At first blush making wine in the deserts of Arizona seems not just impossible but foolhardy. While land may be less expensive than the Napa or Barossa Valleys, but the climate, one might think, would be so formidable, hostile even, that vines wouldn’t stand a chance.
As the arriving Spanish understood as early as the 17th century, grapes like Arizona. Particularly the north-central part of the state near Sedona and south of Tucson from the Sonita Valley (for now the state’s only AVA) over to the New Mexico border. Long hot days and cool nights, little rain in the later part of the growing season, and rare hail storms all make for a temperate rather than temperamental growing region. The soil is mineral rich and porous. Both are qualities grape vines need and thrive in.
The climate is suitable for many of the better known grapes that go into popular wines such as, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, to name a few. Winemaker Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards says, “Arizona winemakers have finally found a handful of grape varieties that preform well in our macrolimate.” He adds that in Arizona there is a trend toward growing, “… less well-known varieties that might equal or surpass current favorites like Aglianico and Montepulciano…” Other planters are attempting to grow Albarino, Petit Mensang, Roussane, Malvasia Bianca and Cabernet Pfeffer. Callaghan believes that, “To establish and maintain enduring credibility, Arizona growers must plant grape varieties that consistently produce the highest quality wines.” A refreshing remark when one reflects on how many of the world’s wine regions are more driven by maximizing profit over producing quality.
Arizona is home to about 30 wineries and numerous more grape growers. Within the wine community there is a great awareness of the need to raise the consciousness not just of the worldwide wine drinking crowd but within the state. To this alliances and consortia have been founded. In the north the Verde Valley Wine Consortium was founded in the latter part of 2008. The group is ten wineries strong. Their mission is to not just build awareness of the Verde Valley and attract tourists and stimulate local economies with tourist dollars but to educate, research and protect member property and water rights with legislative support.
The first triumph of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium was to get a viticulture and enology program started at Yavapai College. Thomas Riccobuono, affiliated with Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, explained that, “The program was first accepted by the community because it was called ‘farming’ but the scope of the program is much broader. In a region where there isn’t much for kids to do there is now another option. It gives them something to do and skills to use in an industry that is worldwide.” Based on a similar program in Fresno, California, students will have a horticultural DNA lab and access to 16 acres of vineyards enabling them to experience a full growing season. The facilities will also be solar powered which will not only power the building and vineyard but will provide students of other programs the opportunity to study solar power management. Classes are scheduled to start fall of 2009.