For Part 1 in this series, click here.
The Arizona commercial winemaking industry started right here in Elgin when University of Arizona’s Dr. Gordon Dutt, along with his friend Blake Brophy, planted an experimental vineyard on Brophy’s Babacomari Ranch in the early 1970s. The test vineyard was a success, but Dutt eventually realized that new laws were necessary for the industry to advance into profitability. So, Dutt and his colleagues formed the Arizona Wine Growers Association (AWGA) in 1981, and in 1982 they got the Domestic Farm Winery Bill passed, allowing wineries to bypass distributors and to market directly to the public and run tasting rooms.
During this period, the AWGA lobbied the federal government to designate Sonoita-Elgin as an American Viticultural Area. The designation was granted in 1984. That same year, Sonoita Mini Mart owner Bill Letarte hosted Arizona’s first wine festival at the Elgin Complex, where the Village of Elgin winery is now located.
Sonoita Vineyards, planted by Dutt in 1979, was the region’s first commercial vineyard. It was followed by John Hugo’s Viva La Vista Vineyard and the Mustang Mountain Vineyard, each of which contracted to sell their harvest to Dutt’s Sonoita Vineyards.
Next on the scene was Israeli-born Zvi Naveh who gradually planted 12 acres at his home in Los Encinos, Sonoita in the mid-’80s. Naveh later moved to Elgin and built a new home, known by many as the old Renzi place, off Lower Elgin Road on a 100-acre parcel. Naveh partnered with Oliver (Chip) Knickerbocker and his wife Linnette Weisel to plant 18 acres at the new vineyard in 1988. In 1991 and 1992, Naveh was the first to make commercial kosher wine in Arizona under the supervision of Tucson Rabbi Yossie Shemtov. Knickerbocker and Weisel bottled their first wines under the label Santa Cruz Winery, which originally was sold at the Elgin Trading Post. In 1995, they moved to Patagonia and established their winery and tasting room at the back end of the building housing the “Horse of a Different Color” Emporium.
Encouraged by the new laws, and the knowledge that Arizona’s hot and arid climate could grow wine grapes, investors flocked to the small, unincorporated town of Elgin to plant vineyards in the mid-1980s. Most of the new vineyards were planted along Elgin Road, almost all of which was unpaved, with no street designations and at most a half-dozen homes.
In 1987, a group of investors planted Whetstone Vineyards on a parcel about halfway down Elgin Road. Managed by Tom Peabody, Whetstone was considered at the time to be one of the largest and most advanced vineyards in the state, with 70 of its nearly 100 acres planted. Whetstone was the first vineyard in the area to erect large circulating fans to deter frost damage.
In 1988, another group of investors led by Tom Brady planted Terra Rossa Vineyards on State-leased land on the south side of the road across from Whetstone.
In 1989 Kent Callaghan planted two acres at his house, under the name Red Tail Vineyard. In 1990, Kent and his father Harold, who had previously purchased land on Elgin Road, planted the first 17 acres of Callaghan Vineyards at their current location.
“It was my dad’s idea – he got the bug,” said Kent. “Our planting happened to coincide with a vicious heat wave, which shut down Sky Harbor Airport for several days. But it was only 105 degrees in Elgin. Needless to say, we lost a few thousand young vines that failed to bud out.”
Callaghan used Dutt’s old barn for making wine until he moved into his new building in 1993. His first vintage, from locally purchased grapes, occurred in 1991.
In 1994, respected Wine Advocate columnist Robert Parker scored three Callaghan wines at 90 points, an excellent result. Shortly afterwards, Callaghan was contacted by the Clinton White House who arranged to serve his 1993 Buena Suerte at a dinner announcing that Clinton would be running for re-election. Later, Parker scored Callaghan’s Chardonnay at 94 points, the first to achieve that score in Arizona. Parker described the winery as one of the most interesting in America. Parker had previously identified Callaghan as one of 26 national and international “Wine Heroes” in 1994, the youngest ever to receive the accolade. Not just an attaboy for Callaghan, Parker’s comments were also broadly favorable for the entire Arizona wine industry. The awards and accolades for Callaghan’s wines have continued for over 30 years.
Most vineyards in the region’s early years relied on California varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but Callaghan discovered that grapes from France, Spain, and Italy were far more suited to the local soil characteristics and weather. Callaghan would spend the next few decades focusing on finding the right wine grapes to grow in the Elgin soil and climate, never hesitating to pull out those that did not do well and planting something new and usually unheard of in the region. His winemaking approach is simple: lots of barrels, aging on the lees, and little racking. (Lees are a sediment that occurs during fermentation and aging.) He still spends most of his time working in the vineyard.
Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas WineWorks said, “Kent’s massive imprint on Arizona wine is undeniable – first proving that wines of the highest quality can be produced in Arizona, then inspiring and mentoring practically everyone producing great wines in our state.”
During this period, Tom Brady wrote an article in The Vintage Voice naming Bill Letarte as a key player in the wine industry, citing the marketing work he was doing for his Village of Elgin winery, which Letarte had opened in 1992. Brady understood that marketing was as vital to a vintner’s success as growing the grapes and making the wine, and Letarte was doing more than his share: he had also founded the popular “Harvesting of the Vine” festival, was publishing the Vintage Voice, promoting the wine industry with T-shirts, caps and articles, and his Mini Mart retail outlet at the crossroads in Sonoita was selling more Arizona wine than any other outlet in the state. Letarte had also helped establish the Arizona Wine Commission, as well as serving as president of the AWGA and head of the Sonoita-Elgin Chamber of Commerce.
With new wineries and vineyards popping up, the industry was moving forward, but major setbacks soon occurred. In October 1996, Gordon Dutt told the Santa Cruz Valley Sun that his vineyard had been hit by Texas root rot, a fungus that attacks the roots and causes plant wilt. In 1994, Pierce’s disease, a bacteria spread by insects which had devastated California’s wine country, wiped out a portion of his vineyard.
“We were doing absolutely great through ’89 and ’90, and then we had this terrible hit…it wiped our vineyard out and we had to start all over,” said Dutt. “It was terrible for us, but thank God, Kent Callaghan kept it going and kept making quality wines.”
Many grape farmers in Elgin-Sonoita had limited experience in commercial farming and few had any experience with growing grapes. Callaghan recalls that the mid to late 1990s were a “gloomy period” with some vineyards failing after only a few harvests. Terra Rossa, Whetstone Vineyards, and Santa Cruz Vineyards were all abandoned.
This was in part due to the difficulties with calcium carbonate in the calcareous soil, which presented challenges to nutrient uptake and maintaining healthy root systems.
Finances were also problematic. It can take five to seven years to get a vineyard going from scratch. Vintners have to clear the land, dig the wells, erect infrastructure, buildings, and vineyard trellising, order vines and plant the vineyard, wait three years for a harvest, make the wine, age it and bottle it. All of this has to happen before there is an income-generating product. Meanwhile, operational expenses mount up, with a large inventory requirement for farm machinery, winemaking equipment for fermenting, bottling, lab work, fungicides, herbicides, fertilizer, insecticides, bird/hail netting, replanting, farm labor bins and storage facilities, permits, licenses, and, finally, a tasting room and marketing.
And of course, like all farming, grape growing faces a multitude of challenges from weather. Somewhat counterintuitively, the desert heat of Elgin-Sonoita is much less of
an issue for grape farmers than the frost and freezes that can damage plants at critical stages. A deep freeze in winter dormancy can kill vines, but more often, it is the frost and freezes in early spring and fall, when the sap is running, that can be more problematic; the low temperatures can kill buds that produce fruit and sometimes the entire plant. Kent Callaghan has noted that the weather during a growing season can impact the vintage from that particular year, sometimes creating outstanding results, but not always.
Gale-force winds also affect the pollination of the grapes in bloom, reducing the size of the crop. In monsoon periods, winds can actually lay down whole rows of vines, bending the
trellising. Monsoons can also bring on cooler weather and moisture, creating funguses that can ruin fruit flavors or destroy the crop. Excessive rain can dilute sugars in the grapes and delay harvests. Hail can split the grapes and can totally denude the plants and kill them. With the rains come insects, diseases, and weeds and natural grasses, which require lots of mowing.
During the 1990s the winemaking and grape farming industry in Elgin expanded, retracted and survived, with a wealth of publicity and lessons learned. The late Al Buhl, another industry pioneer with a vineyard in Kansas Settlement, and one of the very few people who lived in Elgin, said of the period, “It was the best of times and the worst of times. It seemed as though every time some new vineyard acreage came online an existing tract was taken out of production through pests, disease, or simple neglect…the demand for grapes was high as new wineries came into existence and capital to pay was low.”
In spite of the rough times, the knowledge gained by passionate, creative, and diligent winemakers and farmers set the stage for major growth in the decades that followed.
Special thanks to Anne Buhl, widow of Al Buhl, for sharing copies of The Vintage Voice, a local periodical published by Bill Letarte and later by Al Buhl. Look for Part 3 of this series in the May edition of the PRT.