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Arizona Wine Goes to School

An Arizona college is developing a winemaking program, hoping to support a nascent local industry

Aaron Romano
Posted: October 30, 2012

Hot, dry summers, freezing temperatures, monsoons and dust storms are just a few of the struggles that Verde Valley winemakers endure. But this high desert area, with its red rock mountains and lush valleys, situated 100 miles north of Phoenix, is also home to a growing number of grapevines. The Verde Valley has become a key part of Arizona wine production, and a local college hopes to build on that.

The biggest challenge facing the Arizona wine industry is not its climate--it's keeping up with rapid growth. In the past 10 years, the industry has grown to more than 60 bonded wineries, from nine in 2000, so Verde Valley's Yavapai College is building a teaching winery and planting vineyards on its Clarkdale campus to keep up with the accelerated growth. "We are building the Southwest Wine Center to ease the growing pains of Arizona's rapidly expanding wine industry, and simultaneously developing a resource for the entire Southwest," said Nikki Check, the college's director of viticulture and enology. Much like UC, Davis, in California has become a top winemaking and grapegrowing resource for California, Yavapai hopes to bring that level of experience to the Southwest.

The school is starting by repurposing a racquetball court and expanding its Clarkdale campus to include 18 acres of vineyards and an LEED-certified winemaking facility. The facility showcases sustainable practices geared toward working in arid wine regions, such as rainwater harvesting and wastewater processing, making it a net-zero water user.

Yavapai's Clarkdale campus already offers courses in viticulture and tasting, and will soon offer an associate's degree. The curriculum will include wine appreciation, viticulture, soils, entomology, water management and viticulture practicum, with plans to add chemistry, online viticulture courses, winemaking and winery practicum.

The Clarkdale community pushed for vineyards at the college back in 2008, with the hopes of nurturing the emerging industry. The wine industry has had a positive impact on the local economy for several years. At a time when the economy was crashing everywhere, the wine industry was taking off. The estimated direct economic impact of Verde Valley wineries over 12 months in 2009 and 2010 was $5.5 million, according to college officials, and continues to grow each year.

As the industry grows, locals want it to do so sustainably, keeping wineries in tune with the small community. Casey Rooney, an economic developer for the neighboring town of Cottonwood, said, "I think we are going to see vines everywhere in 10 years, but we don't want to become a commodity. There's potential for a billion-dollar industry while still retaining a boutique approach."

Winemakers agree the Southwest desperately needed a school to provide academic support and research for the Southwest growing regions. "The early days were grim, and you didn't know what grapes would work, or if the land you were planting them on would produce," said Maynard James Keenan, lead singer for the rock band, Tool, and an Arizona vintner and owner of three wine labels, Caduceus Cellars, Merkin Vineyards and Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. Winemakers got unsuitable advice in the past from California consultants who weren't familiar with the weather and soils, Keenan added.

"It's hard to learn when there is no other winegrowing region like Arizona," said Check. Despite some weather extremes, the high desert is an ideal region for grapegrowing, with mineral-rich and well-drained volcanic soil, fully sunny days and cool nights. Some compare Verde Valley's altitude to that of Mendoza, Argentina, or Chile, but the temperatures are 20 degrees cooler. Soil studies have revealed similarities to Spain's Ribera Del Duero and Southern France, and growers have enjoyed some success with some Spanish, Italian and Rhône varietals. The Southwest Wine Center will allow students to study grapegrowing at high elevations with extreme weather conditions, as well as what kinds of nutrients and amendments are needed for the soil. They will be doing experimental legwork for current and future winemakers.

Yavapai's program is still in the fundraising stage, but it is on track to start fermenting wine in fall 2013. The college plans to produce its own 3,000-case, student-made label, but the long-term plan is to have enough grapes to sell to local wineries to help with the current shortage of Arizona wine grapes. Many local winemakers have been forced to supplement with grapes from California and New Mexico.

The college's plans are already encouraging vintners such as Keenan to look at the wine industry differently. Anticipating what he calls an "army of pioneers," he is in the process of constructing a winery co-op in Camp Verde that's meant to complement the wine center and give graduates a place to get their feet wet. "The Wine Center is just the beginning," said Rooney.

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