Raising Arizona Wines
Elaine Chukan Brown
Maynard James Keenan handed me my second espresso. To meet, I woke before dawn and drove over two hours across the Arizona desert. The town where he lives is remote.
We met in his Caduceus wine shop and tasting room at the top of the hill in Jerome to walk vineyards throughout the region. Mornings, the tasting room also serves the best espresso in town and, indeed, it’s among the best I’ve had anywhere.
Keenan explained that, when his favorite local coffee shop went out of business, he decided to buy the machine and beans to serve his own. It guaranteed he’d have a place to hang out in the mornings, and other locals would still get the coffee.
Keenan farms vineyards throughout the Verde Valley of Northern Arizona, as well as a heritage site in Willcox — the Al Buhl Memorial Vineyard — in the southeastern part of the state. The vineyards serve as the basis for Caduceus and its sister winery, Merkin, and provide fruit for a few other top producers.
Keenan is better known, however, as the lead singer for the internationally celebrated rock bands Tool, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle. The following for Tool is so rampant that, later in the day, we had to leave a local wine bar earlier than expected when a fan wouldn’t stop pestering.
The fanaticism doesn’t end there. A few years later, Keenan and I attended an Arizona wine tasting together in Napa, California. When news came out about the event, a winemaker friend spent the evening berating me in text for not inviting her to meet him. Tool, she told me, changed her life.
While Keenan’s reputation in music precedes him, people fail to recognize the quality possible for Arizona wine. In a wine world that fetishizes unicorn wine, oddball varieties and undiscovered regions, people still imagine Arizona as only a desert.
They also don’t realize that, unlike other celebrities who just attach their name to winery brands, Keenan actually makes his own wine. Spend time talking with him about wine, and his seriousness is obvious.
Now with more than 15 years experience growing in the region, Keenan has focused on continuously pursuing quality farming for the sake of quality wine. His efforts have been inspired partially by pioneers in the industry who farmed in Arizona first. Al Buhl, whose original vineyard Keenan now owns, first planted malvasia, discovering one of the state’s hallmark varieties. Today it’s one of Keenan’s favorite grapes, planted in steep, sloped terraces beside his home.
Other small production vintners who labor in the effective obscurity of Arizona wine also inspire Keenan. Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas Wine Works are among the oldest continuously producing wineries in the state. Both started vineyards in the first half of the 1990s. Their efforts have helped determine which varieties can genuinely succeed in the unique growing conditions of a high elevation desert. More recently, Sand-Reckoner has helped bring attention to the state through several acclaimed wines.
Though Keenan has been able to do the most to promote Arizona wine internationally — he often plans his tour schedule to line up with potential wine visits — he recognizes others were making wine first. These four wineries have also recently banded together. Kent and Lisa Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards, Todd and Kelly Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wine Works, and Rob and Sarah Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner, along with Keenan and his wife Jennifer, founded the Arizona Vignerons Alliance. It’s dedicated to securing the quality and long-term reputation of the region’s wines by certifying those made with Arizona-grown fruit (rather than juice trucked in from neighboring states). The alliance has also helped shine a light on other small producers making quality wine.
Keenan and I begin to drive. Our day will include walks through Verde Valley vineyards, from the lowest to the highest elevation. Here, Keenan farms a collection of smaller sites, each devoted to a mix of mainly Italian and Spanish varieties. Sangiovese and tempranillo in particular do well.
Though Arizona is known for heat, cold is the greater challenge in the vineyards. In viticulture, Arizona’s spring frost and fall freeze are among the biggest concerns. One of Keenan’s own vineyards was replanted four times in just over ten years. The joke is that with every big freeze he has to go back on tour to afford the new vineyard. Yet, with each replanting, they’ve improved the site, choosing smarter cultivars, honing the training methods, and adjusting the landscape to protect from freeze.
At the same time, the cold also offers advantages. Arizona hosts the second largest diurnal shift of any growing region on the planet. That is due partly to its incredibly high elevation. In the Verde Valley, vineyards begin around 3,800 feet and reach as high as 5,000 feet (1524 meters). The area includes the lowest elevation vineyards in the state, but also, until recently, the highest.
Near Willcox, newer sites are climbing into the foothills of the Chupacabra Highlands and successfully growing vines around 5,300 feet (1,615m). Sites of Sonoita hover a little below 5,000 feet. As a result, throughout Arizona, even on days that reach over 100 degrees Farenheit (38 Celsius), nights can fall below 50 (10C), cool enough to slow vine respiration, and thus also retain ample acidity. At its best, that means freshness for wine.
Land vs. Water Keenan’s arrival in the Verde Valley coincides with the start of modern vineyards in the area. It’s the youngest growing region in the state. He began planting his Judith block in Jerome in the early 2000s, only a few years after the first vines went into the region.
Modern vineyards were first established in Arizona in the early 1970s, southeast of Tucson near the town of Sonoita. Within a decade, they had moved further east into Willcox as well. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that people began planting vines further north.
As its name “green valley” suggests, the Verde Valley has plenty of water thanks to one of the state’s largest year-round waterways, the Verde River. Flowing between the dramatic red rocks of Sedona to the northeast and the rugged escarpment of the Black Hills to the south, the Verde Valley defies the desert stereotype. The rich vegetation of the river’s riparian zone includes plants as varied as walnut and sycamore trees, box elder, cattails, wild buckwheat, and desert sage. Vineyards here can even be dry farmed.
But where the Verde Valley has water, its land is limited. Thanks to the health of the river, sections of land are protected for wildlife conservation, while others are reserved for public recreation. The water has also meant a history of agriculture.
Ranchers have owned most of the Verde Valley for generations. For older landowners, the advent of wine growing seems an unwelcome upstart. Most are uninterested in the economic advantages of a swiftly growing wine country. Their lives have rested in cattle. But as ranchers age, they are faced with land to be split among adult children with differing motivations.
As wine country in the Verde Valley has grown, so have other cultural opportunities such as an improved food scene, tasting rooms and wine bars that give locals a place to relax after work, as well as art shows, farmers markets and music events.
Younger generations have begun taking interest, and it’s changing the local economy. In the last five years alone, Cottonwood, in the heart of the Verde Valley, has gone from virtual ghost town to epicenter of food and wine. Halfway up the main street, Keenan’s Merkin Osteria includes an Arizona-only menu complete with produce from Keenan’s own gardens and pasta made onsite from the state’s own grain. The project is designed to support other local farmers and promote the state’s unheralded crops while also pouring Keenan’s wines.
Interest in wine has proved substantial enough that the area now hosts a two-year viticulture and enology degree through Yavapai College. The first graduates of the program have begun launching their own wine brands. To support the efforts, Keenan donated a vineyard for students to farm, and also opened the region’s first co-op where winemakers share equipment.
Success has some downsides, however. The strength of the region’s cultural interests has also meant increased land prices. Those boutique winemakers just out of their two-year degree are unlikely to afford vineyard land or their own winery space in the Verde Valley. But changes in potential land use of the Verde Valley could prove essential to the long-term health of Arizona wine. The state’s other two growing regions are thirsty for water.
Today, vineyards grow mainly in Willcox. Land remains affordable there, and the growing conditions in the area readily support vines. It is also home to more small wineries, and the quality of the region has attracted uniquely experienced winemakers.
After making a name for himself in Oregon, Dick Erath established vineyards in Willcox, bringing attention to the vineyard potential of Arizona. He also established the winery Dos Cabezas before selling it to Todd and Kelly Bostock. The Bostocks also farm land in Sonoita.
More recently, after earning his master’s in viticulture and oenology in Adelaide, Rob Hammelman and his wife Sarah moved to Willcox. They simply liked the area, but more importantly they were also able to afford a house on plantable acres to launch their bootstrap winery, Sand-Reckoner.
Not far from Sand-Reckoner’s home vineyard, the Pierce family owns and farms their Rolling View Vineyard, which provides fruit for two family-owned brands, Bodega Pierce and Saeculum Cellars. Son Michael Pierce also serves as the director of enology for the two-year program in the Verde Valley.
The success of these wineries has depended at least partially on land prices and availability. None of them could have started in the Verde Valley. Even so, the long-term growth of Willcox hits a limit when the region runs out of water.
Sonoita too has a limit on water, but its soils also slow growing potential. Uniquely high bicarbonate levels give wine the same palate-squeezing tension and innate concentration found in sites planted to limestone. But, like limestone, too much means vines are imbalanced, unable to capture enough of their other mineral needs.
In places that work, the spindly power and mouthwatering character of the wines is impressive. As a result, sites in Sonoita tend to be managed as a sort of ongoing experiment, looking for just the right spot and just the right planting. Vineyards are often established to a field blend-style mélange of varieties. It provides both insurance against vintage variation and the chance to see what works.
Many of the best wines of the region too, from producers like Dos Cabezas Wine Works and Callaghan, come from the co-fermented mix of varieties grown in these sites. The approach offers texture and balance to the concentration and intensity innate to the region.
Back in Jerome After a full day of driving the Verde Valley, Keenan and I finish back in Jerome, tasting vintage verticals of his hall-mark wines. The most striking for me comes from his Judith block. It’s the highest elevation site in the Verde Valley, set on the side of what locals call Cleopatra Hill in a series of steep-sloped terraces at 5,000 feet. Earlier that morning, we’d started the day walking the Judith block just after finishing our espresso.
There, when we step into the vines, the morning light across the valley glows at a low angle, rising over the Black Hills behind us. The hills cut the light into fingers reaching across the Verde Valley, emblazoning the red rocks on the other side of the river. We step carefully from terrace to terrace. Everywhere there are chalky white stones. As we walk, the stones release a faint, powdery chalk smell, all mixed through with chaparral. I am struck by it. This feels like one of the most iconic sites I have seen anywhere, as if it was simply made to grow wine. Yet, here we are in Arizona.
At the end of the day, when we return to taste the wines, there it is again. I recognize the Judith block in its smells. With every vintage and variety grown in those soils, I can smell powdery chalk mixed through with chaparral, the smell of the desert, the scent of growing Arizona wine. Publisher’s Note TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2017 demonstrated the heights to which Arizona wines are rising and the engagement of producers in marketing their wines to a wider audience. TEXSOM IWA received enough entries for Arizona to qualify as its own single state category (along with California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Texas, and last year’s addition Virginia). Nineteen wines won medals under the stringent judging standards of the competition. — JT
Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 0, pages 20–25
Hero picture: Arizona Sangiovese Flavor Profile (from Left) Cherry, Plum, Chaparelle Flower (Sage) and Cedar
Illustrator: Elaine Chukan Brown