An hour southeast of Tucson, the communities of Elgin and Sonoita sit at more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Rolling hills covered in golden grasses slowly transition into towering mountains. Roaming cattle dot the hills. This area of high desert – with unreliable rainfall, tough soil, and scorching summer temperatures – may at first glance seem ill-fit to provide a suitable environment for any type of crop.
But, this is wine country. Elgin and Sonoita, which have a combined population of 979 according to the 2010 U.S. Census, are home to 17 wineries registered with the Arizona Department of Liquor.
Vineyards have shown up in the area since the 1970s, but winemakers still struggle to meet government regulations and face environmental challenges. Additionally, the coronavirus has caused a significant loss of earnings this year.
Southern Arizona’s modern wine industry was created in large part thanks to Dr. Gordon Dutt, a researcher from the University of Arizona. Dutt established Arizona’s first modern commercial vineyard in 1979, and co-authored an extensive study in 1980 detailing the winemaking potential of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico – commonly referred to as The Four Corners Report. According to Erik Berg, an Arizona wine industry historian, the report’s publication and the publicity around Dutt’s winery helped spark Southern Arizona’s wine industry.
Another development that helped the growth of the industry was the passage of the Domestic Farm Winery Bill by Arizona legislature in 1982. When passed, the bill allowed in-state wineries to produce 75,000 gallons of wine per year and sell directly to consumers.
“It was absolutely essential in order for the industry to become viable,” Berg said. But, even with the passage of the bill, the growth of the Southern Arizona wine industry has been slow and full of obstacles.
“One of the biggest challenges – and it’s still true to this day – was from a financial standpoint. If you wanted to start a vineyard, you had to buy large pieces of land, put in all your irrigation, and then you plant your vines,” Berg said. “Then, you have three to four years before you have any real harvest you can do anything with. All the while, you took out these great big loans with no way to pay them.”
Additionally, most of the early winery and vineyard owners in Southern Arizona “had never owned a winery before or been a full-time professional employed by a winery or vineyard,” Berg said. Almost all of them, he adds, were hobbyists who were just getting into winemaking for the first time.
Though good wines were being made from the beginning, the wines produced from the region lacked consistent quality, Berg said.
The financial difficulty of starting a winery, in addition to inexperience, the general lack of effective marketing and multiple occurrences of Pierce’s disease, a bacterium that destroys wine grapes, caused many wineries to close in Southern Arizona.
“The majority of the vineyards and wineries that started between 1980s and the late 1990s didn’t really make it,” Berg said. “They fizzled out, usually after a few years.”
The wineries that did survive were originally limited by a 75,000-gallon-per-year state production cap, set by the Arizona Farm Winery Bill.
Currently, the cap is 40,000 gallons and wineries may only produce half of that limit to retain self-distribution rights, according to the Arizona Department of Liquor website.
With some wineries choosing to stay within the self-distribution limit, there is less Arizona wine on the market, which means less exposure for the industry outside of the state.
However, national recognition and praise for wineries like Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas WineWorks from critics such as Robert Parker Jr., helped bolster both the exposure and prestige of wineries in Southern Arizona in the 1990s. Today, wineries across the state are receiving awards and positive reviews, further improving the visibility of Arizona wine.
But, even with this recognition, Southern Arizona wine growers still have difficulty gaining interest outside the Southwest and proving their wines’ quality and legitimacy to the national wine industry.
Kelly and Todd Bostock, the owners of Dos Cabezas WineWorks, were travelling out-of-state shortly after being named one of 10 “Rising Star Vintners” by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015. They stopped at a local wine store in New York to see what they carried and to pick up a bottle. The store had a shelf dedicated to the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Rising Star Vintners,” but the Bostocks could not find any bottles from their winery on the shelf.
“It’s almost like they saw Arizona, and said ‘Arizona? That must be a fluke,’” Todd Bostock said. “It was really frustrating.”
For Bostock, distinguishing and certifying quality Arizona wines is the best way to gain the trust of consumers. The Bostocks are founding members of The Arizona Vignerons Alliance, a local group developing quality standards and a certification process to build more trust for wines with the Alliance’s seal of approval. The issue is, however, that not all the wines submitted for the Alliance’s seal will be of high enough quality to receive the certification.
“How do you convince your peers to submit their wines for this approval process, knowing that some of their wines just aren’t good enough to be certified?” Bostock wondered aloud.
Regional winemakers have plenty of things to worry about: new county health codes, a dropping water table, wildfires and the proposed mining activity. Recently, all the issues are overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tasting rooms, which provide much-needed income for the wineries, are closed. “March, April, and May are [the wineries’] heaviest season for selling and having tastings,” said Kat Crockett, a local grape grower. “That’s when they bank money and put it into reserve for harvest time, when it’s time to pay for the grapes. And they’ve been shut down for almost that entire period. So now, they’re saying ‘how are we going to pay for the grapes?’”