Out West, where the wines are most fine

More than four decades ago, Ari­zona’s wine in­dus­try be­gan with a ‘water-har­vest­ing project’

The Arizona Republic - - FRONT PAGE -

Once upon a time, Napa Val­ley had the mar­ket cor­nered when it came to se­ri­ous wine­mak­ing in the U.S.

Th­ese days, great wines come from places like Ore­gon’s Wil­lamette Val­ley and Te­mec­ula in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. And Will­cox, Sonoita and Cot­ton­wood right here in Ari­zona.

Ex­plore th­ese des­ti­na­tions and more in our ex­clu­sive 12-page pre­mium edi­tion, avail­able only to sub­scribers.

To get yours, go to azcentral.com or call 602-444-1000 to sub­scribe.

In Val­ley & State: The man who in­tro­duced wine­mak­ing to Ari­zona via sci­en­tific re­search more than four decades ago.

The plan all along was to fig­ure out how to grow wine grapes in Ari­zona. But Gor­don Dutt knew he had to mask his in­ten­tions if he was go­ing to get funded. ¶ So he sold the Univer­sity of Ari­zona on the idea of a vine­yard to study the water re­ten­tion of soils. He planted 12 types of grapes at Page Ranch near Or­a­cle, os­ten­si­bly to test a method of chan­nel­ing water to crops by us­ing salt. ¶ “I started what we called our water-har­vest­ing project,” Dutt said from his Tuc­son home, “and I had a big grant to work on that.” ¶ What that 1974 project turned into was the be­gin­nings of the com­mer­cial wine in­dus­try in Ari­zona.

Dutt would find good grow­ing con­di­tions in Sonoita, a small cross­roads south­east of Tuc­son, and start a win­ery called Sonoita Vine­yards.

That area has be­come dot­ted in re­cent years with vine­yards and winer­ies. There are more in the Will­cox area, and they have trans­formed the tourism in­dus­try in the north­ern Verde Val­ley city of Cot­ton­wood.

At 87, Dutt can look back as a pi­o­neer in the state’s in­dus­try.

Dutt be­gan his ca­reer as a soil sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Davis. That state’s wine in­dus­try was bur­geon­ing, and peo­ple Dutt worked with ea­gerly took him out to visit vine­yards. It was an ed­u­ca­tion in the wine in­dus­try, one he said al­lowed him to buy some Napa Val­ley wine whole­sale.

Dutt was of­fered a po­si­tion at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona and took it de­spite know­ing noth­ing about the state.

“I was ab­so­lutely flab­ber­gasted when I got here,” he said. “There were no winer­ies.”

Dutt’s job was look­ing at water qual­ity and how it in­ter­acted with soils. But he kept work­ing on his per­sonal quest to see if the state could sup­port a vine­yard.

He re­called a trip to Yuma and a tour of ta­ble-grape vine­yards. The farmer told him that he thought it was im­pos­si­ble to grow wine grapes in Ari­zona be­cause of the hot cli­mate. Cal­i­for­nia, Dutt said, had con­vinced peo­ple it was their spe­cial­ized cli­mate, not the soils, that pro­duced great grapes.

Dutt dis­agreed. He thought the soil was key. And in Ari­zona, he could ex­per­i­ment with the cli­mate by driv­ing a few miles.

“We can have any cli­mate you like,” he re­called telling the farmer. Need it cooler? Go up­hill. Need it warmer? Go down­hill. “He agreed with me,” Dutt said.

The idea stayed on Dutt’s back burner for about five years.

In 1970, he started an ex­per­i­ment that would treat soil us­ing salt. Typ­i­cally, salt would ster­il­ize soil. But Dutt the­o­rized that the right amount would also make soil im­per­me­able, al­low­ing water to flow through, rather than soak in.

Dutt planned to catch that water in basins where he would grow a crop.

“What I chose to work with was wine grapes,” Dutt said.

Dutt made an agri­cul­tural case for grapes. They were a crop that sipped far less water than other crops. And, like grains, they were a crop that could be stored up in a good year to help farm­ers bridge bad years. Stored not as grapes, but as wine aged in bar­rels.

Dutt planted the vine­yard in 1972, choos­ing grape va­ri­etals he liked. By 1974, he had stud­ied the salin­ity of the ir­ri­gated soils and other such sci­en­tific stuff.

He also had a crop of grapes. Dutt knew he would not make the wine at the univer­sity. So he took the grapes to his house and put his home wine­mak­ing li­cense to use.

“The wine turned out just fab­u­lously good,” he said.

Dutt knew he couldn’t just con­vince him­self. He needed to get the ap­proval of oth­ers.

He set up a tast­ing of the wines in 1975. The high­est scores from the panel in­di­cated the wine was av­er­age. But it was enough to con­vince Dutt he was on the right path.

In 1976, Dutt wrote a pro­posal for a grant to study the fea­si­bil­ity of grow­ing wine grapes in the Four Cor­ners states: Ari­zona, New Mex­ico, Colorado and Utah. He was sup­ported by politi­cians in those states who were look­ing for a way to boost the econ­omy.

Dutt was awarded $95,000 for the fea­si­bil­ity study. He just needed to build a win­ery and hire a wine­maker.

Wade Wolfe was fin­ish­ing his doc­tor­ate in wine at UC-Davis when he spot­ted a clas­si­fied ad look­ing for a wine­maker in Ari­zona.

“There was some­thing in­trigu­ing about go­ing to a new grow­ing area,” Wolfe said dur­ing a phone in­ter­view from Prosser, Washington, where he runs Thurston Wolfe Win­ery.

The idea was to hunt the states for ex­ist­ing vine­yards and plant some where they the two thought it would be fea­si­ble. They would make wine out of grapes, and taste-test it for qual­ity.

Wolfe said in Colorado, there were a few small vine­yards near Grand Junc­tion that sold to home wine­mak­ers. The two would fly up in a Cesna pi­loted by Dutt, Wolfe said, and bring the grapes back to Tuc­son at har­vest time.

In New Mex­ico, the pair found ex­per­i­men­tal plants of vine­yards that had seem­ingly been aban­doned, one near Las Cruces and an­other near Al­bu­querque.

In Utah, they found an acre or so of zin­fan­del grapes planted near Moab, Wolfe said.

For Ari­zona, Dutt al­ready had the vine­yard at the univer­sity’s prop­erty. He added an­other on univer­sity prop­erty near Saf­ford and an­other on a farm in Yuma. He also added an­other key plot of land. This was in Sonoita, owned by Blake Bro­phy, a mem­ber of the in­flu­en­tial Phoenix fam­ily that started the Je­suit school.

When it came to time make the wine, Wolfe gave them a fairly generic, stan­dard pro­cess­ing. Then, it was time to taste them.

“They were quite drink­able,” he re­called, “con­sid­er­ing they were wines, ex­per­i­men­tal wines, not treated with oak, not give the same level of care.”

The ex­per­i­ment yielded some not-so-sur­pris­ing re­sults. For ex­am­ple, Yuma More wine coverage: The West is the place for wine, and Ari­zona is gain­ing more recog­ni­tion among oenophiles for both qual­ity and va­ri­ety. Read about Ari­zona’s wine re­gions, as well as other vine des­ti­na­tions around the West, in our pre­mium edi­tion, avail­able in only to sub­scribers in to­day’s Repub­lic. To get your copy, go to azcentral.com to sub­scribe or call 602.444.1000.

was too hot to grow qual­ity wine grapes.

Wolfe said one of the most last­ing re­sult was that vine­yard own­ers were shown new va­ri­etals be­sides the stan­dard caber­net and chardon­nay. It’s why Ari­zona is now known for more ob­scure va­ri­etals, such as mal­va­sia bianca and tan­nat, as well as Rhone-area va­ri­etals such as shi­raz and viog­nier.

“Back in the 1970s,” Wolfe said, “very few winer­ies, or peo­ple, knew about Rhone va­ri­etals.”

Wolfe also said the ex­per­i­ment suc­ceeded in turn­ing Dutt from a soil sci­en­tist into a cheer­leader for the wine in­dus­try.

“Gor­don was a most en­thu­si­as­tic ad­vo­cate of the po­ten­tial of Ari­zona be­ing a great wine-grow­ing re­gion,” Wolfe said.

Dutt said he “de­cided to put my money where my mouth is” and in­vested in the vine­yard in Sonoita, the one owned by Bro­phy.

But Dutt knew if he wanted to start a com­mer­cial win­ery, he would need to get the laws in Ari­zona changed. He spoke with a law­maker who told him it wouldn’t hap­pen. Such a move would anger the liquor whole­salers, and politi­cians seek­ing re-elec­tion wouldn’t want to up­set the pow­er­ful in­dus­try.

But Dutt had his own lob­by­ist. An­other Bro­phy brother played bridge with the pres­i­dent of the Ari­zona Se­nate. “We got that bill passed,” Dutt said. It al­lowed vine­yard own­ers to make wine up to cer­tain amounts and be able to sell it them­selves. Ini­tially, Dutt said, the ca­pac­ity cap was set at 40,000 gal­lons an­nu­ally. “Some­body just came up with that,” he said. “Some­body else changed it to 70,000, and I didn’t ar­gue.”

Sonoita Vine­yards be­came a win­ery in 1983. It was the third in the state, but the first to make wine solely from grapes grown on its own prop­erty.

In 1989, a Los An­ge­les Times critic picked two Sonoita wines among the of­fer­ings at an inau­gu­ral din­ner for Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush.

“Our real ac­cep­tance re­ally started when we went to Bush’s in­au­gu­ra­tion,” Dutt said. “Ever since then, we’ve been on the up­swing.

“Till I re­tired, any­how,” he said, with a smile.

It was just past noon at his Tuc­son home, but af­ter rem­i­nisc­ing about his pi­o­neer days, Dutt un­corked a bot­tle of a Sonoita Vine­yards red blend of san­giovese and zin­fan­del. He cred­its the wine not only with his liveli­hood, but also for keep­ing him healthy.

Dutt vis­its the win­ery ev­ery so of­ten but leaves the wine­mak­ing op­er­a­tions at Sonoita to his grand­daugh­ter, Lori Reynolds. On the way to Sonoita, he passes tast­ing rooms for Dos Cabezas Wine-Works, Cal­laghan Vine­yards, Fly­ing Leap, Rune — all part of the in­dus­try he helped cre­ate with a water-har­vest­ing ex­per­i­ment more than 40 years ago.

“I think it’s go­ing great,” he said, tak­ing a sip and pro­nounc­ing the wine de­li­cious. “I’m very happy with it.”

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SPE­CIAL SEC­TION SEPTEM­BER 17, 2017 WILL­COX · COT­TON­WOOD · SONOITA SONOMA COUNTY · NAPA VAL­LEY

· SANTA YNEZ TE­MEC­ULA · SOUTH­ERN ORE­GON WIL­LAMETTE VAL­LEY Sun­rise over vine­yards in Healds­burg, CA. GETTY IMAGES wine coun­try Wine is more than what comes in a bot­tle. It is an ex­pe­ri­ence, a story that un­folds in the vine­yards over ev­ery glass. The west­ern U.S. has been blessed with a cli­mate that tells that story bet­ter than most. A vi­brant viti­cul­ture grows in rich soil, where wine­mak­ing fam­i­lies have set down roots as deep as vines planted years ago. This is your guide to that ex­pe­ri­ence, filled with the per­fect places to hear that story.

DAVID WALLACE/THE REPUB­LIC ILLUSTRATION BY RICK KONOPKA/ USA TO­DAY NET­WORK, AND GETTY IMAGES

RICHARD RUELAS Gor­don Dutt, now 87, founded Sonoita Vine­yards, the first com­mer­cial vine­yard in Ari­zona, in the early 1970s. That project grew out of Dutt’s re­search.

MICHAEL CHOW/THE REPUB­LIC

A sign in the South­ern Ari­zona town of Sonoita her­alds the area’s wine in­dus­try, which has boomed in re­cent decades.

DAVID WALLACE/THE REPUB­LIC

Gor­don Dutt has seen Sonoita Vine­yards grown into a na­tion­ally known win­ery. His grand­daugh­ter now runs the op­er­a­tion.

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