WHEN THE TEMPERATURE in Tuscon actually dips to 70 and sends us running for sweaters and hot chocolate, we can finally feel the synapses in our brains snap back on one by one. We have two seasons in Arizona: Hot and Slight Cooling. Hot is for advanced denial. Cooler weather allows you to think about things you might not necessarily reflect on most of the year, and you're allowed to do so for about three minutes. You get to close your eyes and entertain a small reverie about sipping a lovely glass of red wine in front of a nice little fire. Perhaps a lovely Cabernet grown and pressed right here in Arizona.
As quickly as the seasons change, so has the face of Southern Arizona. Once the land of the lone cowboy lost in a wash of saguaro, it now is the domain of bladed desert, sprawling condos and howling coyotes in kerchiefs painted a spooky pink. Some things always change. And change can be good. One good thing is how quickly Arizona is becoming recognized as a premier wine producer.
Recently, the Arizona Winegrowers Association announced the winners of the Governor's Choice Awards, and the results are surprisingly agreeable. Over 58 wines were entered into the contest. The award-winning wines will be featured at select state functions, an excellent way to surprise and delight those who might have heard of Arizona, but never heard of its wine. Those who, when presented with a bottle of Arizona wine, might laugh and say, "You call that wine? Where's it from ... Caliche Cellars? Sure, I'll choke down a glass ... shovel out some of that dirt." Those kinds of people. So then we pour them a glass of, say, a Callaghan or Dos Cabezas wine and watch their jaws drop. Of course we really shouldn't waste superlative wine on them, but we want to convert them.
We want them to believe.
And they will.
Not surprisingly, the first-place winner in the reds category was Kent Callaghan's 1998 Buena Suerte Cuvée. For anyone who still doesn't know, Kent Callaghan has been making small batches of outstanding wine for years now. When Robert Parker Jr. first listed Kent in the Wine Advocate as one of 1994's "Wine Heroes," Callaghan Vineyards was placed on the map. Now up to production of 1,500 cases a year, Callaghan wines show up in some mighty impressive places. Callaghan Vineyards was featured at Bill Clinton's inaugural dinner, and most recently the '98 Buena Suerte Cuvée (50 percent Merlot, 25 percent Cabernet Franc, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon) was poured at one of the largest state dinners ever served at the White House. As Daniel Shanks, the White House buyer, sums up, "It's drop dead gorgeous."
And so it is. Recently, Callaghan Vineyards received international recognition when Le Monde listed it as one of the six wineries/winemakers in America worth noting, recognizing Callaghan wines as "powerful ... astonishing, concentrated and fruity. Kent Callaghan is a pioneer who symbolizes the spirit of the wines in the New World."
So we were lucky, indeed when Kent Callaghan teamed up with Al Buhl to create Dos Cabezas winery; two heads are better than one. Although now Buhl and Katherine Magowan privately own the winery, Callaghan and Buhl still collaborate in a number of areas, including growing grapes, making wine and assisting with the development of their vineyards. Not surprisingly, Dos Cabezas was the first-place winner in the whites category with its 1998 Chardonnay. The judges found it to be "a big wine, lemony and rich, complex with a hint of pear and pineapple." The 1998 Sangiovese, a spectacular red, also placed as a runner-up in the reds category.
Both Buhl and Callaghan note that the climate where they grow their grapes, in Sonoita and the Sulphur Springs Valley, is similar to certain other warm-weather grape-growing regions around the world. Buhl claims that some studies equate it to areas in southern Rhone, and this is why Petite Sirah, Syrah and Sangiovese grapes are so successfully grown here. Cooler night temperatures reduce respiration and preserve malic acid. Abundant sunshine, dry harvest, slow humidity and low-vigor soils all portend promising wine futures.
But that shouldn't come as any real surprise, because as Gordon Dutt, proprietor of Sonoita Vineyards, points out, people have been growing grapes in Southern Arizona for hundreds of years. He believes the key to the success lies in the soil. After all, Dutt is one of the original visionaries of the Arizona wine industry. He first established his experimental vineyard in 1973. Then a soil scientist with the University of Arizona, Dutt conducted a series of soil studies and discovered that the Sonoita area provided growing conditions that rival parts of California. He must have been on to something; Sonoita Vineyards placed first in the Governor's Select Awards blush category with its 1999 Arizona Sunset, which the judges found to have faint cherry flavors, apple and peach overtones; it's a crisp drinking wine.
As Dutt points out, Spanish settlers preceded the California missions by at least 80 years, making Southern Arizona one of the first grape producers in the New World. Recently, Sonoita Vineyards has been experimenting with the Mission grape, which dates back to the 16th century. It's a productive and hardy vine of unquestionable European descent (it is believed Father Kino tried to grow the Mission grape here first). Dutt found that Sonoita produces an excellent Mission wine.
But judge for yourself. You can attend a festival hosting the new release of the 2000 Arizona Mission wine during the St. Martin's New Release Festival on Saturday, November 18 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. At just $7.50 per person, you'll get to taste wine, tour the winery, keep a souvenir glass and hear live music.
If you can't wait until then, Callaghan hosts tastings every Sunday in November. On November 5 they will have a new-release tasting at the vineyard site, two miles west of Elgin. Admission is $7 and includes a Callaghan Vineyards tasting glass, plus perhaps a chance to meet Callaghan himself, once a philosophy major, now a world-class winemaker.
So as the seasons shift, take a look around to appreciate some of the splendor of the harvest time. Some truly great vineyards lie within easy traveling distance from your very own backyard. Don't be cynical. Remember what the wine cognoscenti once said about those brash young upstart California wines. Before you judge Arizona wines, try them.
And the next time curious strangers ask you if Tucson is beautiful, tell them no. If they ask you if it is true that it is just a dry heat, tell them it is unbearable. And if they ask you if it's true that in Arizona we make great wines, make sure you have your own case stashed away before you tell them the truth. Or you can always tell them to look for Caliche Cellars.
For further events or more detailed information on Arizona wineries, festivals and other winners in the Governor's Awards, check out www.arizonawine.org, www.callaghanvineyards.com, www.sonoitavineyards.com, www.darkmountainbrewery.com Special thanks to Catherine Millard, Kent Callaghan, Al Buhl and Jay Bileti for valuable information on the art of winemaking in Arizona.