Wine Country, Arizona-Style

A handful of Arizona wineries are thriving--and more are on the way

Arizona's wine industry owes much of its origins to an experiment gone awry.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Gordon Dutt was working in the UA's Agriculture Department. As a soil scientist, he worked not just with soil, but also with sun, water and plant life--in this case, grapes. Dr. Dutt had hypothesized that the Arizona sun would prove to be too much for red grapes. The sun would bleach the grapes out, making any wine produced from such grapes undrinkable.

But Dr. Dutt discovered that he was wrong. Remarkably, the grapes were deep-red and perfectly acidic for winemaking.

From a few experimental acres planted on a ranch about an hour's drive from Tucson, Sonoita Vineyards was born. Arizona now had its own Wine Country.

Dr. Dutt went commercial in 1979, planting a limited number of acres. The winery opened four years later. Today, Sonoita Vineyards covers some 20 acres of vines, growing such grapes as merlot, pinot noir, mission, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Mission is the newest addition, but Dr. Dutt points out that its origins in the area date back to early Spanish missionaries.

It's the soil, according to Dr. Dutt, that makes it all possible. He calls it "terra rossa," or red earth. He compares the clay soil that found in Burgundy, France. An altitude of 5,000 feet also helps--that and a passion for the work.

After more than 25 years in the business, Dr. Dutt, 75, remains involved in the whole process. He seems to especially like telling visitors about the vineyard's history. His eyes, blue as the Sonoita sky, sparkle as he tells the story of the first Blessing of the Vines, when a double rainbow arched over the vineyards, as if a blessing from the heavens.

The winery itself sits atop a hill deep in the Sonoita appellation (the area bordered by the Santa Rita Mountains, the Whetstone Mountains, the Huachuca Mountains and Canola Hills). Views from the second-story balcony show sweeping panoramas of the high desert.

Three festivals are held each year: the Blessing of the Vines in April, the Harvest Festival in August and St. Martin's Festival in the fall. The public is most welcome.

Just a mile up the road from Sonoita Vineyards is the Village of Elgin Wine Complex. Here, visitors can sample wines from two wineries: the Village of Elgin Winery and Domaines Ellam. Between the two wineries, approximately 50 different wines are produced annually. Both wineries have won numerous awards and kudos worldwide.

Both are owned and operated by Lord Garrison Reeves Ellam and his wife, Kathy. Gary is the winemaster; Kathy is the cellar master--a unique combination. Together, they oversee every step of the process, from planting to bottling in the area's only totally automatic bottling line.

Domaines Ellam produces only luxury wines, which are made from the "finest grapes in Arizona." The grapes are purchased statewide to meet exacting standards. Traditional methods are also used: aging in French oak barrels, fermenting on present yeasts, whole-berry pressing of the whites (after destemming), foot stomping of the reds and using gravity in the bottling. No fining or filtering takes place; this supposedly improves flavor and mouth feel. The Ellams bottle wines for other vineyards, as well.

About that foot stomping: Boots are used, and yes, the boots are sanitized! This age-old method avoids the addition of the bad stuff (oils and tannins) and preserves the good stuff (texture and flavor). At the various festivals held at the winery, grape-stomping competitions are held. Get good at it, and you might be crowned the King or Queen of Grape Stomping.

The festivals--the Blessing of the Grapes in April, the Harvest Festival on the last weekend in September and St. Vincent's in January--have live music, arts and crafts, wine tastings and food. Gate proceeds go to a scholarship fund.

The latest venture for the folks in Elgin is their Regalo Estate, making only Vino Appassimento wines, due out soon in limited quantities.

Kent Callaghan and his parents, Harold and Karen, began Callaghan Vineyards 1990. At first planting, there were plenty of folks who doubted young Kent Callahan's choice of putting a vineyard in Arizona, especially the guys who helped with the planting. As the story goes, at the end of the day, they wished young Callaghan "buena suerte," or good luck. They were convinced he'd need all the luck he could get.

In due time, good luck--and hard work--paid off. Callaghan Buena Suerte Cuvee is a favorite.

Today, the Callaghan produces some 2,000 cases annually. Producing both reds and whites, the Callaghans bottle most of their wines without filtering or fining. A couple of years back, Callaghan purchased state-of-the-art equipment--a destemmer and a larger press. They see this as an investment in the future, a way to make the best wine from each and every grape.

The Wall Street Journal has called Callaghan's fume blanc "impressive," and Robert Parker has praised for many of their vintages. Callaghan wines have been served at several White House state dinners (both Democrat and Republican administrations, mind you). Recently, Gov. Janet Napolitano declared Callaghan Vineyards an "Arizona Treasure."

Weekends find the Callaghan family--Kent, wife Lisa and their two daughters--in the Old West-style building that serves as a tasting room, as storage for the beautiful oak barrels and as a playroom for the girls. The Callaghans pour their product (several reds, some whites and a dessert wine) and talk with visitors about the wines and life in the vineyard. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed.

Oh, and the glass is included.

The tasting room at Charron Vineyards is Leo and Rhea Cox's back porch. There, the two will share a glass of the only vintage Charron produces, a white merlot. That is, if the vines aren't demanding Leo's attention. Save for the harvest, when friends and family pitch in, he is the sole worker at his tiny vineyard. That's quite an accomplishment from a man who's 79 years old.

While many vineyards offer tractor tours, visitors to this tiny gem--Pima County's only vineyard--can get a real up-close-and-personal look the vines. Some of the vines are just a few feet away from where folks park their cars. It gives one a true appreciation of the beauty of the plant and an understanding of why Leo does what he does.

Cox was bitten by the grape bug while working as a nuclear engineer in Spain. After watching the Old World ways of growing and cultivating grapes and making wine, he knew he wanted to own a vineyard. Charron, which is Rhea's last name, is the result.

As a master gardener, Cox uses his knowledge to get the most out of his small vineyard. He nets the vines to keep the hungry birds away. He built a buffer zone around the plants to keep a pesky insect from destroying his crop.

Year one produced a wine that was overly sweet, but with time and a little less sugar, Cox developed the wine he was looking for. The white merlot is making its mark.

Currently producing only 300 cases a year from approximately 10 acres of vines, Charron Vineyards is a small wonder.

Another vine/wine entity, Dos Cabezas Winery and Vineyard, is in the area, but tastings are done by appointment only. And another three new vineyards are slated to open for business in the next 18 months

While each vineyard offers its own unique experience, there is a common thread that the growers/wine makers share: they love their work.

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