“What are we doing out here in the middle of the desert!?” -Dr. Gonzo
The desert of southeastern Arizona is no joke. High elevation, dizzying temperature variations, and feast-or-famine rainfall patterns make for an impossibly harsh venue for growing anything but cactus. But in the hamlet of Elgin, AZ, south of Tucson, there’s a guy who has been growing grapes and making wine in this unforgiving climate for nearly 30 years. We recently caught up with Kent Callaghan and talked to him about what, indeed, he is doing out here in the desert.
A third-generation Arizonian, Kent has deep roots in the area. His arrival in the Sonoita region coincided with the first planting of commercial grapevines in Arizona in 1979, by Dr. Gordon Dutt. Dutt and his colleagues had been involved in site research and experimental grape planting in Arizona since the early ’70s, and had determined that the Sonoita region would be ideal for commercial wine production. The Callaghan family, eager to develop a sense of place and an identity for Arizona wine, planted their own vines there in 1990, and Kent has been tirelessly working the vineyards and cellars ever since.
A Rocky Start
The hard lessons of Arizona winemaking presented themselves right from the start, with a record heat wave wiping out thousands of the newly-planted vines. Instead of accepting defeat, the Callaghans replanted with hardier vines, more suited to the climate. Kent continuously experiments with varieties, rootstocks, yield management, and a host of other vineyard details. His persistent work has rendered a wealth of knowledge for Arizona winemakers, laying a solid foundation for the state’s burgeoning industry. Kent co-founded the Arizona Vignerons Alliance, an organization of Arizona winemakers dedicated to preserving and promoting the quality and unique identity of Arizona wine. The Alliance works to ensure the consistency and provenance of wines produced in Arizona.
According to Kent, the ultimate goal of the vintner is to “make distinctive wines from our plot of ground.” This starts, of course, with the plot of ground; “Site selection is critical,” Kent says. The Buena Suerte vineyard’s sparse, calcium-rich soils are similar to those in the interior of the Iberian Peninsula, producing low yields and naturally intense, tannic wines. Extensive experimentation with every detail of vineyard practices, from row orientation to irrigation management ensures that whatever the soil has to say makes it into the bottle with minimal losses in translation. Kent’s approach to winemaking has always focused on what happens in the vineyard, and his 27 years of farming in Elgin have given him an intimate knowledge of his vineyard site, and what it takes to bottle the essence of his terroir.
Variety: Viognier, Malvasia, Riesling, Marsanne, Clairette, Petit Manseng, Fiano, Vermentino, Falanghina, Coda di Volpe
Vineyard: Buena Suerte. Calcium-rich Caliche, Gravelly Loam
Analysis: Alcohol: 13.5%, Acid: 6.2 g/L, Dry
Weather is the big unknown in winemaking, and especially so in Arizona. While the region’s signature wide diurnal temperature swings and late-season monsoons are more or less dependable, threats of early frost, hail, smoke taint from wildfires, and the aforementioned heat waves are constant sources of concern. The growing season is often an uncertain time, and sometimes Kent won’t know if a vintage is good until late October, when most of the harvest is in. To cope with the uncertainties of the Arizona climate, he has learned to adjust his vinification practices to compensate for the unexpected, employing hand selection at harvest, and tailoring skin contact times to suit the variations in each vintage’s harvest.
Hardy, thick-skinned Spanish and Mediterranean varieties such as Mourvedre, Grenache, and Tempranillo are particularly suited to Arizona’s high desert, not surprising, considering it’s similarities to the grapes’ Iberian homeland. But in keeping with his innovative spirit, Kent is constantly on the lookout for new varieties, such as the new Xarello he’s grafted into his white block this year. His extensive travels have given him a truly global perspective on wine, and it’s surprisingly simple: “There is no rocket science here. The basics are essential: Varieties adapted to site, managed yields, and a farmer who gives a $#!* about quality.” This simplicity, also reflected in his “decidedly low-tech” cellar, speaks to his expertise as a master vintner. Kent Callaghan has found a harmony and balance in Arizona, between the soil, the vines, and the climate, and his craft puts that undiluted magic right into the bottle.
The Arizona wine scene is blowing up, to use the parlance of our times, garnering awards, articles, and praise from wine professionals everywhere. An influx of exceptionally talented, wine-loving vintners has led to enormous gains in innovation, quality, and national recognition. Most of all, there is a sense of camaraderie, of community, among Arizona winemakers, a feeling that they’re all in it together. These winemakers get together, not just as colleagues, but as friends, to taste and discuss their love of wine. Kent Callaghan is a kind of patriarch to these men and women, although his humble demeanor would never let him admit it. Asked about his role as Arizona’s wine pioneer, he simply said, “We are a small, quality-oriented operation that tries to produce wines that reflect our region and site. I give advice when asked for it. Hopefully good advice.”