The Unexpected History of Arizona Wine, Part II

Arizona’s first modern winemakers changed Arizona for the future much as Napa Valley’s first modern winemakers changed California.

How the Modern Wine Industry in Arizona First Began

Fifty years after Schuerman’s not-so-famed Red Rock Wine of Sedona passed into scraggly oblivion, Gordon Dutt, PhD, left his work as a research irrigationist at the University of California – Davis (UC Davis) for a new role at the University of Arizona in 1970.

One of Dutt’s first projects was to “harvest” water in the Arizona desert by forcing rainwater to run off the soil rather than be absorbed by it. To test his hypothesis, he needed a plant that was hardy, deep-rooted, water efficient and able to tolerate the drought conditions common in the desert.

Adapting his experiences while at UC Davis, Dutt gambled that wine grapes might work. In 1972, Dutt planted his first grape vines, his experiment worked perfectly, and he found himself with promising grapes for wine making.

Because Arizona’s prohibitive regulations governing alcohol on university campuses prevented Dutt from making wine on the University of Arizona property, he took his grapes home. The resulting wines were of such high quality that both Dutt and the wine industry were stunned. Arizona wine was reborn again.

But where could it be grown commercially? Dutt was approached by Blake Brophy, owner of a large family ranch in the high desert of the Sonoita area. Brophy suggested his property as a location for Dutt’s promising wine grape venture. Brophy’s property, the Babocomari Ranch, first began with a land grant from Mexico in 1836, long before Arizona became a U.S. state. Because of Brophy’s travels in Europe, where he saw similarities between his land and Europe’s world-class vineyards, he strongly felt his land had potential. Brophy made an impassioned plea to Dutt.

Dutt was intrigued by Babocomari Ranch’s 5,000-foot elevation, and, in spite of many theories at the time that Arizona’s monsoon rains made wine grape growing impossible, he agreed to start the first experimental vineyard on Brophy’s property in 1973.

Arizona’s Moment of Serendipity

As Jay Bileti, international wine master, and author of “ The Birth of the Arizona Wine Industry,” in Arizona Wines & Vines, describes it, “At this point it happened. You know the ‘it,’ that wonderful, amazing, unexpected, serendipitous thing that always seems to happen when things are meant to be.”

Dutt received a call. The Governor’s office in Arizona suggested a project to help stimulate the economies of the “four corners” states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Congress might fund a project to study the viability of growing quality wine grapes in the four states. Dutt wrote the grant request and Congress approved $95,000 to conduct the “Four Corners Grape Development Project.”

With sites in all four states representing different soil types, altitudes and climates, the university researchers took a scientific approach and planted many different grape varieties. Wines made from grapes grown in Dutt’s vineyard at the Babacomari Ranch were the best of Arizona’s production in the Four Corners Project. Dutt now knew he had climate, soil and evidence behind him. It was time to start making wine commercially.

The Launch of Winemaking in Arizona

Although Gordon Dutt founded the modern Arizona wine movement, his was not the first winery bonded in Arizona. R.W. Webb Winery claimed this feat, bonding its winery in 1980. Unfortunately, grapes for R.W. Webb winery’s wines came from Mexico and California which somewhat dampened what little enthusiasm may have begun burgeoning for Arizona wine.

Dutt was undeterred. Aided by Brophy and investors from South Africa, Sonoita Vineyards was finally bonded in 1983. This new vineyard grew its grapes at the Babocomari Ranch in Sonoita, a sleepy farming and ranching community at 4,900′ elevation in southeastern Arizona.

Surrounded by mountains with occasional snow falling during the winter season, Sonoita Vineyards flourished and has since won numerous accolades, not the least of which occurred when its wines were selected by Los Angeles Times wine critic Robert Balzar to be served at the 1989 inauguration of George H.W. Bush. Arizona wine reached its first national audience.

Brophy drafted the application for Arizona’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation, the Sonoita AVA, which was approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms in 1984.

Numerous winemakers also started vineyards in Arizona in the 1980s, and most failed, but Sonoita Vineyards has continued to march solidly forward through today.

Arizona’s Winemaking Industry Grows, Slowly

While there are many fine winemakers in Arizona, who we’ll talk about over time, next we’ll explore the Arizona wine industry through the eyes of four key figures in its growth: Kent Callaghan, Callaghan Vineyards; Eric Glomski, Page Springs Vineyard; Maynard J. Keenan, Caduceus Cellars; and Sam Pillsbury, Pillsbury Vineyards. All four winemakers have played pivotal roles in the growth of Arizona’s wine industry and all four continue to play roles in its future.

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References

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

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

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