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Oregon Pioneer Heads South, Way South

Pinot Noir specialist Dick Erath is planting vineyards in Arizona

Harvey Steiman
Posted: March 25, 2005

Once a pioneering winegrower in Oregon, Dick Erath is taking on a new challenge: growing grapes and making wine in Arizona. He recently bought 200 acres about 11 miles southeast of Willcox, roughly halfway between Tucson and the New Mexico border.

"I don't have any great, ambitious plans," said the 69-year-old vintner. "I just want to see what the area can do."

Erath has lived on his Erath wine estate in Dundee, Ore., since 1968, and has a second home in Tucson, where he has been spending winters since 1995. For fun, he planted a few Zinfandel, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese vines around the house and nosed around the fledgling Arizona wine industry.

"I found a few wines that were pretty good," Erath said, mentioning Callaghan Vineyards' Syrah as a particular favorite.

Currently, Arizona has 16 wineries, which generate about $20 million a year and attract nearly 15,000 visitors. Some of the wines are already receiving good scores and national praise.

Erath's new property, about an hour's drive from his winter home, sits at an elevation of 4,300 feet in the high desert of southeastern Arizona, where many of the state's other wineries are located. The area is not as hot as the lower desert areas around Phoenix and Tucson; proponents have likened the climate to Southern France or high-altitude wine regions in Spain and southern Italy.

"Everything I learned about winemaking in Oregon is 180 degrees different here," Erath said. His 115-acre Willamette Valley operation, one of the first significant vineyards in Oregon, specializes in Pinot Noir and also makes whites such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. "Oregon has limited heat and light but plenty of water. Down here water is limited."

The land is being prepared so Erath can start planting 12 acres in 2006, and a working well was dug this year. Erath expects to focus on Syrah and Tempranillo, along with a few experimental vines of Mourvèdre, Sangiovese and Grenache.

Numerous varieties are currently planted in Arizona, and no one is quite sure yet which will come out on top. "I expect reds to do better than whites here," Erath said, "and I'm guessing that blends will be more interesting than the individual varietals. We might also try Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Riesling."

Local winemakers are welcoming the experience and added attention Erath and other prospective wine emigrants could bring to the area. "Dick will definitely have a positive impact on the industry," said Dos Cabezas owner Al Buhl about his new next-door neighbor. "He has an incredible amount of enthusiasm and more commercial success than any of the wineries down here."

Callaghan owner Kent Callaghan believes that Arizona could become the next wine frontier. "There's no question this state can make great wine," he said. "And the [low] cost of land here is a joke. This is a huge opportunity ... and something like [Erath's arrival] could make a lot more people notice us."

--Additional reporting by Nick Fauchald

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