Rhônes Finding a Home in Arizona

Two vintners discuss high-elevation, desert winemaking at the Hospice du Rhône event

by Jaime Lewis
Arizona is now home to 86 wineries including Dos Cabezas WineWorks that owns estate vineyards, seen here, in the Sonoita and Wilcox AVAS in the southern half of the state. Source: Dos Cabezas WineWorks .

Paso Robles, Calif.—Which grape varieties grow best in the extreme conditions of Arizona? Several, it turns out, not least among them many Rhône varieties.

At the recent Hospice du Rhône event held April 27-28 in Paso Robles, two winemakers from the state shared their perspectives on pioneering in inclement weather, uncharted soils and nascent wine laws and distribution channels.

Wine writer and critic Jeb Dunnuck interviewed Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks based in southern Arizona’s Sonoita and Willcox AVAs, and Maynard Keenan of Caduceus Cellars, based in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley. The theme, said Dunnuck, was high elevation wines, referring to the fact that most of Arizona’s wineries produce wines with grapes grown between 3,500 to 5,500 feet above sea level. The state is home to 86 wineries according to the Wines Vines Analytics winery database. 

A nascent industry
Bostock explained how Arizona’s wine industry launched when the first commercial vines were planted in 1982. “Sonoita was the first to become an AVA, Willcox came later, and Verde Valley might be the next,” he said, listing the state’s three primary growing regions.

For Dos Cabeza WineWorks’ two southern-Arizona properties, Cimarron Vineyard in Willcox and Pronghorn Vineyard in Sonoita, rainfall hovers around 12 inches annually, “and most comes right at the end of ripening and going into harvest,” Bostock said.

He also described the impact of summer monsoons on the vines. “Half of that twelve inches comes during monsoon season,” he said. “A lot of people perceive that heat and dryness are the problem [in Arizona], but it’s really hail, water, and extreme cold.”

Of his first taste of Arizona wine, Bostock said, “It was an epiphany. It was as good as anything else I’d had but it tasted different, and that was exciting to me: to be around when a place figures out what it tastes like.”

Bostock became Dos Cabeza’s winemaker in 2003, and purchased the winery and its 15-acre Pronghorn Vineyard, elevation 4,800 feet (less than one hour from the Mexican border) in 2006. In 2011, he added the 37-acre Cimarron Vineyard to the estate, which lies 90 minutes northeast and at an elevation of 4,300 feet. Dos Cabezas produces 5,000 cases annually, of which 500 are white wine.

To demonstrate how his estate excels with Rhône varieties, Bostock shared the 2015 Dos Cabezas “Meskeoli” from Cimarron Vineyard, a “classic” blend, he joked, of all the white grapes grown there: Picpoul Blanc, Viognier, Riesling, Roussanne, Malvasia, Albarino, and Muscat.

“We pick by hand and sort through it by hand — probably not like most people do. It’s terribly labor intensive.” After, he soaks the fruit whole-cluster for one day without adding sulfur dioxide, ferments in concrete and ages some of the wine in oak vessels for six months before bottling.

“It’s so arid and dry that evaporation is a real factor,” he said, referring to neutral vessels like concrete, foudre, and large wood tanks. “Wines benefit from age in the cellar but if there’s evaporation they lose freshness.

“Our varieties are constantly evolving,” he said. “It’s survival of the fittest: what sticks around does, and what doesn’t gets re-planted.”

Bostock said because of the state’s extreme climate the most consistent wines may ultimately prove to be blends. “They can weather all the possible iterations of a year, from late break frost, early fall frost, to moisture at the wrong time,” he said. “You have to have a constellation of things you can put together to create balance.”

To that point, Bostock shared that the bracing acidity in both Dos Cabeza white wines came not from acidulation but from the inclusion of Picpoul Blanc, for balance.

Rugged terrain
In addition to vineyards in Willcox, Maynard Keenan owns 40 acres of vineyards spread over several sites near Jerome, Ariz., and produces between 6,000 and 8,000 cases, annually.

“Northern Arizona isn’t as agriculturally-friendly as Southern Arizona in terms of cost of land and ease of farming,” he said, noting that, in the basin of the Verde Valley where he farms, the terrain is rougher, more sloping, less hydrated and much cooler. At an elevation of 3,300 feet above sea level, he likened the cold conditions to syrup: “It just floods into that spot.”

Keenan said he has re-planted his primary site three times as a result of frost damage. The solution he finally came upon turned out to be a simple frost fan. “Once we get past that first week of May, we should be okay, but historically it happens right around now...or straight-up snow.”

Of the 26 SKUs Keenan sells, one-quarter are Rhône-based, hailing primarily from his southern Arizona properties. “I feel like Syrah and Petite Sirah do much better down south for me,” he said, but added that Grenache and Mourvedre appear to be doing well in the chillier, less predictable north.

While experimentation for Keenan starts with choosing vineyard sites, it extends into farming and winemaking as well, with early picks, extended maceration, and submerged cap fermentation.

For Caduceus Cellars’ 2013 “Nagual del Agostina,” a 100% Mourvedre from northern Arizona, he picked at 23.5° Brix followed by extended maceration in a 350-gallon tank and pump-overs on skins for a few weeks. Likewise, for his 2015 100% Grenache “Airavata,” he picked at 23.5° Brix and left it to sit on its skins for 72 days with a submerged cap in the tank. Like Bostock, he will age his 2016 and 2017 Grenache in concrete eggs.

In addition to challenges presented by soils and climate, Keenan said a major obstacle is access to healthy plant material. Bostock added another challenge: that of evolving laws in a state that has not historically had a wine industry. “The laws weren’t written to allow us to do what we want to do,” he said. “Arizona is open to other winemaking markets, but it’s laid some prohibitive laws to production.”

He said state legislators recently closed internet sales of alcohol between the hours of 2 A.M. and 6 A.M., as they do for brick-and-mortar bars. State law also prohibits corkage, “so our wine fans can’t bring bottles to their restaurant,” Bostock said.

As such, half of Dos Cabezas sales take place in the tasting room. “We have a small band of enthusiastic consumers, but we still battle image all the time.”

Keenan and Bostock both see winegrowing in Arizona as a long game, played with an eye to the future, generations ahead.

“I used to think we’d plant vines and make wine,” said Bostock, laughing. “Now I feel more like Moses: if I can get my kids there, I can see the promise land from here. It’s going to take time. We want to figure out what works as quickly as possible, and the only way you can find out what works is by sticking it in the ground and making wine from it.”

Keenan concurs. “A lot us in Arizona are puzzling to figure this out. We won’t see the end of the rainbow on this, so we’re setting it up for our grandkids to see. I’m swinging for the fence on many levels.”

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