It wasn't all black tie, but it was an upscale event at last week's inaugural wine festival honoring the early day pioneers of Arizona's now nationally recognized wine industry.
Designed as a fund-raiser to develop a University of Arizona research library on wine making, 112 paid participants each anteed up $125 for a 4-course meal with appropriate crushed grape libations.
The gala recognized 88-year-old Dr. Gordon Dutt, a retired soil scientist and founder of Sonoita Vineyards, the state's oldest vineyard. Also recognized were Bob Webb of RW Webb Winery, who launched the first commercial winery to vint table wine since the time of prohibition; Kent Callaghan, owner/winemaker of Callaghan Vineyards, and the late Al Buhl, founder of Dos Cabezas Vineyards (now Arizona Stronghold).
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild welcomed those assembled with a 21st-century vision: "Tucson in the 20th century used to be known for the 5 C's (cattle, cotton, copper, climate, citrus) but now as a region of the 21st century, we're known for the 5 T's (technology, trade, transportation, tourism, teaching) and the wine industry has all of those. With Tucson being the only City of Gastronomy in the United States, we need a strong local wine culture to enhance that."
Noting that Arizona has four different regions prime for wine making, "It took a pioneering spirit to develop that diversified wine industry and without that spirit, the industry wouldn't be where it is today. Perseverance, commitment, and a willingness to take risks has served the industry well.
Soil scientist Gordon Dutt, the founder and original winemaker at the state's oldest vineyard, Sonoita Vineyards, is the acknowledged Father of Arizona's Wine Industry, the Johnny Appleseed of local grape growers. When he planted that first vine, he never foresaw the start of an industry although, "I had all the hopes in the world that there would be somewhere in Arizona we could make real quality wine and I hoped it was here."
Acknowledging that people were drinking more wine nowadays, he noted: "It's one of the most healthy products you can consume. It's been proven that people who indulge moderately live longer and, at age 88, I'm proof of that."
Honoree Bob Webb, now in his mid-70s and still actively consulting new growers and vintners, started making wine before he was a teenager.
"Professionally, I've been doing it for nearly 40 years, but at age 12, I was making wine in my basement," he says.
Concerning the growth of the industry: "Oh, my gosh, it's leaps and bounds beyond my wildest dreams. Being one of the first, it was pretty lonely with nobody else to talk to. When I sold my winery in 1996, there were nine bonded wineries and now I think there's about 64 statewide. The quality of the grapes and the wine has just skyrocketed. Looking ahead to 2018, we keep getting better and better and there's no place to go but further up."
Additional honorees included Al Buhl, the late founder of Dos Cabezas Vineyards, now Arizona Stronghold Vineyards.
Dustin Coressel is marketing manager there and says, "Business is booming. It's a good time to be in the Arizona wine industry and we're starting to get recognition on a national scale for the winemaking we're doing."
The movement is picking up momentum with Willcox now officially an American Viticulture Area and the Verde Valley expecting similar status soon. "Despite the fact that a lot of people still aren't aware there is wine being made in the desert, it's here and it's delicious. We're beginning to catch stride now as an industry and it's a great time to acknowledge the pioneers who got everything started."
Kent Callaghan, owner and winemaker at Callaghan Vineyards, was the fourth pioneer to be honored as an industry founder who began in Elgin in 1990 and has run the vineyard for 27 years, finding grapes that accentuated all of Arizona's best qualities. Bottles of his product have been served four times and the White House and he is among the Top 500 Wineries in the U.S. as featured in the November issue of Food and Wine magazine.
Daughter Caitlin accepted on his behalf, lauding her father's hard work, passion, and perseverance.
"Planting, pruning, grafting, picking—he did it all, occasionally assembling explicatives together in a way that can only be described as poetic," she says. "There were countless trying times in the beginning, but because of the love for what he does, he found solutions and paved new paths that made the industry stronger."
To further commemorate the industry advancements, the Arizona Wine Growers Association and the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences followed up with a next-day Festival at the Farm wine tasting where 20 Arizona wineries uncorked and poured samples of the fruit of their vines.