Out West, where the wines are most fine
More than four decades ago, Arizona’s wine industry began with a ‘water-harvesting project’
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.”
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.
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.
A sign in the Southern Arizona town of Sonoita heralds the area’s wine industry, which has boomed in recent decades.
Gordon Dutt has seen Sonoita Vineyards grown into a nationally known winery. His granddaughter now runs the operation.