A Unique Experience of Arizona’s Terroir with Sand-Reckoner Vineyard

When Amy and I bid on a vineyard tasting with Sand-Reckoner, a winery and vineyard located in the Kansas Settlement region south of Willcox, Arizona, we had little idea what “vineyard tasting” actually meant. Lucky for us, we won our bid, and we embarked together on this new adventure.

Placed at the Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance inaugural event on Nov. 5, 2016, our bid was one of many that raised funds for this new organization. The Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance is designed to celebrate Arizona’s terroir, establish metrics for grape growing in Arizona, and promote wines that are made with 100 percent of their grapes grown only in Arizona.

Our vineyard tasting, led by Rob Hammelman, who is co-owner, vineyard manager, and winemaker at Sand-Reckoner, was carefully designed to give us the opportunity to learn about the terroir that gives Arizona wine its unique flavors.

Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance

The definition of an American Viticultural Area (AVA) is to promote wines made with 75 percent of their grapes grown in an area distinguishable by geographic features, with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the United States Department of the Treasury.

However, 75 percent wasn’t good enough for Arizona’s purists. With the intent to celebrate Arizona’s burgeoning wine industry by certifying wines made from 100 percent Arizona grapes, the Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance was formed by a handful of local winemakers in 2016.

In addition to certifying and promoting wines made from 100 percent Arizona grapes, the Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance also collects vast amounts of data about Arizona’s grape growing initiatives, including soil composition, acre yield, pH and brix at harvest, and microbe content. We will soon start seeing the results of data collection by the Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance which will shed light on Arizona’s wine industry and give growers and winemakers solid information to help them continually improve their harvests and their wines.

Held at the Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance Symposium #WineResearch, this day-long introduction to the first certified Arizona wines was held at The Farm at South Mountain in Phoenix. Billed as a day of education, community, and tasting, the event presented 65 certified wines to the public. And this event is where our adventure began when Amy and I placed our modest bid on a vineyard tasting.

Ancient Greek History and Auto Parts Transform into Winemaking

Arriving in Willcox, a sleepy town in southeast Arizona, Amy, Tom, AJ, and I met Rob Hammelman, co-owner of Sand-Reckoner, for our vineyard tasting at the only logical place, Bucko’s Coffee, a colorful ice cream and espresso shop that also sells antiques. Located next to an old train car refurbished as a café, the shop’s owners entertained us while Rob organized our van for the day.

Our first stop this windy Saturday afternoon in March was Sand-Reckoner’s winery located in an old auto parts store. Rob gave us a tour of the crowded facility and talked about his process for making whites and reds. He showed us his barrel room which included smaller barrels, like those we see often in wineries, and larger barrels where Rob ferments Sangiovese. Rob uses the larger barrels because Sangiovese can age longer in them. The larger barrel also imparts less oak flavor.

While at the winery, Rob told us more about his background. Originally from St. Louis, Rob started getting interested in wine when he attended college at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. The microbrewery scene in Fort Collins was “really cool,” as Rob describes it, which sparked his interest in vineyards and fermentation science. But he didn’t know how to break into the wine industry, so he moved to Arizona to teach humanities and science instead.

In 2000, Rob spent his summer vacation working at Callaghan Vineyards in Sonoita, Arizona. Tasting and working with Arizona wines transformed Rob. The aromas and textures of Arizona’s wines transported him right back to the high desert vineyards where the grapes were grown. Rob began to dream of making wine in Arizona.

Rob next traveled to Australia where he earned a graduate diploma in Oenology from the University of Adelaide in South Australia. He worked in the cellars at Hewitson Winery in Barossa Valley with one of the oldest vineyards in the world – the Old Garden Mourvèdre planted in 1853. The technical finesse of Australian winemakers and the excellence of Hewitson Winery’s approach inspired him to continue learning more about wine.

Rob next became winemaker at Two Rivers Winery in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he met Sarah Fox while working a harvest in 2006. Rob made wine at Two Rivers Winery from some of the highest altitude vineyards in the U.S., including Riesling grown at 6,000 ft., while he and Sarah began dating.

Together, Rob and Sarah next traveled to France where they learned traditional Old World practices while working in a 2000-year-old cellar fed by 100+ year old Grenache vines at Chateau St. Cosme in Gigondas, France under the tutelage of Louis Barroul.

Finally, Rob and Sarah moved to Arizona and purchased their vineyard in Willcox in June 2010. And, in 2010, while in Portugal, Rob proposed to Sarah. They married in Santa Fe in January 2011.

The name of Rob and Sarah’s winery comes from Rob’s experiences while teaching. Sand-Reckoner means “sand-calculator” and references a work by Archimedes describing the journey to determine an upper bound for the number of grains of sand that fit into the universe. According to the Sand-Reckoner website,

The name alludes to our sandy loam soils, our connection to the cosmos, and the infinite calculations required to create a true wine that expresses the very sand into which our vines’ roots grow deep. It’s also a tribute to the pioneering spirit and evolution of thought of those who have walked before us, and who have had the imagination to philosophize and explore.

Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards

We next visited Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards where owner Greg Gonnerman carefully grows grapes on his spotlessly kept property for Arizona’s winemakers. Gonnerman will also also soon launch his own winery, Laramita Cellars, with wines made by, who else? Rob Hammelman.

Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards is located slightly higher in elevation than other vineyards in Willcox, at 4,500 ft. The soil on its 10 planted acres is Sonoita Sandy Loam, a deep, well-drained soil.

Grapes grown at Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards are planted on two orientations: east-west and northeast-southwest. Wine grapes planted on an east-west orientation tend to see ripening on one side of the vine and not so much on the other. Although most grapes in Arizona are planted on an east-west orientation, vintners have figured out that the northeast-southwest orientation mitigates direct heat on the wine grapes due to its orientation against the position of the sun at the hottest hour of the day. By mitigating the heat, wine grapes ripen more evenly.

In addition, construction of the vineyard is designed to allow the canopy to grow to a certain height and spread giving the grapes shade at the hottest part of the day. Cold air also passes through this vineyard and settles at a lower elevation lowering the risk of frost.

While we toured this vineyard, we tasted 2015 Sand-Reckoner Vermentino and 2016 Larimita Cellars Mourvèdre, a rosé wine that had only been bottled 10 days before our tasting. The rosé wine had a fresh flavor to it and was clearly not aged yet. Both wines had an herbal flair on the aroma—was that the terroir of this vineyard? We looked forward to more vineyards hoping this would help us better understand the aromas and tastes in the wines.

Cimarron Vineyard

We next went to Cimarron Vineyard, a 40-acre vineyard with 37 acres originally planted by Dick Erath, of Oregon’s Erath Winery. Located at 4,300 ft. elevation, Cimarron Vineyard also features Sonoita Sandy Loam. This vineyard was later sold to Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks.

Established in 2005, Cimarron Vineyard has a completely different structure for its vines as compared to the newer Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards. The vines here are planted on an east-west orientation and the vineyard structure is older with less complexity in the construction than we had seen at Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards.

Here, we tasted 2014 Sand-Reckoner PicPoul Blanc, which held a crisp flavor and a hint of soft spice on the aroma, almost a pizza smell. But, there were no herbal aromas like the Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards wines. Now, fascinated by our new experience of terroir, we looked forward to our next vineyard.

Rhumb Line Vineyard

Rhumb Line Vineyard is a new vineyard planted by Todd Myers and Michele Minta. This 40-acre property, positioned at 4,300 ft. elevation, features both McAllister Loam, also a deep, well-drained soil, along with Sonoita Sandy Loam. With 10 planted acres, the vineyard’s climate has an average yearly temperature of 62 degrees with very few days above 100 degrees.  During the warm season in this region, temperatures can swing 35 degrees from daytime highs to nighttime lows.

At Rhumb Line, we looked at Rousanne, Tempranillo, and Malvasia vines, although more varietals are also grown here. Rob shared with us an 18-month-old bottle of early Tempranillo which had a significant earth flavor in the taste—and our eyes lit up with what signified our third experience of terroir.

But was this terroir? Because we only tasted one wine from this vineyard, we couldn’t exactly use our experience to summarize this vineyard’s terroir. But it was clear to us that the grapes used in wine are grown in the soil and environment of a specific place, and that place is also reflected in the taste of the wine. And once it is ready, this 2015 wine will be bottled as a single vineyard Tempranillo.

Todd and Michele had just completed construction of their new house on the property, which is powered entirely by solar energy. We were fortunate to also see the inside of their beautiful home which was perfectly appointed and could easily be pictured on a magazine layout with its stunning views of the grape vines surrounding it. Be sure to also check out the Rhumb Line Vineyard website for a live video of the owls that sleep in the day and protect the vines from rodents at night.

Sand-Reckoner Vineyard

We finally arrived at Sand-Reckoner Vineyard and drove up to Rob and Sarah’s small home. Aromas from the kitchen made us all suddenly famished. Our vineyard tasting would be followed with a dinner made by Michael Babcock and Clayton Craw, partners at Welcome Diner in Tucson, Arizona. Emily Montemayor worked alongside Michael and Clayton as support staff.

As we watched dinner being prepared, our chefs explained to us that Rob and Sarah are vegans. Our dinner would be a vegan dinner made with dishes that our chefs were inventing and creating while we watched. As a sign of the detail and experimentation that went into our dinner, Michael explained that he had fermented carrots for the first time just for this meal.

While we watched our dinner being prepared, Sarah served us glasses of a 2015 Sand-Reckoner Pet Nat made from Sangiovese—just 10 cases. This foamy orange wine had the perfect fresh taste to close our day and start our evening.

The windy day finally settled and our outstanding dinner began on the porch with a first course of a delicious bruschetta-like dish made with a nut pate and tomatoes, and served with 2014 Sand-Reckoner Nebbiolo Rose. We were joined by Rob and Sarah, along with two friends of our chefs, and over much laughter and stories from around the table, the second course, a saucy vegetable compote, was served with 2014 Sand-Reckoner Malvasia Bianca. The third course, a sweet potato gnocchi covered with crisp vegetables, was served with 2013 Sand-Reckoner Sangiovese. Finally, we closed our meal with a granita made from strawberries and Dos Cabezas Pink, and served with a 2010 Callaghan Amor Fati.

With more laughter and more stories, we finally ended our delicious evening with hugs all around. All four of us slept on each other’s shoulders in our thankfully chauffeured van for nearly the entire one-hour ride back to our B&B.

Down by the River B&B

Our weekend vineyard tasting was framed by a luxurious stay in the outback of Arizona at the Down by the River B&B, owned by Darryn and Liz Cray. But, luxury was the furthest thing from our minds when we drove through Benson, Arizona, past an area sprinkled with local storefronts, cheap cafes, and sparse trailer parks, down a rugged dirt road through a high desert area sprinkled with crumbling houses and rusted trailers hiding behind barbed wire fences. We finally turned a dusty corner and saw the Cray’s enormous Southwestern-style home spread against the deep blue sky and lit up with brightly colored Christmas lights.

We were met at the door by the owners, Darryn and Liz, both wearing giant, welcoming smiles. Darryn had a booming voice and short cropped salt-and-pepper hair with a long grey beard while slender Liz, who bore beautiful high cheekbones and also had short cropped hair, wore a brightly colored t-shirt and tights. Their rambling home, decorated tastefully with old Arizona antiques punctuated by Day of the Dead regalia, was spread wide against the surrounding desert. Behind the cool nighttime breezes, was the sound of the rumbling San Pedro River.

We started our weekend celebration of Arizona wine and food with a bottle of 2013 Caduceus Barbera which was followed by 2014 Bodega Pierce One Stone with our appetizer tray of cold cuts and cheese. Finally, we enjoyed 2014 Dos Cabezas La Montaña paired with our dinner of delicious Arizona grass-fed steaks from Traegen and Marilyn Knight’s Milky Ranch in remote St. Johns, Arizona.

Darryn regaled us with tales of his career as a producer, where he worked for famous rock ‘n roll bands peppered with tales of the people of Benson, such as his story of a local bar where millionaires drink cheap beer alongside locals with missing teeth. Liz regaled us with yet more tales of their lives together in this dusty corner of Arizona.

The Cray’s fascination with the Day of the Dead started in Darryn’s youth. After his sister passed away from cancer of the bone marrow, Darryn began researching ideas for a video and came across the story of the Day of the Dead. He liked the idea of celebrating death in the wake of his sister’s passing. Liz had gone through the recent passing of both her mother and father. The Day of the Dead now represents their philosophy of life. In their home, they even focus on wine that has Day of the Dead emblems on the label.

The Sand-Reckoner Tasting Room in Tucson

After saying goodbye to Darryn and Liz on the doorstep of the Down by the River B&B, we began our drive back to Phoenix on Sunday morning. Sarah had prepared our final treat, a case of Sand-Reckoner wines, and we agreed to meet her at their tasting room in Tucson to finish our drive home.

We parked in the Tucson Warehouse Arts District—an area near downtown surrounded by a mix of tall modern buildings, 100-year-old buildings, and empty lots—and headed to the new Sand-Reckoner Tasting Room, which opened February 2017. Their location features a soaring ceiling and a south-facing wall with tall windows that bring bright sunshine and natural light into the tastefully decorated space.

Sarah bustled behind the counter serving several customers on this busy Sunday afternoon. We started the final tasting of our journey with the same delightful fresh Vermentino that we had first tasted in the vineyard the day before. Next, we tasted several Sand-Reckoner wines that we hadn’t tried yet.

When she finally had a few minutes to spend with us, Sarah shared the story of her own introduction into the world of wine in Colorado and entertained us with stories about their experiences in Australia, with its technical and precise approach to winemaking practice, and France, which makes wine in fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mode.

Finally, our trip was complete and we drove home with the same gigantic smiles on our faces that we were met with on the doorstep of our B&B when our trip first began.

How to Find Sand-Reckoner

Sand-Reckoner Tasting Room
Tucson Warehouse Arts District
510 N. 7th Ave., #170
Tucson, AZ 85705
Hours: Wed. – Sun., 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Sand-Reckoner Vineyard
130 S. Haskell Ave.
Willcox, AZ 85643
By appointment only.

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Arizona Vigneron’s Alliance. (2016).

Down by the River B&B. (n.d.).

Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards. (2013).

Cimarron Vineyard. (2017).

Milky Ranch Beef. (2010).

Personal conversation with Sarah Fox. (2017, March 26).

Personal conversation with Rob Hammelman. (2017, March 25).

Rhumb Line Vineyard. (2016).

Sand-Reckoner Vineyards. (2013).

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