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.