Arizona's Growing Wine Scene

Despite being little known, there is much to discover in Arizona's wine country.
© The Arizona Republic | Despite being little known, there is much to discover in Arizona's wine country.
The word is not yet out on this high-altitude, southwest growing region.
By Liza B. Zimmerman | Posted Wednesday, 30-Jun-2021

The desert state of Arizona is better known for its national parks, like the Grand Canyon, and stunning scenery than as a hotbed of wine production. Many may think of the state, where temperatures can hit the low 100s for much of the summer, as too hot a climate in which to successfully grow grapes. However, huge diurnal temperature shifts and the impressive altitude of many of the state's vineyards allow grapes to flourish in a handful of areas.

According to Paula Woolsey, vice president of the Cottonwood, Arizona-based Verde Valley Wine Consortium, the curious should consider the wines. "Think Mendoza Argentina when you want to understand how we grow grapes in Arizona. We don't have large bodies of water moderating the climate, we have elevation. Arizona has the second-highest diurnal [temperature] shift in the world of grape growing, after Argentina. This allows for balanced acids and sugars [to develop in the grapes]."

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She adds that most of the state's growing regions are located between 3200 and 5500 feet above sea level. She goes on to say that the state's wine industry is still in its infancy and that most of the state's producers are making less than 2000 cases and few of them are distributed out of state.

Getting the word out

Winemaking in the state dates back to when the Spanish settlers and missionaries around the Tucson area introduced grapes, and were probably making wine, by the late 1700s, if not earlier, according to the Arizona Wine Growers' website.

From the beginning of the 19th Century on the industry enjoyed rapid growth, until a 1915 ban was passed on the production and sale of alcohol. While wine production continued at that time in places such as California, theoretically solely for medicinal and sacramental purposes for personal consumption, that was not the case in Arizona. As a result, most of the local vineyards were uprooted and when Prohibition was repealed "no one even thought about restoring production," notes testimony in History of the Wine Industry in Arizona, published by the University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Wine producers finally revived the industry in the 1980s, shares Michael Pierce, the viticulture and enology director at Yavapai College's Verde Valley Campus who also makes his own wine under the Pierce Cellars label.

Despite some initial successes, Arizona's early wine industry still faced numerous hurdles in the form of disease, marketing challenges, public acceptance and the slow process of trial and error employed to find the best grapes and winemaking techniques for the state's unique growing conditions.

Pierce goes on to share that more red, rather than white, varietals are planted with some of the top varietals being Malvasia Bianca, Grenache, Viognier, Tempranillo and Graciano. Most of the state's producers are making a limited number of cases a year and only about a handful have a sales presence outside of the state. Woolsey notes that only Caduceus Cellars; Merkin Vineyards; Arizona Stronghold, all run for a number of years Maynard James Keenan – the lead singer of the band Tool – who upped their profile; and Pillsbury Wine Co. are all in regular, three-tier distribution.

Although not as well known as other wine regions, there are a growing number of wineries emerging in the desert state.
© The Arizona Republic | Although not as well known as other wine regions, there are a growing number of wineries emerging in the desert state.

While insiders say that the state's resident wine drinkers are becoming increasingly savvier and more interested in their local wines, said wines are not easy to find. I have never seen a bottle of Arizona wine sold outside of the state and did not see a single bottle on a shelf or in a restaurant in the several weeks I spent there. The desire to promote and support local products is clearly absent in much of this state. These wines don't even seem to be making it over the shared border to California or nearby resort cities like Las Vegas.

The only wineries I was able to visit during my stay were three small operations near the city of Kingman, in the Northwestern part of the state near the Nevada border. The most colorful of the three was Steven Pedroza, who heads up a winery called Little Old Wine Drinkers Winery, named after a refrain from a Dean Martin song called Little Old Wine Drinker Me. Before heading out to Arizona he was a lounge singer in Las Vegas and made wine in his backyard before planting vines in Arizona.

He decided to become a winery owner as he said he "was sick of drinking Mr. Beringer's water." The winery makes a grape-strawberry White Merlot wine, as well as a Tempranillo and a Pinot Grigio. He buys his fruit from both Ontario, Canada, as well as from a California wine broker and swears that he has no idea where exactly the grapes are sourced.

Woolsey attempts to explain the less than commercial market approach taken by many winemakers in the state by sharing, "Arizona winemakers are making wine for Arizonans' enjoyment; we are not market-driven to create the next evolution in the wine. We are limited to where we can grow grapes in the state, by geography and climate. We will never be a huge wine-producing state, we can only aspire to make great wines," shares Woosely.

The AVAs

The state's three major growing regions are the Sonoita/Elgin, the state's first AVA in Southeast Arizona; Willcox in the southern part of the state; and the Verde Valley, north of Phoenix which is likely to become its third AVA.

They all have fairly different growing conditions. "A place like Sonoita is probably the most exposed to Mother Nature; hail storms, high winds, early frost, monsoonal activity, extreme heat, etc. make it a very challenging place to grow [grapes]," shares T. Scott Stephens, the managing partner of both the Southern Rail Restaurant and Becketts Table Restaurant in Phoenix. He adds that "There's a lot of volcanic influence in Willcox near the Chiricahua Mountain preserve, while Sonoita exhibits various clays and loamy encrusted soils."

Southern Rail features approximately two dozen Arizona wines by the bottle, priced from $42 for Chateau Tumbleweed's Red Grenache blend to $92 for a Page Springs' Marselan. The restaurant also features five Arizona wines by the glass, priced from $11 to $12.

He adds that, "We are still learning collectively the nuances and characteristics of each of the growing areas." While he says that he is "not sure we are at a point where we can identify with a particular red or white grape… However white varietals such as Malvasia, Viognier, Petit Manseng and Vermentino all seem to be producing world-class results. Then the reds such as Grenache, Graciano, Sangiovese, and Syrah are natural fits for our regions. Other varieties such as Teroldego and Aglianico are showing tremendous potential... There is still a need to discover what Arizona can do."

He adds that many producers are primed to move the needle up to the 3000 to 6000 annual-case mark. Hopefully, this will help in the distribution game. "However, production cap limits mandated by antiquated state liquor laws force their hands," comments Stephens. One of the state's advantages at this point is the fact that vineyard "land is absolutely inexpensive compared to other growing regions near our state such as California and their subregions… It also helps that we are free of most natural disasters like floods, mudslides, earthquakes, etc."

A combination of cultivation of local, and out-of-state interests – as well as development of more commercial infrastructure – in this large and rural state's wine industry is likely to dictate if it ever hits the major leagues.

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