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!
Oh hey, it's raining again! That should be the theme of Harvest 2022: Rain, rain and more rain...July through October...rain! Our growers pivoted well though, and stayed on top of their farming regimes to mitigate rot and the other challenges related to monsoon season in Arizona.
We worked with Rhumbline Vineyard again out in Willcox. Todd and Michelle really embody the mindset of serious and thoughtful growers. We received Malvasia Bianca, Tempranillo, Graciano and Mourvèdre. Rhumbline does such a fantastic job of catering to the needs of us winemakers and I am super thankful for my relationship with them. I made the Malvasia into our second vintage of The Proper, a skin fermented white. It is currently aging in 132 gallon puncheons. The Tempranillo came in super pretty too. I am excited to work with this varietal, as I have yet to on my own with Vino Stache! Rich and velvety, this wine is going to be a fun addition to our line up. The Graciano and Mourvèdre came in with nice maturity and phenoic ripness. They are spending the next two years in new (25%) and neutral (75%) oak.
The Sonoita vineyards started coming online around the time the Willcox vineyards did, but are lingering on ripeness a bit due to the rain and cool nights. It is almost like the rain hit Willcox more heavily in the beginning of harvest and then Sonoita got more of the action later. We work with two hard-working growers in Sonoita, The Tangled Vine Vineyard and The Whitmill Vineyard. Tangled Vine produces Graciano, Aglianico, some field blends of Vranac, Malbec and Malvasia, along with a block of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Graciano will be the main grape in our award-winning "The Boss" wine. This pick was super fun! We worked with some dental students and a dentist from Tucson. I am playing with the Aglianico a little this year. It will either be a rosé or a sparkling base cuvee. The Cabernet will be featured again in our second vintage of The Prairie Lass Rosé.
The good folks at Whitmill Vineyard, Kat and George, have been hard at work harvesting fruit during these last weeks in October. As I am writing this they are picking Mourvèdre. I just bottled a single varietal wine from their 2020 Mourvèdre harvest and it is super pretty! This wine will be called The Paniolo, named after the cowboys of the Hawaiian Islands and our brilliant designer, Brian Woodard's label. This wine will be featured in our first wine club release and will be available exclusively to the loyal Vino Stachies (members of the Minus 90 Degrees Wine Club). Hopefully Montepulciano will be coming in next week and we can make Harvest 2022 a wrap. Each year is so different with the weather conditions, the fruit loads and the overall experience that is harvest. I am thankful my back and hip made it through another year and am appreciative of our growers and wine buying supporters. We are officially sold out of all our 2019 wines as of this week and I am super excited to share new wines and fun new labels with you!
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!
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.