How a California Engineer Became an Arizona Wine Pioneer

When Ann Roncone began working as a mechanical engineer, it never occurred to her that engineering was a man’s field. It was the 1980s, and for the next 21 years, Ann successfully navigated engineering in the San Francisco Bay Area as “one of the guys.”

When Ann next began working in wineries, using her tiny stature to lift 120-pound wine barrels, it never occurred to her that winemaking was a man’s field. With singular focus, Ann dedicated herself to the art of making wine. She now serves as winemaker, vineyard manager, and tasting room manager for Lightning Ridge Cellars, her family-owned vineyard and winery in Elgin, Arizona.

I entered the tasting room at Lightning Ridge and first met Ann’s husband. Ron works as an engineer during the week and in the tasting room on weekends. When I asked for Ann, he pointed outside towards a tiny figure surrounded by the flurry of branches she was busily tearing away from her grapevines.

Ann wore a denim shirt, dangly earrings, no makeup, and a scarf around her neck with her head protected from the sun by a hat. I don’t think that Ann was trying at all to look fashionable. She absolutely charmed me.

Engineer Turned Winemaker

Ann grew up in the Bay area in an Italian family that always had wine on the table. She was working as a mechanical engineer when she first began to experiment with winemaking. “Wine was just a drive, and I wanted to try my hand at making some,” she said. “So, I got a kit. A five-gallon bucket, a can of concentrate, and parts.”

She quickly realized that although she wanted to make wine, she didn’t want to use concentrate. Instead, she bought 200 pounds of Zinfandel grapes and handcrafted her first wine. With her first Zinfandel in hand, Ann entered into a lifetime of winemaking.

At first, winemaking was a hobby. Ann planted grapes all over the property that she owned with Ron and continued to make wine. Then, it occurred to her that she was just two hours from University of California – Davis, a renowned college for viticulture. “I took every single course that I could,” said Ann.

Two weeks every September for the next four years, Ann took a vacation and worked as a cellar rat at wineries in the Bay area. “I would show up for work and semi flatbeds filled with grapes that needed processing would show up,” said Ann. “It was a rag tag little group but it was really fun, and it was amazing to get that hands-on experience.”

In 2002, Ann told her husband that that she wanted to be a winemaker. They began looking for property in California and quickly concluded the prices were out of reach. But Ron had completed his graduate work at University of Arizona in Tucson and knew the area well. They learned that the Sonoita-Elgin region was designated as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) which gave it credibility.

At the time, there were just three wineries in the Sonoita-Elgin region. Ann and Ron paid a visit, went wine tasting, and determined that good wine was possible in Arizona’s desert climate.

Building a Winery

In 2004, Ann and Ron purchased a 20-acre property at 5,100’ elevation in Elgin. They performed market surveys which concluded that the ideal grapes were Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. “I didn’t want to grow those, said Ann. “So, it dawned on me that I wanted to grow what I liked to drink.”

In 2005, Ann planted their first grapes: Montepulciano, Primitivo (also called Zinfandel), Malvasia Bianca, Muscat Cannelli, and Aglianico. “It was a little unnerving because no one in Sonoita-Elgin had these grapes growing at the time,” said Ann.

Ann applied her engineer’s sense of detail and her Italian heritage to her new job growing grapes. First, Ann and Ron built their vineyard from scratch. They drilled wells, installed electricity, built a fence, created irrigation infrastructure, built trellises, planted grapevines, built buildings, and then spent the next three years taking care of their vines.

Although many vineyard owners begin making wine right away by purchasing grapes from other vineyards, Ann wanted to open Lightning Ridge Cellars with estate wines. So, she waited. Patiently. In 2009, they finally opened their tasting room on Halloween. “And, it just was so fun!,” said Ann. “It took time to find us, but once people did, they really enjoyed our wines.”

Their vineyard features a bocce ball court right at the entrance, introducing visitors to Ann’s fun-loving Italian approach to life. Ann and Ron also designed an area within their vineyard for a gazebo and other features for weddings to be built.

As Ann describes it, owning a winery is like owning a restaurant and also raising the cattle and growing the lettuce. “This business profile is very intense, so it’s personal,” said Ann. “If you go to another winery and you look at the vineyards, you really appreciate what that winemaker did. You know personally that this doesn’t happen by itself.”

Italian Grapes in the Arizona Desert

Eighty-five percent of Ann’s time is spent in the vineyard where she dotes over her vines. Not having ever owned or run a small business, Ann and Ron had quite a bit to learn. But because they don’t have any employees, the process seemed simple.

Nonetheless, there were trials and tribulations. In fact, there were many, many trials and tribulations. These can be summed up by this two-word sentence: Everything breaks. “The trials and tribulations have nothing to do with people. It’s Mother Nature,” said Ann. “She will win. She always wins.”

Naturally, one of the first vines Ann had planted in her vineyard was Primitivo, also called Zinfandel. But, in spite of Ann’s careful attention, these vines sadly didn’t thrive. After seven years, just half of the original vines remained.

Ann bottled what grapes she could harvest in 2012, then ripped out her Primitivo and planted what Mother Nature seemed to like best in Arizona’s desert climate: Montepulciano. “There’s nothing easy about growing fruit,” said Ann. “It’s harsh conditions and this showed in the Primitivo.”

When I asked her to describe what she grows now, Ann rattled off the details from the top of her head. I give it to you here in case you find her vineyard as fascinating as I do:

  • 2.5 acres of Montepulciano
  • 1 acre of Sagrantino
  • 2 acres of Aglianico
  • 1/2 acre of Muscat Cannelli
  • 1 acre of Malvasia Bianca
  • 1 acre of Cabernet Sauvignon – specifically for blending with Sangiovese to make a Super Tuscan
  • 1/2 acre of Nebbiolo
  • 1 acre of Sangiovese – Brunello clone

Ann now has 10.5 acres planted with these varietals in her high desert vineyard. Her grapes in Elgin enjoy 17-19 inches of rain each year, most of which falls from July to August during Arizona’s monsoon season. Eighty-five percent of their wines are made with approximately 20 tons of estate grapes, and the remaining four tons of grapes used to make Lightning Ridge Cellars wines come from Willcox, Arizona.

Minimalist Approach to Italian Wines

Ann takes a minimalist approach to winemaking. She doesn’t introduce additives to her wines and handles the process carefully. Her approach to barreling uses approximately 30 percent new oak with the remaining wine in old oak. For example, if there are three barrels of Montepulciano aging, only one barrel will be new oak.  The other two are neutral barrels.  When combined for bottling, the new oak character is only 30 percent.

We can see more about Ann’s approach in her preference for single varietal wines. “Because you can then taste and experience specifically what the varietal can do,” said Ann. “It’s fun to have people try a varietal they wouldn’t otherwise try or know.”

“Working hand in hand with other wineries around here, if someone is having success with a particular varietal, it’s kind of infectious,” said Ann. This infectious attitude bears out in Ann’s experience with Aglianico. Ann was the first to plant Aglianico in Sonoita-Elgin. Other vintners tried her wines, and have now planted this grape as well.

“The onus I put on myself is to make the best wine I can,” said Ann. “I get people to just try it.”

Her Next Steps

What’s next for Ann? I thought when I asked her this question that she would tell me about some amazing new Italian varietal she planned on planting. But instead, Ann said, “I’m going to try my hand at growing olive trees.”

Ann likes the idea of expanding the vineyard’s Italian theme. She researched olive trees that would grow well in Elgin’s cold winters and warm summers and will soon be planting 75 trees of the following types: Moraiolo, Arbequina, Maurino, Borgiona, Coroncina, and Pocciolo. If these grow well, she may even expand her planting.

It will be great fun to visit Ann’s vineyard a few years from now and find bottles of luscious Italian olives to enjoy alongside her wines.

In the meantime, a few bottles of Primitivo may still be in their tasting room. I highly recommend that you race down to Lightning Ridge Cellars to give her last remaining Primitivo a try while you can. And while you are there, be sure to try her Montepulciano and other varietals as well.

How to Find Lightning Ridge Cellars

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References

Lightning Ridge Cellars. (n.d.) Indigenous Minds.

Moffit, R. (2013, June 14). Featured Winery: Lighting Ridge Cellars. AZ Wine Lifestyle.

Personal conversation with Ann Roncone. (2017, April 30).

Rodarte, M. G. (2015, October 22). Four Sonoita Wineries To Visit: Callaghan, Dos Cabezas, Lightning Ridge & Rune. Tucson Foodie.

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