The Unexpected History of Arizona Wine, Part I

Long before anyone so much as crushed a wine grape in California, wine made from Arizona grapes was being enjoyed. But Arizona’s wine history has experienced modest ups and huge gigantic downs.

Now, Arizona wine is inching towards a future where it is recognized in its own right, just like when Napa Valley wine reached its moment in 1976.

Given the premium quality of modern Arizona wine, it’s possible to imagine Arizona wine property, now priced for as little as $1,250 per acre, one day being priced at the equivalent of Napa Valley’s $5 million per acre 50 years from now.

To envision Arizona’s future, we’ll first look at its past in this four-part series. Today, we’ll learn about Arizona’s unexpected history of winemaking along with California’s vibrant winemaking history.

The Judgment of Paris

The first vineyards in California were planted by the Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra in 1779 with grapes used for religious purposes. Later, granted land by the Mexican government, George Calvert Yount began planting vineyards in Napa Valley in 1836. With land costing $6 per acre and Zinfandel planted everywhere, 1880 was a year of expansion for the fledgling California wine industry.

But, it wasn’t until the 1960s that growers began earnestly planting Bordeaux varietals in Napa Valley. In 1966, Robert Mondavi released his first Cabernet Sauvignon. Still, Napa Valley in the 1960s was a place where winemakers personally served wine drinkers in occasionally open tasting rooms.

How do I know? I lived just an hour south in Lucas Valley in northern Marin County in the late 1960s. I was technically too young to drink legally, but no one seemed to pay attention to that minor detail in Napa Valley. My parents took me and my siblings on wine tasting trips, and I was always offered tiny tastes of wine. By the age of 12, I had become a fledgling connoisseur.

In 1976, the crème de la crème of the French wine establishment assembled for a blind tasting that pitted some of the finest wines in France against unknown Napa Valley reds and whites.

The only journalist present at the event describes his moment of realization. George Taber, a correspondent for Time magazine, had a complete list of the wines and knew what each judge was tasting. He watched Raymond Oliver, chef and owner of Le Grand Véfour, one of Paris’ great restaurants, sample a white. “And then he smelled it, then he tasted it and he held it up again, [and] he said, ‘Ah, back to France!’” Taber recalls.

But this wine was a Napa Valley chardonnay, not a French chardonnay.

Called The Judgment of Paris, this tasting revolutionized the wine world by devastating every preconceived notion held by wine experts. Why? The California wines won and the wine industry was transformed as winemakers everywhere found reason to believe that they too could take on the greatest wines in the world. Vineyards bloomed worldwide – from Argentina to Australia to Arizona.

Early Wine in Arizona

In 1582, Spanish conquistador Antonio de Espejo visited Arizona and made wine from its vitis arizonica, wild grapes that still grow alongside Arizona’s desert rivers. However, these grapes proved less suitable to wine making than the European variety, vitis vinifera.

One hundred years later, the Italian Jesuits were competing with the Spanish Franciscans to determine who could impress the Pope with the most conversions. Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest, founded two dozen missions across the Southwest, including Mission San José de Tumacácori, the oldest in Arizona. It is said that Father Kino personally converted 40,000 Indians.

The Jesuits desperately needed quantities of wine in order to serve the Holy Sacrament to their many new converts. They grew European wine grapes, vitis vinifera, and by 1705, wine had become a mainstay of mission life in Arizona. However, when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Italian Jesuits were forced to abandon their Southwest missions and vitis vinifera disappeared from Arizona for the next 60 years.

In the late 1880s, a German baker named Henry Schuerman, escaping army service for Germany’s Kaiser, migrated to Arizona and acquired 160 acres along Oak Creek near Sedona in settlement of a $400 debt. He tried to flip the land, but was unsuccessful, so he and his wife instead planted an apple orchard and 76 acres of Zinfandel grapes. For the next 25 years, Schuerman’s winery supplied cowboys, loggers and miners throughout northern Arizona with his Red Rock Grape Wine.

Arizona became a state in 1912 and, on New Year’s Day 1915, a prohibition law was passed that surpassed all others in its severity – even medical and industrial uses of alcohol were banned. Schuerman, however, ignored the new law until 1917 when he was arrested for selling two 50-gallon barrels of wine to Nola Dixon and H. F. Thayer for $80. Schuerman was convicted, sentenced to six months in prison and forced to pay a $300 fine.

Having shared his good fortune with his neighbors on several occasions and having helped to build the community’s first schoolhouse, Schuerman was respected and his friends and neighbors lined up behind him. After serving two months in jail, on December 12, 1917, Schuerman was set free by Arizona Governor Thomas Campbell.

But Schuerman’s life was never the same again. His prized vineyard went fallow and Oak Creek changed course eating away at his property. Finally, in 1920, a flood swept away his red rock sandstone winery. Schuerman died shortly afterwards and winemaking in Arizona was again lost to history with only a few scraggly vines left on Schuerman’s property.

The Next Phase of Arizona’s Wine History

Now, I live in Arizona, a place where winemakers like rock star Maynard J. Keenan, film director Sam Pillsbury and long-time Arizonan Kent Callaghan personally serve wine drinkers in their occasionally open tasting rooms. While 12-year-olds are no longer offered tastings and the landscape is more rocky than pastoral, the Arizona wine industry today is still much like Napa Valley was in the 1960s.

The Judgment of Paris will never be relived in the same way as it was experienced in 1976, but Arizona wines could indeed one day find their own place among the best of the best in the wine world.

Wine made from Schuerman’s grapes will come back to visit us later in this series. In the meantime, we’ll explore how the modern wine industry in Arizona began anew for the third time and learn more about some of Arizona wine’s early rock stars.

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References

Arizona Vineyard for Sale. (2017, January 2). Land and Farm.

Ayers, Steve. (2011, December). Henry Schuerman’s Great Notion. Edible Phoenix.

Bileti, Jay. (2008, Winter). The Birth of the Arizona Wine Industry. Arizona Wine & Lifestyle.

Complete Napa Valley California Wine History from Early 1800s to Today. (n.d.). The Wine Cellar Insider.

Finney, Thomas. (2005). A History of Wine in America, Volume 2. University of California Press.

Godoy, Maria. (2016, May 24). The Judgment of Paris: The Blind Taste Test That Decanted the Wine World. NPR.

Harter, Jess. (2012, October). Vine Before Its Time. Phoenix Magazine.

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