The Arizona winemaking industry all began right here in Elgin when pioneer Dr. Gordon Dutt planted an experimental vineyard in 1973 with his partner Blake Brophy on the Babocomari Ranch.
“Many people consider Dutt a father of Arizona’s wine industry,” wine historian Erik Berg told the PRT. “Aside from being the state’s first modern vineyard owner, his viticulture reports and publications helped guide and inspire a whole generation of Southwest winemakers.”
Prior to Statehood and up until 1915, when Arizona amended the state constitution to ban the manufacture or use of alcohol, there were few vineyards or wineries. With the alcohol ban, speakeasies, illegal stills and bootleggers persisted, generally near mining camps and often by fermenting in raisins, which produced poor quality wine. National Prohibition, enacted in 1920, diminished what little winemaking was occurring, and the Great Depression finished it off. Arizona commercial winemaking died until Dutt came to Arizona in 1963.
Dr. Dutt grew up in Montana. After earning his PhD in Soil Science from Purdue University in 1960, he went to the University of California at Davis to conduct water quality research. UC Davis is renowned for its Department of Viticulture (growing grapes) and Enology (winemaking). They introduced Dutt to the state’s winegrowing regions, and inspired his interest in the winemaking industry. When he left California and joined the faculty at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture in 1963, his research focused on arid land water harvesting and the viability of growing wine grapes in the Arizona deserts. His experiments with grapes were a side project until receiving a grant in 1976.
In 1972, Dutt planted at the UA experimental Page Ranch farm near Oracle and chose wine grapes as the test crop for his water research. Two years later, he harvested the fruit, crushing it with his bare feet and making a small batch of wine in his kitchen. In 1975, he invited a group of friends and local reporters to sample the wine, the first wine made from Arizona grapes in over 50 years. The tasters commented that the wine was drinkable and the news spread through the local papers up to the Governor’s office, planting the seed that an Arizona wine industry could be viable.
One of Dutt’s promising test vineyards was on the Babacomari Ranch in Elgin, owned by Blake Brophy. Brophy encouraged Dutt to plant in the area so the land might produce more than just cattle. When the vineyard proved a success, Dutt leased the land from the Brophys in 1979 and started Vina Sonoita Vineyard, the first commercial wine vineyard in Arizona since Prohibition. Dutt bucked the theory that climate in Arizona was too hot for vineyard, finding that higher elevations produced microclimates suitable for grape growing. Instead, he focused on the soil, which he discovered could produce red wines with intense color and acidity. Dutt went so far as to claim that our red clay soil was nearly identical to that of Burgundy, France.
Wine consumption during this period was growing quickly across the nation, fueling growth in Arizona. A young chiropractor from South Africa named Adrian Hugo Bosman was interested in helping a new wine region develop so he contacted Dutt. Soon he and his wife Rosemary, along with their in-laws Jon and Frances Harvey were volunteering their time at Sonoita Vineyards. In 1979, the Bosmans and Harveys bought their own 40 acres of land adjacent to Dutt. They were later joined by Penelope Edwards with her vineyard. All of the owners still held regular jobs, but they met on weekends and camped in the vineyards near an old, gnarled oak tree, which served as the base of operations. They labored to clear land, drill wells, install irrigation, and plant. Once the vines were established, the Harveys and Bosmans built a small barn-like structure to serve as a winery and storeroom. Together with Dutt and Edwards, they organized the Sonoita Vineyards Winery in 1983 as a cooperative venture, with Dutt as lead winemaker.
Challenges lay ahead. Like many states, Arizona established a three-tier regulation system post-Prohibition that divided the industry into producers, distributors, and retailers. Businesses could only be involved in one tier. Wine producers could not sell their products directly to stores, restaurants or the general public and had to rely on distributors, with unsatisfactory results. In 1981, vineyard owners and winemakers, including Dutt, joined together and organized the Arizona Wine Growers Association (AWGA), with Bosman serving as the first president. AWGA’s top priority was the passage of a farm winery exemption law similar to other states. Frank Brophy, a prominent Phoenix lawyer, and John Hayes, a state legislator, helped to introduce the Domestic Farm Winery Bill, which would allow wineries to sell direct to the public and open tasting rooms, even away from the winery. Distributors, backed by the liquor lobby adamantly opposed the bill, but winegrowers appealed to the powerful agriculture lobby and eventually the bill passed in 1982 – a critical advancement for the industry and a foundation for the 120-plus wineries that exist across the state today.
Dutt was behind another major advancement when he and Blake Brophy petitioned the Federal government to place Sonoita/Elgin on the national map as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1983, which was awarded in 1984. This was the first and only AVA in Arizona, until the Willcox AVA was approved 32 years later.
In 1984, AWGA worked with Sonoita businessman Bill Letarte and the Sonoita Trade Bureau to organize the first Arizona wine festival at the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds in Sonoita, attracting about 1,400 attendees to the one-day event. The following year, the event was expanded to two days and over 6,000 attended. By 1986, a wine judging contest was added featuring 25 local wines. By 1989, Dutt’s wine went national when he provided two of his best wines to the presidential inauguration of George H. W. Bush. The industry was flourishing.
Dr. Dutt passed away in September, 2021 in Tucson, but his legacy and historic vineyard lives on. Today, Sonoita Vineyards is owned by the Dutt family and Dr. Dutt’s granddaughter Lori Dutt Reynolds runs the operations and makes the wine. After earning her bachelor’s degree at UA, he urged her to make wine, saying, “You were born to make wine, girl – you can do this.” Lori, a mother of four young children, now manages the original vineyard and oldest commercial winery in the state, with the help of her husband Robi Reynolds.
“Some of my fondest memories are taking riding lessons at the Babacomari Ranch and then riding with my Granddad out at the Vineyard,” Lori told the PRT. “I was his little shadow for many, many years. I love that each time I had a baby he came to the hospital with flowers and to sit and hold each of his great-grandchildren and talk with me.”
Moving into the early 1990s, progress in the vineyards and wineries would dramatically slow down as finances and pestilence became problematic. Look for the second part of “The History of Winemaking in Elgin-Sonoita” in the April edition of the PRT.
Note: Erik Berg, Southwest award winning historian and writer is credited with mjuch of the content of this article derived from his publication titled “The Growth, Death, and Rebirth of an Arizona Wine Industry, 1700–2000” published in the Journal of Arizona History, Volume 59, Number 3, Autumn 2018, pp. 203-244, available at: https://arizonahistoricalsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Erik-Berg-project_muse_737880.pdf