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Ducks in the Desert: Arizona Wines


PHOENIX, Ariz. — Picture Arizona. The desert climate, rocky terrain and Saguaro cacti likely come to mind. But vineyards? Probably not.

“In 2000 when I planted by vineyard, one of the jokes on Saturday Night Live was one of the 10 Best Ways to Lose Money was to plant a vineyard in Arizona,” recalled Sam Pillsbury, owner of Pillsbury Wine. “I’m not kidding. That was one of the jokes.”

In the more than 12 years since, Pillsbury and other Arizona winemakers have worked to prove the critics wrong.

“We initially had a hell of a job getting people to take us seriously,” said Pillsbury, referencing skeptics from Napa and his homeland of New Zealand when he said: “Twenty years ago, people thought you were crazy. So let’s just open our minds up a little bit.”

Robert Carlson, owner of Carlson Creek Vineyards, said his mind was opened by a former Oregon winemaker who decided to start fresh in Arizona.

“He says, ‘Robert, this is exactly how it started for us. Just a bunch of people no one took seriously in a barn,” remembered Carlson. Oregon’s wine industry has come a long way; it’s a trajectory Arizona winemakers are working to follow. They’re starting by getting the word out about their product by having local restaurants, like Beckett’s Table in Scottsdale, carry it. The restaurant’s owner touts what is one of the best wine lists in the Valley of the Sun; it includes 10 wines from seven different vineyards.

“We actually get a lot of support from from the state,” Carlson said. “People are really interested in it because of the ‘Eat Local, Drink Local’ scene.”

Perception is just one of the challenges facing winemakers in the Grand Canyon State; they also have to contend with the climate.

“We don’t grow in where people think of Arizona,” explained Carlson. “We don’t grow down amongst cacti and stuff. We’re at higher altitudes.”

That can mean chilly overnight temperatures, but there’s a definite upside to growing in the high desert.

“I know it sounds like a hopeless pitch for the area, but everything does well here,” said Pillsbury. “It’s ridiculous.”

The feedback backs him up, though. The wines are selling — especially Pillsbury’s Roan Red.

“It’s delicate and highly aromatic and complex. I just love it. It’s my favorite and it does very well,” he said.

Another sign things are improving? The industry accolades are starting to roll in.

“We’ve won our awards for our syrah, our blend,” said Carlson. “People really like our chenin blanc and our chardonnay.”

You can find Arizona wines in high-end supermarkets and restaurants in the Phoenix area or by visiting their tasting rooms. For more information, click here.

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  1. Patrick Smith says:

    It may seem odd to many but Arizona is a tremendously varied climatic area, from high altitude plateaus to hot desert lowlands. There are a number of micro-climatic areas that could be very favorable to wine making. Pillsbury is in one of these. It’s been producing some very creditable wines and certainly deserves notice. Several other Arizona vineyards and wineries have also been producing some really notable product. Of these Keeling-Schaefer is the first that springs to my mind, with some very good Syrahs especially. I’ve personally compared these side-by-side to some of the best known Australian Syrahs and found Keeling-Schaefer every bit as good, and even better in some cases. Due to the limited size of these ‘micro-climates’ it’s unlikely any huge scaled production will ever develop, and these wines will likely always remain a boutique, personal type product with a focus almost exclusively on quality. Productions will probably never exceed hundreds, or dozens of cases. So aficionados might consider ‘clubbing’ up now, as it’s likely the bulk of the best productions will wind up being ‘spoken for’ by today’s ‘early adopters’. Given the quality of the product at this early stage, it might not be a bad bet.

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