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Good Wine Can Come from the Most Unlikely of Places: Next Up, Arizona

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 18, 2008 3:52pm ET

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.

Dos Cabezas

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.]

Lorenzo Erlic
victoria canada —  December 18, 2008 6:02pm ET
James: If memory serves me well, Arizona has mountainous areas every bit as arable and contusive to grape growing as Argentina; perhaps more so. I look forward soon to saying Long Live Arizona! Of course the usual USA!USA!...
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  December 18, 2008 8:50pm ET
As I have blogged with you before, I am a big fan of wines from Arizona, esp Dos Cabezas and Callaghan. I often serve their wines as "ringers" in blind rhone, Italian and Spanish tastings with frequently shocking results (well to everyone but me--last year the 2004 El Montana roundly thrashed the 2001 Pegau and came in 2nd right behind the 03 Reva at a wine geek rhone party I attended, you should have seen the looks when the bags came off). I am really looking forward to tasting (the Arizona) wines from Arizona Stronghold, Page Springs, Cadecus and Pillsbury (did you try any??) plus there a whole slew of new wineries both down south and near Sedona (I've had pretty decent wines from Echo Canyon, Colibri, Oak Creek and Rancho Rossa, although they are not as good as Callaghan and DC IMHO). I look forward to your further tasting notes and, when I finish the bottle of 2004 Bogle Phantom I have open, I will open my last bottle of the 04 Callghan Zin (chewy, doughy, briary--pretty nice) in honor of this blog!
Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  December 19, 2008 2:21am ET
thank you for your thoughtful discussion on dos cabezas. todd bostock's energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to advancing the local wine ethos, is resulting in higher quality wines every vintage which, as you point out, are indeed worthy of attention.
Nancy Robinson
Phoenix, AZ —  December 19, 2008 9:36am ET
James - I live in Arizona and it is nice to see someone pay homage to the wines we produce here. It has taken us quite a while, be we are finally on the map! I agree with you as Callaghan is one of my favorites. Another winery I enjoy is Colibri in Portal, AZ. They make nice palatable Rhone style varietals - just up your alley.
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  December 19, 2008 10:19am ET
Todd is a great guy and his wines are good. For those of you who have not tried them, seek them out. You will enjoy.
Rajiv Modak
Tucson AZ —  December 19, 2008 6:49pm ET
Thanks for bringing attention to Dos Cabezas and the emerging Arizona wine scene. Winemakers like Todd Bostock and Kent Callaghan are real pioneers in their quest to determine which varieties will succeed in our unique micoclimates. They aim to produce serious wines, and the recognition is well deserved. Not to mention, both are super nice guys.

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