Sit Down, Snobs: High-desert Wines are Here to Stay

By Sam Pillsbury

I’m standing in the wine section of Costco, signing bottles from Pillsbury Wine Company that I can promote but not pour.  A guy strides past me muttering, “Arizona wine? You must be joking!”

I’m used to this. I call them Scottsdale wine snobs. They are all older men, and they prefer to be called wine connoisseurs.

“Have you tried any?” I ask, not as politely as I could have.

“Yeah. I tried one,” he replies. “You guys are crazy. You think you can grow wine grapes in the desert…” Fortunately by now he was out of earshot, or my cozy relationship with Costco could have gone cold. This display of ignorance always amazes me.

Here are some simple facts: UC Davis, after years of genetic testing, established that most classical wine grapes originated in the deserts of the Middle East. They were brought to the green hills of France 1,000 years ago by the Greeks and Romans. Even there, take a close look at the soils: sandy or rocky. Wine grapes don’t like fertile soil. They produce canopy and no fruit.

In 2000, I planted 20 acres of Rhone varieties on a 40-acre piece of desert in the middle of nowhere in Cochise County. That year, David Letterman joked that one of the 10 best ways to lose money was to plant a vineyard in Arizona.

I remember thinking, “Yup! That’s exactly how I bought 40 acres for $400 an acre.”

Grapes like this dry, sandy soil. To get the optimum temperature profile in Arizona, you’ve got to go up high. Our three growing regions — Verde Valley, Sonoita and Cochise County — are in the area of 4,350 feet high. We get heaps more UV rays than almost any vineyards in the world, which thickens the grape skins, concentrates fragrance and flavor, softens the tannins, and makes more resveratrol and other antioxidants. High desert nights are cool — we average a 40-degree diurnal temperature swing. When it’s 100 degrees during the day, it’s 60 degrees at night. We easily ripen the grapes when it can be tough in France. We have endless sunshine and cool nights which slow down the ripening of the grapes and keep the acids up, which is great for food wines. Ultra-low humidity helps concentrate the juice.

We irrigate our vines from our own wells, the purest water from the Chiricahua Mountains filtered through thousands of feet of limestone. This means we can control the concentration of the juice and the stress to the vines.

Organic growing is made easier as well. The desert soil is almost devoid of common soil pathogens. The low humidity means little incidence of rot, so there is little need for chemical sprays or fertilizers. There are also plenty of wonderful organic sprays for rot, and plenty of organic fertilizers.What we have learned in farming is that healthy plants have their own inbuilt resistance to disease and predators, just like healthy people.

We now have 14,000 vines on 100 acres. We also just pulled 14 medals, including a double gold, three golds and seven silvers, from 14 entries in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the most prestigious wine competition in the country.

My friends in the area have done as well and even better. We have found some of the best vineyard land in the country by looking at essentials and avoiding cliché and perception. And we are making some of the best wines in the country, even the world. Imagine that — in our own backyard!

Take that, Mr. Scottsdale Wine Snob.

Sam Pillsbury is the founder and owner of Pillsbury Wine Company, located on 100 acres in Cochise County, 200 miles southeast of Phoenix.

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