Sam Pillsbury Answers the Question: Why Arizona Wine?

Arizona wine country.
Arizona wine country.
courtesy of Sam Pillsbury

Why Arizona wine?

In 2000 -- the year I planted my first vineyard at the end of a lonely, dusty road in Cochise County, 12 miles south of Willcox -- one of the 10 Best 'How to Lose Money' jokes on Saturday Night Live was: Plant a Vineyard In Arizona.

Arizona is all Sonoran Desert, obviously suicidal....

See also: Sam Pillsbury Spills on the Reason He Landed in Arizona, and Launches a Wine Column for Chow Bella

Well, half of Arizona is mountain, the Grand Canyon is closed in the winter because of snow. And wine grapes love the desert.

UC Davis DNA research has established that most of our classical grape varieties originated in the desert of SE Anatolia, in Turkey.

Plant grape vines in fertile soil and they produce canopy and little fruit. We like to fool them that they are about to expire, so they send forth seed.

I remember being feted at lunch at the luxurious Montecito residence of a composer I worked with, Peter Rogers Melnick, grandson of the famous Rogers, of Rogers and Hammerstein, son of legendary film producer Dan Melnick. This was Hollywood Royalty. An expensively coiffed guest sleekly dressed in white satin swept up the stairs from her white Volvo convertible, all lashes and silicone, to sit and be introduced to a glass of my Pinot Gris by our host. 'Oh' she exclaimed brightly, 'From Santa Barbara?'

'No' I replied, 'Arizona.'

Her peals of laughter echoed down the Live Oak-canopied streets, and all I could think to myself was 'Laugh on. That's how I managed to buy a shit load of the best winegrowing land in the United States for 400 bucks an acre.'

Now it's $5000 and climbing.

Grapes like this dry, sandy soil. And to get the optimum temperature profile in Arizona, you've got to go up high: Our three winegrowing regions: Verde Valley, Sonoita, Cochise our vineyard we're at 4300 feet. So guess what? We all get heaps more UV than almost any vineyards in the world...concentrates fragrance and flavor, way more of Resveratrol and other anti-oxidants. And High Desert nights are cool...we have an average 40 degree diurnal temperature swing. 100 during the day, it's 60 at night. We have no problem ripening the grapes like they often do in France...In Arizona we have endless sunshine. But with the cool nights the average temperature is not nights slow down the ripening of the grapes and help keep the acids up, great for food wines. Ultra low humidity helps concentrate the juice.

We all have to irrigate...each or our vines has 2x1 gallon/hour emitters, fed from our own wells, the purest water from the Chiracahua Mountains filtered through thousands of feet of limestone. So we can control the concentration of the juice and stress the vines when we want to.

And the labor is plentiful, willing and able.

Downside?   None of these places is near a major city. Camp Verde is 100 miles from Phoenix. Willcox where we are is 200 miles. Sonoita is a little closer. I clock 35,000 miles each year.

And one thing...the Monsoon...the one time you don't want rain is at harvest, monsoon season.

We kind of have this one licked. Around ripening we use organic sprays for rot and mold. The soil is sandy loam and drains almost instantly. We trellis with wide rows and prune the clusters with space around them so we get good air flow around the fruit. And the monsoon rains aren't can be picking in the sun while across the road there's a tempest under a battleship-shaped thundercloud. And the last 3 years there's barely been a monsoon.

Sure, there's devastation...a bad frost can wipe out a whole vineyard of young buds. Just happened to some neighbors this Spring. We light fires. Some of our neighbors have huge fans, like windmills, but they don't always work, and they are expensive. A hail-storm can wipe out your vines, and has done so. We lost 1700 baby vines three years ago during a super-cold snap in January. But that's farming.

Here's the best part...these conditions make brilliant wines. Our whites are viscous, with bright fruit, aromatic, crisp. Our reds grippingly clean, fragrant, layered, and complex.

And as Chris Bianco says, 'You can taste the struggle.'

Arizona Wine Country. Our Secret Weapon.

Sam Pillsbury has made dozens of documentaries, TV series and feature films in New Zealand and Hollywood as writer, director and producer, and now grows grapes and makes 100 percent Arizona wines in Arizona. He lives in Phoenix. You can get more information about his wines and tasting room at

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