Arizona’s wine industry dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish missionaries began growing grapes and making wine. In the area known as Sonoita/Elgin, about an hour south of Tucson, 21st-century winemakers are giving California vintners a run for their money.
The Holistic Approach
Winemaker Kief Manning, founder of Kief-Joshua Vineyards, discovered his calling at an early age. At 15, he was working in a wine shop. At 17, he was making his own wine at home. He eventually moved to Australia to study winemaking, earning his master’s from the University of Melbourne in Victoria. Manning was drawn to the experimental approach taken by winemakers Down Under.
“We used to visit different wineries out in the middle of nowhere,” he recalls, “where they were doing weird stuff, with no scientific proof, but they were making dynamite wine.” Manning admired that “whatever works” philosophy.
Manning returned to the U.S. and began growing wine in Sonoita in 2003, adapting a holistic approach to farming developed in the 1920s by scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner that promotes organics and self-sustainability. In 2007, along with his parents, Jeff and Charlene, and sister Carly, he opened a tasting room. Approximately 65 percent of the grapes they grow are red and 35 percent white, creating primarily single-variety dry reds and dry whites. Among the wines produced are Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Malbec, Viognier and Lacrime Divino.
Manning sees a great future ahead for the region: “What I really like about the Arizona wine industry is we’re all small producers, and I think we’re going to stay that way for a long time, or at least for the foreseeable future. You have a bunch of different styles, you’re seeing interesting handcrafted, small-batch wines and variety from year to year—unique wines from unique people.”
From Skyscraper to Cellar
Like Manning, Ann Roncone of Lightning Ridge Cellars began making wine at home. “I was kind of a garage winemaker,” she says. Her day job was as a mechanical engineer in San Francisco, but in her spare time, she took courses from UC Davis and would spend her vacations working as a “cellar rat,” as she puts it, at Bay Area wineries, learning as much as she could. Eventually, she decided to trade in her high heels and pearls for a sweatshirt and overalls and purchase a vineyard. But land in California was too expensive. Roncone’s husband had done his grad work at the University of Arizona, so he knew Tucson. When they learned that the area was a recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area), they decided to establish their business here and purchased 20 acres of what had been grazing land.
That was in 2004. They spent the first five years creating the infrastructure and opened in 2009. Roncone decided to specialize in Italian varietals because of her background and because no one else in the area was growing these at the time. Today, Lightning Ridge estate wines include Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat Canelli and their flagship wine, Montepulciano, a varietal from Tuscany grown in very few places in the United States.
Does Roncone miss her previous life in the corporate world? Looking out over the winery’s bocce ball court to the vineyards beyond, the answer is clearly no, although “I do occasionally wear my pearls when I’m working outside,” she says with a laugh.
A New Venture Takes Off
Mark Beres of Flying Leap Vineyards & Distillery grew up in the wine-growing region of Walla Walla, Washington, and was involved in grape farming in his youth, but life took him in another direction. After a career as a military pilot and an engineer, he returned to his wine-growing roots. With his lifelong friends Marc Moeller and Tom Kitchens, whom he met when they were all students at the Air Force Academy, he began producing wine in 2013. “We all moved down here and got Flying Leap soaring like the space shuttle,” he says with pride.
The venture has taken off in a big way, with Flying Leap receiving kudos such as the "Best in Arizona" and silver medal from the Arizona Wine Growers Association for its 2014 Estate Tempranillo and a gold medal for its 2014 Mourvèdre. Their 2013 Petit Verdot, which Beres calls “the grand champion of Flying Leap,” was a Sunset magazine silver medalist.
Perhaps expressing the daring nature it takes to be a combat pilot, Beres likes to push the boundaries of winemaking to create wines that distinctively promote the flavors of the region. For example, the Habañero Infused Chili Wine is made up primarily of Grenache blended with Graziano and Petit Verdot then infused with real habañero chilies. Beres explains, “We wanted a wine that stood out, but was also universally appealing; so it isn’t too hot, but you can still taste the chilies.”
Beres has no qualms about such experimentation. “I’ve already had customers telling us we’ll destroy our brand by infusing our wine. I reply that we made 90 cases of this and sold it all out in three weeks.” He is following the same experimentation at Flying Leap’s next-door distillery, where he infuses vodka with lavender grown outside the tasting room.
The Sky’s the Limit
Kim and Phil Asmundson of Deep Sky Vineyard had no intention of getting into the wine business when they traveled to Argentina to celebrate Phil’s 50th birthday in 2009. At the hotel where they were staying was a wine-tasting room with Malbecs from a Mendoza winery. The couple began talking with the owners, learned that the vineyards were for sale and went out to inspect the property. The next thing they knew, they were the proud owners of a winery. As Kim tells it with a laugh, “We drank way too much wine and ended up buying a vineyard.”
While Kim and Phil may never have operated a vineyard before, they weren’t exactly wine novices. Phil grew up drinking some of the best wines in the world. His father was the chief investment officer for the Rothschilds, so Château Lafite and Château Latour were the house wines.
With the success of their Argentine venture, the Asmundsons looked closer to home and noticed the many similarities between the Mendoza region and the area south of Tucson and realized they could grow Malbec here, too. They purchased 20 acres and had their first harvest in 2013; their tasting room opened in November 2017. In addition to Malbec, Deep Sky offers several other wines, including Gravity 2013, a blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah.
The Asmundsons have embraced technology in the development of Deep Sky. Phil worked in technology for many years, and when he saw Kim digging a hole and squeezing the dirt to see what the moisture content was at 2 feet down, he knew there had to be a better way. So they partnered with a Colorado software company called n.io, which has a platform that uses artificial intelligence gathered from sensors planted throughout the vineyards to monitor the vines’ performance. “We like to say that our vines now talk to us,” says Kim. “We know when they’re drinking, we know when they’re thirsty or stressed.”
Like Deep Sky’s vines, the wines of Sonoita/Elgin are indeed talking, and the world is taking notice.