When people think of Arizona, they don’t typically think of wine. Desert? Yes. Searing heat? Yes. Wine? Not so much.
Now, you can offer wines from the Grand Canyon State in your restaurant. And they’re not for cooking. The best way to keep customers coming back is to create memories that they will talk about forever. Show them something new, including wines from the up-and-coming region of Arizona.
Andrew Stover, sommelier of Oya Restaurant in Washington, D.C., who has carried Arizona wines for more than two years, says the consumer expectations toward Arizona wines run the gamut.
“We get all types of reactions to Arizona wines, from people from Arizona excited to see the wines outside of their home to guests shocked that I would put Arizona wine anywhere in between,” Stover says. “The skeptics don’t have much to say once they put it in their mouth. It really turns heads because it’s an alternative to Chardonnay.”
Oya Restaurant sells about a case a week of the Arizona Stronghold Vineyards Tazi white blend (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Malvasia Bianca, Pinot Gris, and Riesling) it serves by the glass. Stover says the wine practically sells itself. “People gravitate toward local, off-the-beaten-track wines,” he says. “It is great for people that like rich Chardonnay, but want to get out of that box. It is a full-bodied, creamy wine with tons of fruit characteristics. It’s not about the oak flavors, but rounding out the flavors of the grapes.”
Paula Woolsey, CSW, national sales manager of Arizona Stronghold, says the wines are available in 35 states but weren’t available in California until early this year. The largest market outside Arizona is Calgary, Alberta. Arizona Stronghold is in its fifth vintage and growing. Sales have consistently increased 100 percent annually for the past four years. According to Woolsey, sales will continue to grow another 50 percent this year.
And to what does this new frontier attribute its growing success? “No offense, but who needs another California Chardonnay?” Woolsey explains. “People’s expectations are so low. They compare the wines to ones they’ve had in Michigan. They don’t even know how to react.” She, like Stover, says it is a great alternative to California Chardonnay, which is a saturated market.
Arizona Stronghold focuses on organic and sustainable wines. The vines are planted at high elevation, similar to conditions in Argentina. Arizona has the second largest diurnal shift, or the most extreme variation in temperature from the highs of the day to the cool of nights, outside Argentina.
The areas strengths are highlighted in Blood Into Wine, a documentary about Maynard James Keenan (vocalist for Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer) and his vineyard, Arizona Stronghold, in Verde Valley, Arizona, with Eric Glomski, a former landscape ecologist. It was launched February 19, 2010, to promote Arizona as a quality wine-producing region.
This insightful documentary focuses on Keenan’s passion as a vigneron, one that plans his musical tours around the vines. As a pioneer in the region, Arizona Stronghold faced many challenges early on, including violent weather and pests, like deer and even wild boars. Although they still face some of the same challenges, they have been able to find solutions to most.
Arizona as a wine region baffles most wine critics, yet it has optimal climate and soil. The volcanic residue and limestone-rich soil in Verde Valley is similar to that found in southern Sicily. Critics and writers, such as James Suckling from Wine Spectator, are used throughout the film, and each brings his own particular observations to both the wine industry and the burgeoning Arizona culture.
According to Ricky Young, regional sales manager at Quench Fine Wines Ltd., the company’s sales have increased between 25 percent and 30 percent over the past three years. Quench Fine Wines Ltd. is the key distributor for Arizona wines in Arizona, representing three wineries: Arizona Stronghold, Page Spring Cellars and Dos Cabezas. Quench features 130 domestic wineries and 20 importers with over 2,100 selections from around the world. Arizona Stronghold, with 15 selections, is its second-best seller.
“With a company that sells about $11 million an year, that is really good,” Young says. “It’s a great partnership we’ve formed. That shows you that the community in this state has driven the success of Arizona wines.”
Arizona has seen one of the fastest-growing markets for wine in the U.S. As recently as 2006, the area was home to just a dozen wineries with only three tasting rooms. Today, there are 62 wineries in all of Arizona, a growth rate of five times in five years.
The Arizona wine-producing region is one of the oldest in the country, believed to have been first settled by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. But Arizona wine industry faced many challenges along the way, including Prohibition and Pierce’s Disease, caused by a vine-killing bacterium. Arizona came out of Prohibition five years after the rest of the country. It was awarded its only American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1984—Sonoita, located in southeast Arizona, south of the city of Tucson.
According to Woolsey, it was even illegal for a priest to serve wine in communion before 1984. In May 2006, the Arizona Legislature passed a bill to end Arizona's ban on direct interstate wine sales.
Arizona now has two major growing regions in addition to Sonoita. The Willcox area in Cochise County was the second area to come on board. And now the Verde Valley is the third region for growing grapes. The elevation of these vineyards ranges between 3,800 feet and almost 6,000 feet, allowing for nice hot days and cool nights during the grape growing season. These climatic conditions are similar to Mendoza, Argentina, and Walla Walla, Washington.
Arizona Stronghold winery isn’t the only entity revolutionizing Arizona wines. Yavapai College is soon to be one of three universities in the United States with an enology program that has a wine-producing vineyard.
In 2010, Merkin Vineyards sponsored the planting of one acre of vines. On May 5, 2012, the college planted three more acres of vineyards, and it will be launching a three-year enology associate degree this fall modeled after the program at Walla Walla University in Yakima Valley. The enology program at Yavapai College started in 2009 with only two classes: wine tasting and viticulture.
According to Nichole Check, the director of viticulture at Yavapai College since its inception, the demand for grapes is so high in Arizona that the college was forced to plant their own vineyards. In the coming years, the viticulture program will plant up to 18 acres to provide enough fruit for the 3,000-case facility that will be breaking ground on early 2013.
“This is the biggest thing that Yavapai College will ever do,” Check says. “The college, other than training skilled labor, provides an annual symposium where we bring in different speakers to touch on different topics. This is another way that the college has provided resources to push the industry forward in quality.”
Check has worked in the Arizona wine industry for a decade, including five years at Merkin Vineyards. “It was a painful experience in the beginning,” she says. “The pioneers went through the ringer viticulturally, and it has really paid off. I watched the wines go from quite mediocre to wonderful in the last 10 years.”
No matter how you look at it, this is a new and exciting chapter in the story of the American wine story. Where once it would have been far-fetched to suggest grapes could grow in the Southwest, growers like Arizona Stronghold, Dos Cabezas Winery and Page Spring Cellars and the rest of the vanguard are rewriting the script. Arizona can only continue to improve with the resources flooding into the region.