By Joel Mann, Consulting Winemaker and Freelance Writer
Picture this in your mind. You’re part of a small wine-producing region that while garnering respect among the wine savvy locals, is considered a bit of a backwater in the respected wine world. You know you make good stuff, but the intellectuals on the topic only care about established names or regions, so your product is typically scoffed at, or at best is considered quaint. Think I’m talking about Arizona? Actually, it’s Napa Valley circa 1975. Yes, even the mighty Mecca of American wine was at one point and time considered irrelevant on wine’s world stage. That was until a handful of Napa wineries showed up in Paris for a blind tasting versus several renowned Bordeaux Chateaux in 1976. What was the result? The critics oohed and aahed about many wines, and speculated which top chateau they came from. When the bottles were revealed though, the top honors were all Yankee upstarts. Ever since then, the name Napa Valley bestows instant respect, earned or not. Arizona may not be Napa Valley in 1975, but it is developing the foundations that lead to a successful wine industry, and is fast approaching the critical point of respectability as a developing region. I wanted to share with you a little about Arizona wine as an industry insider familiar with the scene and many of the characters behind it.
If you’re looking for big fruity Cabs, or lush buttery Chards like you get from most of California, or places like Australia, I’m sorry to say, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed. Every wine region has its own unique character. Different grape varieties perform well in certain places, and don’t in others. Most of Arizona is rustic and rugged. The vines that perform well here share that same character. The top performers so far are names like Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, Mourvèdre and Malvasia. They’re vines that are hardy, handle the heat of summer, retain good acidity in that heat, and can tolerate hot sunny days without getting too thirsty. Think more Don Quixote in La Mancha than the street cars of San Francisco when it comes to Arizona and its wines. The regions you should be looking for as a comparison are the southern Rhône Valley in France, Rioja or Priorat in Spain, the Alentejo, Douro and Dão of Portugal, and many of the southern Italian wine regions such as Apulia, Abruzzi or Sicily. The wines are predominately red, often have a rustic spiciness, and are geared more towards being served with dinner than sipped by themselves.
As for the characters in the play, Arizona is slowly accumulating a population of experienced and educated veterans to drive premium quality. Chief among them so far has been Eric Glomski from Page Springs Cellars. He’s a former winemaker for David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz area, and through tireless effort has built one of Arizona’s larger wineries, while also being a lobbyist for the local industry with the state legislature. Kent Callaghan from Callaghan Vineyards has long been recognized as one of the state’s top quality producers. New faces on the scene include Kief Manning at Kief-Joshua Vineyards, who studied viticulture and enology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and Fran Lightly at Sonoita Vineyards, who studied at Fresno State. Arizona even has an established name in the wine business starting up operations, with Dick Erath from Oregon planting a vineyard in the Willcox area.
The one thing Arizona currently lacks is the infrastructure that comes with an established wine region: labs, bottling services, auxiliary businesses and the myriad of marketing and consultation firms. These are under development though. Yavapai Community College is looking to start an associate’s course in viticulture and enology. Arizona Stronghold has pondered being a lab service provider. Arizona also has a facility that was built for the purpose of allowing custom crush production with the opening of Wilhelm Family Vineyards in the Sonoita/Elgin area. I have yet to check out the property, but look forward to it after recently meeting owner and winemaker Karyl Wilhelm.
The future for Arizona wine is looking bright. The state is where many developing regions in the western United States were just before experiencing a boom in both quantity and quality. The number of Arizona wineries has grown rapidly in the past few years, and many more wineries are in the planning and development stages. Some trial and error still needs to occur in order to match the best grapes to the best vineyard sites, particularly for white wines; and to raise the overall standard of quality control among inexperienced producers. Once these facts play themselves out though, Arizona does have the potential to be a top quality wine producer. So rather than scoff at the notion of Arizona wines, I encourage you to seek out a few, and discover the gems hiding in your own back yard. Many wineries are an easy day trip away, and you’ll not only help support a local industry, but you can have an adventure to enjoy in the process.
Originally published in Arizona Vines & Wines, Fall 2009