best pieces of advice I got was from Paolo D’Andrea of New Mexico Vineyards, now La Luna Winery. He was formally trained in viticulture in Italy and his family had been making wine and growing grapes in Umbria for generations. He told me that no matter how experienced the expert or how well researched the scientific report, I had to understand that each site had its own peculiar needs and specific growing requirements, and that any expert advice had to be taken with a grain of salt. In other words, what worked well in California, Oregon, Italy or Australia, would not necessarily work here in Arizona.
Armed with this information, I took another leap forward and planted a small amount of Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Syrah on the Kansas Settlement site. I also experimented with different rootstocks, eventually preferring 1103 Paulsen and 110 Rugerie for the Sandy Loam soil of the area.
The first few years I sold all my grapes to other wineries such as Santa Cruz, Terra Rossa, Paradise Valley, RW Webb, Village of Elgin, Sonoita Vineyards and Callaghan Vineyards. Looking back, it’s interesting to see how many of these establishments are still in business. “It was the best of times, and the worst of times.” It seemed as though every time some new vineyard acreage came online, an existing tract was taken out of production through pests, disease or simple neglect. Demand for grapes was high as new wineries came into existence, while capital to pay for them was low.
In 1995, I joined Kent Callaghan, Bob Loew, Jon Marcus, as well as Don and Katherine Magowan, to form Dos Cabezas Wineworks. Kent was the winemaker and we released our first wine the following year with some commercial success.
Gradually… very gradually… the Arizona wine industry began getting recognized, not simply as a novelty, but seriously recognized. Sonoita Vineyards’ 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon was well received. Callaghan Vineyards caught the attention of Robert Parker for their 1992 Fume Blanc and their 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon. Dos Cabezas won awards in the “New World Wine Competition” for its Riesling and Chardonnay. Other awards and recognition followed, which included both Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas being selected for events at the White House during different administrations.
Arizona wine had begun to gain credibility. This attracted more individuals with an affinity to the area and a belief that Arizona could produce world class wine: Frank Di Christofano, who took over the winemaking duties at Dos Cabezas when Kent decided to focus exclusively on Callaghan Vineyards; as well as Eric Glomski, Sam Pillsbury, Rod Keeling and Maynard Keenan, who all brought their own special talents, commitment and conviction to the industry. In the past, most of the wineries using Arizona fruit had some good wine, but now the overall quality is evident and there is a consistency across the board. All the winemakers with experience and training have very good wine; but some have exceeded that to produce excellent wine and some have created interesting wines that reflect the uniqueness of Arizona. For verification of the depth and breadth of wines being offered from Arizona fruit, check out recent award-winning vintages by Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks, Rob Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner Vineyards, Chris Hamilton of Ranch Rossa Vineyards, Ron and Ann Roncone of Lightning Ridge Cellars and Tim Mueller of Canelo Hills Vineyard & Winery.
Certainly, challenges remain but this is a given in any agricultural undertaking and in any business setting that is still developing. Vigilance in the winery and vineyard is a constant necessity. Today, the Arizona wine industry is viable, however, that was not the case in the not too distant past.
Article by Al Buhl
Originally Published in Arizona Vines and Wines Spring 2013 Issue
Al Buhl is true pioneer in the Arizona wine industry; he was one of the first to plant wine grapes and produce wine here, as the original owner of Dos Cabezas Wineworks. He eventually partnered with Sam Pillsbury to expand the 40-acre vineyard to 80 acres, adding what is still called “The Norte Block.” Eventually the Dos Cabezas label was sold to winemaker Todd Bostock and his family; they moved it to Sonoita. The 80-acre vineyard was then sold to Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. Al currently resides in Sonoita, AZ where he works as a track coach. We were very excited to have Al contribute to our Grape Perspectives column. With his unique historical perspective, we knew his article would be interesting and educational.