Nowadays, the rolling grasslands of Sonoita and Elgin are better known for wineries than big cattle ranches. But apparently, grapes aren't destined to be the only gold in them thar hills.
Shannon Austin Zouzoulas and Megan Austin Haller -- two 30-something sisters who just opened AZ Hops & Vines (their self-described "cheeky little winery" in Sonoita) in March of this year -- have also harvested their first crop of hops this week, the first hops commercially grown in the state of Arizona.
These chicks don't fool around.
They started out with grapes two years ago, planting six acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre, Grenache and Graciano. Because their grapes are still young (most wineries wait three years to harvest them for wine-making), they are currently offering six wines they've made using grapes sourced from other Arizona and California vineyards (including Stag's Leap for their big bad Imbibe).
Cheeky though they may be, these savvy sisters didn't go at this venture blindly. Haller, who came to Arizona 10 years ago, spent the last five years working at local wineries -- in various vineyards and tasting rooms alike. She's also currently studying to become a certified sommelier.
It hasn't hurt any that Kent Callaghan, a pioneer in Arizona winemaking, has helped the pair along the way, working alongside them as they've made their first wines called Milagros, Summer, First Crush, Zinnerpeace, Imbibe and The Fluffer (better Google that last one).
Because there are just as many beer buffs as wine wonks out there, the girls thought it might not be a bad idea to plant an acre of hops, just to see how that would fly. They received so much interest from home brewers and local breweries all over the state (including Four Peaks), they've already decided they'll double -- or even triple -- their hops planting next year.
This year, they grew six varieties: Cascade, Brewer's Gold, Mt. Hood, Willamette, Chinook and Nugget. And they were shocked and delighted to find that their vines were already producing. Haller views the hops as a cash crop.
AZ Hops & Vines just hosted their first vineyard dinner last Saturday, bringing in Chef Allison Embacher of Wilko (a gastropub/wine bar in Tucson) to prepare six courses that would pair nicely with the vineyard's six wines.
The meal was lovely, the pairings were spot on, and the setting -- overlooking vineyards, grasslands, sunset and distant storm clouds -- was flat out spectacular. Callaghan was on hand to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
In fact, he's been taking cues from these clever women, who have a knack for marketing, building community and creating fun, off-the-cuff events. A recent one called Bad Decisions Night involved crazy pairings with wine, beer, bacon, cheese and chocolate.
If you're interested in sampling wine, joining their beer club, attending their Oktoberfest or other future events, check out their website at azhopsandvines.com or find them on Facebook under the same name.
Trust me, you're going to want to get to know AZ Hops & Vines for a whole lot of reasons.