Just some musings about this whole process from my (Brooke) persepctive. If you have any specific questions about our process into becoming Farm Winery owners in Arizona, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will write about it!
This year’s harvest brought a whole new list of challenges. Our number one fruit source the Caretto Vineyard was sold in May to a lovely family that is from Tucson. To Cameron and Ericka’s credit they jumped in enthusiastically. The growing season was wrought with a super intense monsoon season. One that saw us get north of 30 inches of rain in 30 days coupled with 2 mini hail events. The previous year’s hail events and early 2020 fall frost manifested in the vineyard by a loss of buds and specifically fruiting buds. The vines looked sickly and the fruit looked like shit. Thank god again for Willcox fruit sources. We got Malvasia, Grenache and Tannat again from the good folks at Rhumbline and Dos Cabezas sold us some super pretty Mourvedre and Sangiovese. I would say over all, I had 1/3 the fruit I was slated to get, but I was a little ok with that as the anxiety of selling the wine still needed to be figured out. The rain yielded vineyards with gnarly over growth on the vineyard floor. The grasses were feet high and our farmers were mowing and spraying regularly. It is especially important to keep the vineyard floor manicured as they can quickly become habitats for disease carrying insects. The humidity pressure was significant and rot on the fruit was present. We dropped a lot of fruit so I didn’t have problems with ferments in the cellar, but there were still some issues with ferments finishing. The hail that did hit was heavy enough to pierce the skins of the fruit, but didn’t shred the canopy like the year prior. The juice to skin ratio was low again as the berries dehydrated a bit as they ripened. The cabernet struggled to ripen again and stopped altogether at roughly 18 Brix, which was perfect for making a barrel fermented rose. This was not my plan initially, but I have struggled to get that block to ripen for 3 years now, and I think moving forward I will just dedicate that block to barrel fermented rose! I made an orange wine out of the Malvisia and am looking forward to adding a white and to the line up! Overall, 2021’s harvest was underwhelming in fruit volume and the weather, once again was something I had never seen before down in Southern Arizona!
I get asked often, "Isn't it too hot in Arizona to grow good wine grapes?" I know this may seem obvious but Phoenix is not the entire state of Arizona! Phoenix is actually in a valley and the state is covered in beautiful mountain ranges! We grow wine in Arizona between 3,500 and 5,500 feet in altitude. Those summer temperatures of the 115 don't come close to our vineyards. Sonoita for example, rarely kisses 100 degrees in the summer and in August and September the monsoons come in and cool everything down. Our problem can be late spring frosts, like we just had last week in Sonoita. Full on snow in mid-March was a reminder of that. Thankfully the buds were not pushed yet - because if they were, say good by to a nice full harvest. Grapevines are pretty resiliant though...think weeds. Each bud has a primary, secondary and tertiary buds. So if the primary bud is damaged the secondary or tertiary buds can push and create foliage. Unfortunately, those buds have little to no fruit! We also have problems with early fall frosts! So like I said heat is not our issue...COLD is our issue! Picking varietals that ripen late and quickly is important too because early spring frost can be a son of a gun too. The past 2 harvest in Sonoita, freezing temperatures were creeping in sooner than I wanted...especially in the Cabernet block at Caretto Vineyard. That damn fruit does not want to get over 22 Brixs, which is pretty low for Cab. Nevertheless the wines that fruit is making are fresh, fruit forward and light. Arizona cab is not Napa Cab, that is for sure. So as I think about what to plant, varietals that push out late and ripen quickly will be on the agenda!
Harvest 2020 was looking to be a bright and shiny ray of sunshine to the year that was 2020. Fruit set went well, a little windy during flowering, but the berries looked good in the vineyards and the canopies were green and lush and showed little signs of nutrient deficiencies or pest issues. We had just picked Cabernet Sauvignon for rose off the Johnson Family Vineyard about a mile from the winery. It was pressed and put in the cold room and I was heading home for the night to get the girls for the next week. They were going to be with me attempting online school, while being driven around in the back of my truck looking at vineyards, picking up fruit, harvest related tasks etc...So, as I was leaving to get my darlings, I noticed some pretty gnarly clouds building in the south over the Canello Hills. The storm looked fierce and I wanted to get on the road before I got slammed. I learned in my 1st few harvests in Jerome, if you are not on the road to get somewhere by 3 pm you get stuck for minutes, possibly hours. Flashfloods are REALLY scary. The monsoon storms are NOT to be taken lightly in Arizona Wine Country, whether up north or down south. Once on the road I started tracking the radar (probably one of my favorite things to do) and I saw over Sonoita the cloud formations were pink. Now if you know the radar colors they go from light green – light rain, dark green – good amount of rain, red – heavy rain, then they go to pink – which means extreme rain and possibly hail. HAIL is NO BUENO FOR GRAPES. Are you freaking kidding me?!? This was happening to our precious vineyards that were looking SO GOOD leading up to harvest! I started getting pictures texted to me from my grower friends of hail coming down. Little pea-sized bullets of ice coming down sideways. Lots of wind with the hail! Well let’s just put a cherry on top of this shit fudge sundae! Sometimes it hails for just a hot minute.
In the Sonoita Valley the monsoon storms move in micro bursts, where the sky opens up and dumps rain in one specific place and the rest of the valley stays dry. Or the microbursts move along a little line and then once the moisture is gone its done, we get a couple rainbows and its over. This storm moved like that but, in an almost perfect line with Winery Row where most of the vineyards are located. Hail is no joke. It not only pierces the skin of the berries, it also shreds the canopy. So it punctures the precious skin protecting the sugary juice and the also ruins the ripening mechanism of photosynthesizing in the leaves. By the time the storm was finished it was night fall. The damage was hidden under a dark night sky.
The next morning the 1st text I got was from my friend Kent Callaghan who said basically, the vineyard is shredded – I cannot sell you fruit this year. Then Todd and Kelly – their Pronghorn Vineyard right next to Kent’s was thrashed too. The storm came in from the east and blew up the berries and canopy on the east side. By this point I was almost back to Sonoita and I went directly to Caretto Vineyard (where I get the majority of our fruit), metal T posts were snaped in half, vines were laying sideways on the ground. It looked like an animal ripped off all the leaves on the east side of the rows chewed them up and spit them out. The rows between the vines were covered in green gnawed leaves. The carnage was absolutely real. Most of the fruit was not even CLOSE to being through verasion (when the berries turn from green to purple) we could possibly pick everything and make a ton of rose. But my winery isn’t exactly set up for rose, we are more of a red house. It’s my 2nd harvest and I have no idea what to do with the fruit. Do we let it hang and see if it ripens? Drop it and call harvest a bust? Pick it all right now and make a shit ton of rose? Ugggg…what do I do?!?
Kent picked and made a bunch of rose and sparkling wines. Todd and Kelly they dropped the fruit and called it, depending on their Willcox vineyards for their 2020 vintage. I decided to let it hang and see if we could get the remaining canopy and sun to ripen the blown-up fruit. Lower alcohol and higher acid wines are my jam so I took a leap of faith and just chilled for a couple of weeks. This is what I saw…the canopy shut down, turned brown and the leaves died, but they still provided a little bit of shade from the sun so the berries didn’t totally burn. Sugar accumulation in the berries came to a slow trickle. I thought they might get rotty and vinegary – but they more just dried out. The birds and bees came out like gang busters and went to TOWN on the fruit.
After a couple of weeks I just threw in the towel and we started to pick everything, the sugars and pHs were all over the map. The fruit was schizophrenic. The skin to juice ratio was super strange. Punchdowns were like pushing through a weird type of mud. Usually the cap is pretty firm until broken up and the juice underneath is, well, juicy. These ferments were like pushing through oatmeal. As to be expected yields were half to two thirds less than the year before, I think due to the loss of juice once the berries dried out. But also to the birds and the bees feeding on the fruit like it was Thanksgiving dinner day over day, didn’t help. The ferments flew. They all seemed to move super fast. I had to manipulate my innoculations to lower yeast populations so they went a little slower and I could get more color extraction. They weren’t stressed ferments, just hyper.
My Willcox fruit was much more calm and normal. I usually only get fruit from Rhumbline Vineyard, but 3 other vineyards reached out to little ole me and offered me fruit. One of my mentors simply told me to just go pick up a ton and we’d figure out cost later. Later he said I had to treat him to dinner one day. The winemaking community is tight. I don’t have a single bottle on the shelf yet, and yet people who have been in this industry a long time reached out to me to help. If they didn’t offer fruit the offered to take my call with questions I had. Harvest 2020 bonded us. I know I will return the favor one day. The Arizona winemaking family is special…we are a small group of people trying to make wine in an insanely bipolar environment. I like the challenge and the rush. Just less hail please.
Holy smokes, what did I get myself into? Year one of making wine on my own, this is what I was thinking. Construction was not finished, and by not finished, I mean there were no walls, no plumbing - except one hose bib, no power - except one outlet for my pressure washer and two outlets to run the air compressor and press. No lights, no toilets - except an outhouse, no furniture - except camping chairs, no refrigerator, no sink to wash my hands, no bed to sleep on - except an camping pad. Sonoita, where our winery is located, is in the middle of nowhere. The population is between 800-900 people, there is a corner store, a Dollar General, a gas station and 3 restaurants. Both Sierra Vista and Tucson are roughly 45 minutes away in opposite directions. I was essentially camping for 6 weeks. I was in a primal space, bathing in picking bins, peeing in a bucket in the middle of the night camping if you will and making wine.
I think I did 20 Tons of fruit that harvest, by myself. Shoveling it all into the destemmer and into the press. 2 times I called my husband crying. What had I got myself into? I was hungry, tired, but I was making wine in MY WINERY! It was a mixed bag for sure. Then we got hit with a freaking hurricane. 2 days straight of rain. I think 5-7 inches. I will never forget those days. I couldn't go anywhere due to flooding, then water started sheeting off the hill and coming into the winery. I was bucketing water away from the foundation for probably 4 hours. A fissure opened up in the ground north of the winery and water just started funneling underground. It was one of the weirdest things I have seen! We still had 5 tons of fruit hanging on the vine I thought for SURE was going to be a rotten, vinegar-smelling mess. But the rain was cool and the fruit dried out. Kent Callaghan, my mentor said it was probably because the rain was cold, the fruit didn't rot. Warm rain would have equaled rotten berries.
Anyway, back to my mental state. Even though, I had gone to school, worked with great winemakers and put in my time in the cellar to learn, I felt VERY under prepared mentally and was constantly doubting every decision I made. It's scary when it is just you making the decisions! I am finished with my 2nd harvest now and getting ready to bottle that 2019 vintage and I still feel just fraudulent, but I will say with each process I refine and each detail unknown that becomes known I am getting more confident in my ability to do all this on my own. More to come on this topic...
If there is one thing that was ingrained in me as an athlete, was to be on time, do what you say you are going to do, work hard every day, be accountable and responsible, and if you show up and do the work you get better. Get your reps in. Team sports rely on working as a cohesive unit and being good teammates, means lifting people up when they are struggling (on and off the court) and putting the team before the individual.
This really helped me in the game of life. I like being a good teammate, it gives me self-esteem. I did all my practicum hours at 4-8 Wineworks, in Camp Verde. When harvest intern roles were needed they asked me to come in and help. I quite simply showed up and worked to my best ability. That was rewarded with 3 years of harvest work for the 4-8/Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars brands with a group of people who taught me so much in the cellar. I would not be where I am without their patience. Then one day Kent Callaghan was looking for a harvest intern and asked if I could suggest anyone. I said ME, of course! Sonoita harvest is a good month behind the Willcox and the Verde Valley, which meant essentially working 2 harvests back-to-back. To say it kicked my ass is an understatement. I had to dig very deep to get through those 12 weeks. I was so thankful for the opportunities to work with the Merkin and Caduceus crew and then go down and work with Kent and Lisa Callaghan. These are my people, my tribe. I would show up for any of them.
After that 2018 harvest, Kent gave me the confidence to make wine. He said, "You're ready." The opportunity with Kent parlayed into working with a vineyard owners by the name of Mark Caretto, Kat & George Whitmill in Sonoita and Todd and Michelle Meyer out in Willcox the following year. Kent introduced me to his friends and fellow growers and split his share of fruit with me. By that time we had bought 54 acres in Sonoita and started building a 40 x 60 metal building on it. I thought we would plant the following year and the building would house the tractor and our heads in beds on the weekends while we were down working. Turned out that building was going to become a boutique commercial winery and the future home of Vino Bandito de Sonoita.
Let me paint the two people who will read this blog post with a picture. The year is 2014. I have a 2 year old, 3 year old, 10 year old and 14 year old. I am a VP of Marketing at a mobile payment processing company that also has a couponing app. I have been working in technology since 2005 as a New Media Director for a renewable energy company, in marketing for an Digital Ad Agency, I was a Marketing Director at an internet radio company etc...you get the jist. Prior to that I was an volleyball player at Saint Mary's College of California (Go Gaels!) where my degree was in Maritime Archaeology (yes that is a real thing) where I spent my summers diving on ship wrecks in the Caribbean and Bermuda. I thought I would get my masters in Archaeology and live the life of academia, but I had the opportunity to continue playing volleyball and moved to Spain to pursue that dream.
Once my body had had enough, chronic stress fractures and hernias being the culprits, I came home and just really needed to work. Ape and Greg (my parents) said "Um no, we aren't going to pay for graduate school. Get a job." So I settled down and started working. Marketing & technology is where I fell. At first, I was all about being a working professional, but life at a computer is just simply not for me. All this back story is to show, I don't sit well, especially for hours and hours a day. It's not in my genetic makeup. I move.
So fast forward to 2014. I'm working 60 hours a week, I have nannies raising my kids (who were/are wonderful and I love so much) and I hated my life. One Sunday afternoon, my 2 year old was on my lap and reared up and popped me in the eye with the back of her head. I knew it was going to be bad...it was really GNARLY pretty quickly. I thought I broke my ocular bone. It hurt and it hurt and kept on hurting, for days. It just didn't seem like it was getting better. So I went to Urgent Care and the NP took one look at me and the odd rash that was forming on my head, cheek and neck and said I had shingles. Son of a b*%$#! I couldn't lay on that side of my head or brush my hair for MONTHS. That's what broke me. I quit my job. Told my husband I wanted to do something totally different.
We have a painting of a vineyard on our wall in our bedroom I look at every night and morning. It's a farmhouse on a hill with the beautiful rows of vines in the foreground. I looks like it's in Italy or Croatia, somewhere around the Adriatic. I brings me peace to stare at it. Plus we had always wanted to buy some acreage and live on a farm. Maybe I could take some classes on viticulture and we would move to Oregon or Washington and have a little vineyard and farm. So I started researching programs and learned we grow wine in Arizona! I took some classes online with UC Davis, but it wasn't hands-on enough for me, but the Arizona specific program was a 2 hour drive north in Clarkdale, AZ. After looking at the program I realized I could do all my classes on one day of the week along with my practicum hours. So that's what I did. Packed all my classes into one day/night and volunteered in vineyards & wineries around the Verde Valley in my off hours. It took me 3 years to graduate a 2 year program, but I graduated Magna Cum Laude. My mom said I needed to study wine in order to get grades like that. Ha! So when I think about where I am today, I blame shingles. Shingles broke me, made me reevaluate who I am, what I like to do, and forced me to make a hard left turn, when I could have stayed on a more "normal" road.