Wining in the Desert

Posted by | Posted in Wine Where? | Posted on 02-24-2011

In the desert, wine may be a mirage. In fact, after many miles of wandering through the hot, dry, arid climate, many may hallucinate — hoping to get one last sip of their favorite varietal before expiring in the heat. Luckily, the advent of motor vehicles and air conditioning make that prospect a thing of the past.

High in the Sonoita desert plain, winemakers are bucking conventional wisdom and crafting wines with artisan aplomb. Thanks to Dr. Gordon Dutt and his experimental vineyard planted in 1973, the cultivation of grapes is a not-so-far-fetched idea. As part of a trial cultivation in the vineyards that would later become Sonoita Vineyards, the retired soil scientist from the University of Arizona planted those first vines to see if there was any way possible to cultivate grapes in the area. Low and behold, the area was quite suitable for wine growing and an AVA was born.

In fact, Sonoita is the only AVA in the entire state thanks to the efforts of Dr. Dutt to petition for it.  At an elevation of nearly five thousand feet, the area benefits from abundant daytime sunshine (perfect for ripening grapes) and cool nightly temperatures (perfect for recuperating vines).  Along with a favorable climate, the AVA also has productive soils that some compare to ones found in Southern France or Paso Robles, California.

Since those first vines proved that quality fruit could be grown in the region, another 7 wineries have opened their door to prove the fact. Among the “newcomers” are Ann and Ron Roncone at Lightning Ridge Cellars, who came to the area via San Francisco. After making small batches of wine at home from purchased grapes, Ann decided to grow her own varietals at her house in the SF bay area before eventually realizing her passion for winemaking was the life-path she wanted to take. After much research, they decided on Sonoita and planted the Italian varietals they knew and loved, making them unique in their wine selection.

Another relatively new winery is Wilhelm Vineyards owned and operated by University of California Davis certified Karyl Wilhelm and her husband Kevin. After leaving active duty in the Air Force in 1998, the family relocated to a Tucson suburb before the suburban sprawl put too much strain on Kevin’s farm-boy roots. A move to the wide open space of Sonoita prompted the planting of vines and the construction of a winery, which is soon to release the first vintage of estate wines.

An elder statesman to the area, Callaghan Vineyards was established in 1990 when the Callaghans planted their first vineyard in the middle of a spring heat wave. Learning from the experience of losing hundreds of vines has helped the winery focus on the best varietals suited for the region.  This has led to more plantings of varietals suited for Mediterranean climates, such as Tempranillo, Mouvedre and Grenache, which has benefited the entire region.

As is the case with any burgeoning wine growing region, mistakes will surely be made and lessons will be learned. Yet, with a fair amount of knowledge already at their disposal, Sonoita may be poised to garner some much deserved attention. As the quality of the wines will speak to, the AVA has the excellent combination of soil and climate for grapes to thrive. It may just be a matter of time for its winemakers to harness it.

To learn more about other AVA’s across the country, check our blog.

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