I never cease to be amazed at the growth of diversity and quality in today's wine world. From the Rhône to the Finger Lakes, there's good wine seemingly being made everywhere these days. Even Arizona.
Arizona? Yup, and the industry there is growing. When I surveyed "other U.S." wines for my Wine Across America cover story a few years back, the reds from Arizona showed some promise. At the time, there were just over a dozen wineries, with Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas Wineworks among the region's leaders.
Today Arizona counts 31 wineries, with 500 acres of vines now currently in production. These vines are located in three major grapegrowing areas. Willcox and Soñoita, located in the southeastern corner of the state, each about a 90-minute drive south/southeast of Tucson. The Verde Valley is located in the center of the state, about 90 miles north of Phoenix. All three areas feature high elevations that help offset Arizona's typically hot, arid conditions. There is also a range of soils among the three areas for winegrowers to work with, including limestone, clay, gravel and volcanic ash.
Arizona's wine industry is still a cottage one. Just 35,000 cases are produced annually, though that total has quadrupled since 2003, according to Rod Keeling, the current head of the Arizona Wine Growers Association. I recently tasted through some new releases and I'll be profiling a few of the most promising wineries.
Though Dos Cabezas has been making wine in Arizona for a while, its current incarnation represents a major change.
Dos Cabezas is now owned by winemaker Todd Bostock. Bostock, 32, began apprenticing during weekends at the winery in 2002, and quickly moved up to winemaking. He bought out the former owners in 2006 and sold the winery’s Willcox vineyards to Eric Glomski and Maynard James Keenan for their Arizona Stronghold label (both also have their own, separate labels as well). Bostock kept the Dos Cabezas label for himself, however, and then moved to a new winery facility in Soñoita, about 60 miles to the west of Willcox.
Today Bostock has 15 acres of estate vines that he’s recently finished planted. He also purchases fruit from neighboring Dick Erath’s newly planted vineyard. Production for Dos Cabezas stands at 2,000 cases annually, with plans to increase to 3,000.
As for the shift in vineyards, said Bostock, "I went from working with some of the oldest vines in the state to some of its youngest."
The young vineyards are Bostock’s laboratory—he harvested 32 different varieties of grapes in 2008. He's still trying to find what works best. He’s already got his eye on one grape in particular.
"I’m heavily invested in Tempranillo," he said. "The Rhône varieties look to be doing well in Willcox, but so far Tempranillo is working well here. There’s quite a bit of difference between the two areas."
Soñoita is at 5,200 feet of elevation, more than 1,000 feet higher than Willcox, a disparity that helps account for the chillier nights and harsher winds in Soñoita. In addition, Soñoita features hillier terrain dominated by red and calcareous clay soils. Willcox in comparison is a bigger area, with flatter, sandier soils, more access to water and an already thriving agricultural infrastructure (corn and cotton are major crops there), unlike Soñoita.
Because of the lack of agricultural infrastructure in the Soñoita area, Bostock often finds himself scrambling for any number of things, from good vine material to labor. Recently, as the price of chiles dropped while corn prices went up, Bostock had trouble hiring harvesters. Seems chiles are harvested by hand and ripen around the same time as grapes—so the cross over between pickers for the two crops was easy. But corn is machine-harvested instead, and as area farmers shifted to corn production for its higher prices, Bostock’s labor pool dried up. Such is life on the wine frontier.
Bostock has taken some winemaking extension courses from UC Davis, but is mostly self-taught as a winemaker. The winery’s current red releases include the 2006 El Norte Cochise County, a weighty but focused blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Petite Sirah, as well as the 2007 El Campo Pronghorn Vineyard Soñoita, a soft cherry-, raisin- and vanilla-filled red made from a blend of 50 percent Tempranillo along with varying amounts of Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional.
I was less enthused with the two Sangiovese-based reds, the Red Cochise County 2006 and Toscano Cochise County 2006, which both showed slightly muddled, light-bodied profiles.
Dos Cabezas’ whites also show promise though—the 2007 RR Cochise County White, made from a blend of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, is buttery and rich, but focused, with nice blood orange, heather honey and brioche flavors.
Prices for all the wines are modest, ranging from $17 to $35.
[Note: formal reviews based on official blind tastings of the wines will appear in the future.]