The Unexpected History of Arizona Wine, Part III

While there are many fine winemakers in Arizona who we’ll talk about over time, next we’ll explore the history of the Arizona wine industry through the eyes of four key figures – a philosopher, an ecologist, a rock star and a filmmaker. 
Each of these fine winemakers played pivotal roles in the growth of Arizona wine and continue to play equally pivotal roles in its future.

An Arizona Family Discovers Winemaking

An Arizona native with a degree in philosophy, Kent Callaghan thought his parents, Harold and Karen, were crazy when they first approached him about planting a vineyard and starting a winery in Arizona’s high desert. Then, his parents took him to Sonoita Vineyards’ cabernet release party and he tried the 1987 Reserve Cabernet. It was good, in fact it was very good, with a similar personality to the Rioja wines of Spain. Fascinated, Callaghan agreed to join the family’s new venture.

With no formal training in winemaking, but with the success of Gordon Dutt’s vineyards to give them hope, the family purchased land in Sonoita and Callaghan Vineyards was born in 1990. The winery was next founded in 1991 and Callaghan began making wine with fruit purchased from the Buhl Memorial Vineyard and later from his family’s own vineyards.

At the same time, the family also started a restaurant in Sierra Vista serving a six-course prix fixe dinner for $22. With farmers, cowboys, and army sergeants as their audience, the restaurant sadly saw few customers. The family next moved the restaurant to downtown Elgin where it became wildly popular with diners from all over Arizona.

Just four years later, Robert Parker wrote about Callaghan Vineyards in Wine Advocate when he gave the vineyard’s red blend, Buena Suerte, a 90-point rating: “One would never suspect that in Arizona, especially southern Arizona, not far from the Mexican border as well as the historic cowboy town of Tombstone, there would be vineyards making wines as interesting and distinctive as those from Callaghan Vineyards.”

In 2010, Callaghan’s entire vintage was destroyed by frost in May then hail in August. In 2011, he again saw late frost and lost nearly two-thirds of his harvest. However, by this time, Arizona’s wine grape harvest was well-developed, and Callaghan was able to purchase grapes from friends, like Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks. Between purchased grapes and Callaghan’s stock of previously produced wines, Callaghan Vineyards survived these two trying years.

A quiet, intense man with a penchant for fine photography, Callaghan described his approach to Rhonni Moffit, Arizona Wine Lifestyle, Summer 2009:

Regarding his wine philosophy, Kent feels that to make a really good wine you have to work the vines to really understand the journey of the fruit, taking the time to understand the intricate details of the terroir. He admits that he feels this way because it’s the path he’s followed and it has worked for him. He gives the example of strolling down a country road versus speeding through at 75 miles per hour. If you walk through the countryside you will have a completely different experience and see things in an entirely different way. He loves walking through his vineyard and knows the vines intimately.

Demonstrating Callaghan’s continued experimentation, his newest wine is made from a grape called Aglianico, found almost exclusively in Southern Italy in the regions of Campania and Basilicata. First planted in Arizona in 2005 by Dick Erath, from Erath Winery in Dundee, Oregon, another Arizona grape grower, Ann Roncone of Lightning Ridge Cellars made an excellent wine from Aglianico in 2013. Roncone’s version inspired Kent to give Aglianico a try, and in 2017, Callaghan Vineyards Aglianico was brought to market.

With humor and frank commentary, Callaghan mentors Arizona winemakers through personal relationships and speaking opportunities around the state. Callaghan befriends his customers and maintains close relationships with vast numbers of people through their visits to his winery, participation in classes he offers, and frequent posts on social media. His stunning photographs of the grassy vistas surrounding his vineyard, posted almost daily on Instagram, spark the desire to own a vineyard in Sonoita.

Early Winemaking from Peaches Evolves into Fine Wine

While the Callaghans were first planting vines and making wine in southern Arizona, midwesterner Eric Glomski was studying ecology at Prescott College in northern Arizona. After he graduated, Glomski spent copious hours exploring Arizona’s rugged terrain. He discovered heirloom apples, pears, peaches and quince in abandoned homesteads and began making wine from them.

“It reminded me exactly of the place I had picked the fruit,” Glomski said of his wine in a 2005 interview with Rachel Peterson for The Arizona Daily Sun. “I was pretty much obsessed after that.”

A personable man with a big smile and bushy blonde hair, Glomski left Arizona and spent six years exploring the winemaking world of California where he eventually became co-winemaker at David Bruce Winery in Los Gatos. He returned to Arizona and opened Page Springs Cellars in November 2004.

Focused on authenticity in winemaking, Glomski pointed out to Peterson that it’s not as absurd as one might think to grow wine grapes in the high desert because grapes and winemaking originated in the deserts of the Middle East. With a wine menu featuring unique blends and a picnic deck perched alongside picturesque Oak Creek, Page Springs Cellars is an inviting destination for wine lovers.

Glomski starred with rock star Maynard James Keenan in the 2009 documentary, Blood into Wine. The film showcased their efforts to bring credibility to Arizona winemaking while battling both wine industry prejudice and harsh desert conditions. Blood into Wine was released in theaters in 2010 and was awarded the Best Feature Documentary at the 2011 Trail Dance Film Festival in Oklahoma.

Glomski recently launched a new venture focused on bringing Arizona table wine to dinner tables throughout the state. His new brand is called Provisioner and features this tagline, “Wine for the People.” Provisioner produces wines made from Arizona grapes grown in two vineyards, Ft. Bowie Vineyard in Cochise County and Bonita Springs Vineyard in Graham County.

How a Grammy-winning Rock Star Began His Real Job in Winemaking

The mesmerizing effect of the desert on the fruits grown in its challenging environment were first realized by famed rock star Maynard James Keenan when he moved to Jerome in the late 1990.

Winemaking was hardly Keenan’s first thought when he moved to Jerome. One evening, while staring peacefully at the mountainside surrounding his home and enjoying a glass of wine, Keenan made the connection,

Much of the terrain here looks like the wine producing regions I have visited in Portugal, Spain and Italy. We have the same daily temperature swings (sometimes over 30 degrees in a day) and volcanic soil. I didn’t begin this vineyard as a business—it was simply something I wanted to do. I had no other evidence than the similarity of Northern Arizona to other parts of the world. I just intuitively felt it would fly.

A Midwest native, like Glomski, who became lead guitarist for the heavy metal rock band Tool, Keenan described his venture into the wine world to Len Waldron, Real World Survivor,

It all began when I tasted an apricot that grew on the rocky, volcanic hillside near my house. It wasn’t a big apricot. In fact, it was small, but it was intense and saturated with flavor. It was just begging to be picked and eaten and have the seed planted somewhere nearby. The aroma of the apricot, along with the intensity of aromas from the herbs we planted nearby, were so strong you could smell them half a mile up the road. Things want to survive in the desert, and it’s inspiring.

When he first decided to plant grapes on the mountainside near Jerome, Keenan quickly realized that winemaking was far more complicated than simply growing apricots. Glomski stepped in and helped Keenan plant his first grapes and make his first wines.

After he started his vineyard, Keenan learned more about his grandparents and a great-uncle, discovering that they were wine makers in Northern Italy. Keenan’s vision for bringing winemaking to Arizona eventually grew into a new career and some of the finest wines made in Arizona.

Together, Glomski and Keenan started Arizona Stronghold Wines with a very different mission—their goal with Arizona Stronghold was to make great wine that they could launch internationally.

Keenan has since ceded Arizona Stronghold to Glomski, and now focuses on producing well-received wine for Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards. He offers assistance to the viticulture and enology program at the Yavapai College Southwest Wine Center, speaks at Arizona wine conferences and fosters young winemakers, like Tim White and Scott and Kirstin Havice of Hidden Hand Wines.

Recently appearing at the 2017 Devoured Phoenix festival alongside Four Eight Wineworks, Keenan served wine to hundreds of customers who had absolutely no idea who he was.

From Film to Wine

With a New Zealand accent permanently embedded on his tongue, filmmaker Sam Pillsbury was originally born in the charming New England town of Waterbury, Connecticut, then raised in Massachusetts. He emigrated with his family to New Zealand on an Italian ocean liner when he was 13. As Pillsbury describes the trip in his column for the Phoenix New Times, “Those Chiantis on the table every night, spicy and fragrant, glowing ruby red when held up to the light, parents drinking at my side, wine with dinner, a little buzz on… I was in heaven.”

It was New Zealand that inspired Pillsbury to become a filmmaker. He directed shorts and documentaries for New Zealand’s National Film Unit and full-length movies through Sam Pillsbury Film Productions, Ltd. One of his films became the first New Zealand film to enter the Cannes Film Festival. Pillsbury went on to direct many films in both New Zealand and the U.S., including Free Willy 3: The Rescue, Where The Red Fern Grows and The Quiet Earth, which was named one of the top 10 science fiction movies by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Pillsbury first became interested in making wine in the 1980s. He purchased land on Waiheke Island, an island off the New Zealand coast with its own microclimate and just two wineries at the time. However, movies brought Pillsbury to Los Angeles and he sold the land before planting any vines. Later, a lady he fell in love with drew him to Arizona where he found himself increasingly spending his free time. Pillsbury again became interested in making wine, this time in Arizona.

In 2000, the same year that Saturday Night Live claimed one of the 10 best ways to lose money was to plant a vineyard in Arizona, Pillsbury partnered with Al Buhl to purchase 40 acres of land in Cochise County for $400 an acre.

They planted Rhone varietals and soon began making wine. Later, they sold this property to Arizona Stronghold and Pillsbury next purchased 100 acres of land across the road from his former property where he started Pillsbury Wine Company.

Now, let’s take a pause for a moment and ask ourselves that question burning in the back of all of our minds: What is a New Zealand filmmaker doing in the Arizona desert making wine? As Pillsbury describes it,

I started making films in New Zealand when there was almost no film industry. People thought we were crazy. Then we got on this wave and started surfing it. Hi, Peter Jackson! Exhilarating! The same thing happened here with wine. It’s so much fun.

With his charming accent, Pillsbury seems to appear at every wine event in Arizona. He is personable and always responds quickly, as though he were your best friend, even if he has no idea who you are.

Much like Callaghan, Glomski and Keenan, Pillsbury features wines made from both common grapes, such as Rhone-style blends and Chardonnay, and unusual grapes, such as Malvasia and Symphony (yes, that’s a grape). Pillsbury’s goal is to hand craft wines that pair well with food rather than dominate the meal.

Pillsbury’s wines have earned numerous medals, including Double Gold, from the San Francisco Chronicle, and yet, Pillsbury is adamantly opposed to anyone trying to make Arizona wine “special.” With his personable manner, he is often the most gregarious and talkative of winemakers at any gathering and continuously promotes the Arizona wine industry.

What’s next for Arizona wine?

Evidence that Arizona wine has taken on a life of its own came in 2017 when the Arizona Department of Liquor announced that 104 wineries were officially registered with the state. Next we will speak with more winemakers who not only make excellent Arizona wine, but who also play pivotal roles in the growth of the Arizona wine industry.

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Irish, L., & Pelletier, J. (2012, May 8). On the vine: Volunteers expand vineyard at Yavapai College’s Verde campus. The Daily Courier.

Krecker, E. (2017, March 14). Interview with Kent Callaghan.

Moffit, R. (2009, June 1). Featured Winemaker: Kent Callaghan Of Callaghan Vineyards. Arizona Vines & Wines.

Peterson, R. (2005, November 19). A vineyard in the high desert. Arizona Daily Sun.

Pillsbury, S. (2017, March 23). Personal communication.

Pillsbury, S. (2013, April 25). Sam Pillsbury Spills on the Reason He Landed in Arizona, and Launches a Wine Column for Chow Bella. Phoenix New Times.

Pillsbury, S. (2013, May 8). Sam Pillsbury Answers the Question: Why Arizona Wine? Phoenix New Times.

Pillsbury Wine: From Movie-Making to Award-Winning Wines. (n.d.). CrushBrew.

Waldron, L. (2014, April 24). Maynard James Keenan Is… Between Rock and a Wine Place. Real World Survivor.

Walters, G. A. (2009, September 15). Eric Glomski, Page Springs Cellars. Edible Phoenix.

NOTE: The attribution of “Featured Winemaker: Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards” was corrected on March 19, 2017 to show Rhonni Moffit as author and Arizona Vines & Wines as the original publication. Personal communications with Sam Pillsbury led to corrections in his section on March 23, 2017.

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