Travel

Arizona is the hottest (literally) new wine region in North America

Forget Napa or Sonoma — here’s why you need to plan a journey through Arizona’s wine country 

  • Aug 03, 2019
  • 2,138 words
  • 9 minutes
Rows of grapevines soak up the Arizona sunshine at the Carlson Creek Vineyard, just outside the city of Willcox. (Photo: Carlson creek vineyard)
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When the wallaby shows up, I forget all about wine. The creature is a coiled spring of muscle and mousy brown fur the size of a carry-on suitcase. When Kief Joshua Manning brought her home as a joey, he slung her in a makeshift stomach pouch and worked the vineyard as usual, a young man with a maternal silhouette pruning grapes in the cool dawns and dusks of the desert. Now full-grown, the wallaby is the only hopping member of Manning’s menagerie, which consists of two goats, five sheep, four cats and four rescue dogs — a greyhound, a Yorkshire terrier, a whippet and a basset hound, who are collectively howling at the fact that the wallaby has stolen my attention.

I’ve always wanted to travel to Australia, home to winsome marsupials, glittering wines and huge sun-baked horizons. For now, though, Arizona is a near-perfect substitute — or better yet, its own fascinating, far-out place entirely. Manning lacks an accent but he could otherwise pass for a wrangler in the outback. He has a gravelly voice, sky-blue eyes and a squared jaw edged by sideburns. His whole face crinkles when he grins, which is often. He wears dusty jeans, scuffed work boots and a backward ball cap. He is 33 years old.

Even the wallaby aside, Manning is not your usual vintner, and this is not a typical vineyard. The eponymous Kief-Joshua Vineyards makes wine based on the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who took sustainable organic farming to the extreme — of outer space. “We plant and harvest grapes according to the gravitational pulls of the sun, moon and five closest planets,” explains Manning, who, despite this statement, is the least new-agey person I’ve ever met. From a biodynamic perspective, a vineyard is a singular organism kept alive through a vintner’s close attention to biodiversity, crop rotations, symbiotic livestock, closed-loop fertilization and, yes, the harmony of the spheres. “It’s really esoteric and strange,” Manning admits with a grin, “but it gives a focus for my days. I wake up, check the biodynamic planting calendar and if it says bury cow horns stuffed with manure, I do that.”

Welcome to Arizona, the quirky Wild West of wine.

Kief Joshua Manning samples some of his own wares. (Photo: kief-joshua vineyards)
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“I wake up, check the biodynamic planting calendar and if it says bury cow horns stuffed with manure, I do that.”

If a state famous for canyons and cacti strikes you as an unlikely venue for vineyards, you’re not wrong. In parts of Arizona, though, the confluence of arid days, cool nights, higher elevations, volcanic soils and — most crucially — deep wells for drip irrigation renders the desert into an oasis for grapes. As a result, Arizona hosts a fledgling wine industry that aims to rival Napa and Sonoma, only without the pretentiousness or price tags associated with more established wine regions. Every winter, nearly a million Canadian snowbirds flock to this state for its warmth, rugged scenery and high-wattage sunshine; wine offers just another good reason to go south. In vino veritas, as the saying goes, and in Arizona vino.

I migrate there myself, albeit in August, to sample the truth of its wines. Leaving Phoenix on a road trip arranged by the Arizona Office of Tourism, the concrete sprawl of the city yields to open desert. The sky is a pale and cloudless blue, sapped of colour and texture by the heat (by 9 a.m., it’s 40 C). Mountains are dark suggestions in the distance — dark in part because conifers thrive in the cool relief of high-altitude outcrops known as “sky islands.” Along the road, dozens of ocotillo plants, a spiny, long-stemmed shrub, resemble explosions of green snakes from prank cans. Everything about the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona seems exaggerated, almost cartoonish, from the roadrunners speeding across the highway to the fleshy, shrugging torsos of saguaro cacti patrolling its shoulders.

The saguaro is the flagship species of the Sonoran desert, a unique ecosystem that sprawls from Central Mexico to the southwestern United States (there’s even a relict chunk stranded in British Columbia’s Okanagan). Home to yucca, prickly pear, staghorn and agave, the Sonoran looks surprisingly lush and green — at least during the monsoon season, when I visit. Every afternoon, dark purplish clouds bunch in the sky and bolts of lightning sting the horizon. The deluge that follows hints at how thirsty plants such as grapevines survive here: the Sonoran receives up to 38 centimetres of rainfall annually, barely qualifying it as a desert.

Heat is another matter. With summer temperatures climbing to 48 C, humans are a rare species in the Sonoran, clinging on only where there’s air conditioning. Take Willcox, for example, the former “cattle capital of America” and my first stop on the wine tour. This town of 3,700 boasts fewer cowboys than in previous eras, but exponentially more vintners. Fodor’s hailed Willcox’s twice-annual wine festival (held on the third weekends of October and May) as a “can’t miss” event. But fear not: if you do miss it, Willcox hosts year-round tasting rooms, and all of them are air-conditioned.

The batter-proof copper door, tin roof and polished hardwood floors hint that the Keeling Schaefer Vineyards tasting room was once a bank. Today, the building deals more in currencies of wine than cash. Hosting the tasting is Jan Schaefer, a charming, white-haired retiree who owns and runs the vineyard with her husband, Rod Keeling. In 2000, the couple bought land “45 minutes from nowhere” and planted vines based on what they’d learned through avid reading and a three-day oenology course. Fourteen years later, after producing some impressively sophisticated wines — rated “very good” by Wine Spectator magazine — Keeling Schaefer was crowned “winery of the year” by the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.

Across the street is the tasting room for Carlson Creek, a family-owned vineyard run by two young brothers from California. The elder sibling, Robert,
is 35; his brother, John, is 28. They pour me a glass of Sweet Adeline, a Riesling named for their grandmother, and explain how they came to run a vineyard. Robert worked as a stockbroker until the financial crash in 2008, when he decided to invest in what he truly loved: wine. Teaming up with his brother and family, the Carlsons bought 65 hectares just outside Willcox, and Robert has rarely spent time at a desk since. “We could never do this in California,” Robert says, citing the cheaper land and lower start-up costs for vineyards in Arizona than in his home state.

In that sense, the Sonoran desert is the final frontier of wine: anyone with a little land, a lot of savvy and reliable well water can live the vintner dream in Arizona — and even adopt a wallaby to boot. Asked how he afforded a vineyard at such a young age, Manning says “I got lucky — sort of.” At 12, he was hit by a car and received a five-figure settlement. With his parents’ guidance, he used the cash to buy a house in Phoenix, and sold it after college for many times its original price. He bought 16 hectares in Willcox and eight hectares in Elgin, planted vines, built a castle-like home (which doubles as a tasting room and production facility), rescued marsupials and countless other creatures, and began making award-winning wines. Among them is a red blend called Magdelena, named for his grandmother — apparently a nomenclatural trend among young Arizonan winemakers. Her response to his loving gesture? She said he got her name wrong (she goes by Lena) and that she prefers white wine. “At 96,” Manning says admiringly, “she’s still the biggest smartass I know.”

Aridus Wine Company’s tasting room. (Photo: Aridus Wine Company)
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Bob Carlson stands with his sons John (left) and Robert in the Carlson Creek vineyard, which the family started in 2008. (Photo: Carlson creek vineyard)
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Taking grapes from the vine to the glass is a process part science, part alchemy. Many artisanal winemakers in southern Arizona bring their harvests to the Aridus Wine Company’s custom crush facility, on the outskirts of Willcox, for custom processing. Scott Dahmer, the Canadian ex-pat owner, shows me around the facility, which smells — not unpleasantly — like the day after a party.

Gleaming space-age vats bubble as yeast transforms grape sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Two men shovel a tub of fermented grapes into a plastic bin to be forklifted into a giant press. From there, wine will be poured into oak barrels for a spell of slow, concentrated evaporation in a refrigerated room with strictly controlled humidity. Depending on the wine, it can take up to two years to go from grape to glass. Dahmer uses a “wine thief” — a pipette for sampling wine from barrels — to give me a sample of his Syrah-in-progress, for in addition to crushing grapes from other vineyards he also produces wine under the Aridus label. Already the Syrah tastes delicious, spicy and full of motion, the gustatory equivalent of a brief wind stealing through the desert’s blaze.

If Arizona vintages lack the reputation of their Californian or Old World counterparts, poor distribution, not poor wine, is to blame. “We still have Prohibition: we just don’t have Al Capone anymore,” jokes Curt Dunham, a retired urban planning consultant who started the Lawrence Dunham Vineyards. Politicized liquor laws mean a small number of people control what wines get sold where, without much regard for quality. As a result, exporting local wine from the state, never mind the country, is complicated. If you fancy a glass of Arizona wine, you’ll get it faster by heading south than by waiting for bottles to show up on Canadian store shelves.

Despite the distribution system being stacked against him, Dunham is content with staying small. “I want to keep my fingerprints in everything,” he says. “I’m not trying to mass produce.” Like the other winemakers I met in Arizona, Dunham sells all his wine — several thousand cases a year — at the vineyard itself, or through its dedicated wine club. For him, winemaking is less about profits and more about people. “When I look at a barrel of wine in progress, I see people. I see gatherings, dinners, weddings, funerals. Wine is a social occasion,” he says. “If it were up to me, I’d love to meet everyone drinking our wine.”

He’d also love to meet the desert’s original farmers. Dunham finds metates (to grind grain) and other native artifacts on his property whenever heavy rains erode the creeks. A few days later, in the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park’s museum, I see these tools on display and learn who made them: the Pima, Tohono O’odham and Apache people, who cultivated squash and corn in the Sonoran for millennia. Judging from the woven baskets on display in the state park’s museum — objects more beautiful than they would need to be, if strictly for harvesting crops — I suspect that farming, for them, was a matter of not strictly sustenance but also spirituality. A way of life.

The Sonoran desert is the final frontier of wine: anyone with a little land, a lot of savvy and reliable well water can live the vintner dream in Arizona.

Modern winemakers in Arizona take a similarly reverent approach to growing grapes, and maybe this is why Arizona wines, for lack of a better word, have soul. Or heart. Or whatever you want to call that combination of sweat and whimsy and fanatic commitment to farm chores that sees 30-something prodigies and 60-something retirees plant neat rows of Merlot and Syrah among hardscrabble sweeps of saguaro and yucca. These vintners know wine is not just the sum of its grapes but also the people and soil and water and history that go into making it. Such is the terroir — the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by the total environment in which it is produced — unique to southern Arizona.

In the end, though, the Sonoran desert serves up the most timeless vintage. Outside the Tubac Presidio museum, an ethnobotanical garden features plants used by the Pima, Tohono O’odham and Apache. Some, such as Mormon tea, have pharmaceutical qualities. Others, such as agave, provide vitamins and calories. Still others, more reminiscent of wine, boast no clear utility beyond the elevation and appreciation of life they bring about. For example, the creosote bush has medicinal properties but it also falls in that latter, more evocative category: if you cup your hands around its resinous green leaves, breathe on them as though fogging up a mirror, and inhale deeply, the plant smells exactly like the desert after rain.

The Carlson Creek Vineyard. (Photo: Carlson Creek Vineyard)
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Kate Harris (@kateonmars) is a writer whose first book, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, won the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize.
 

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