Unexpected location, satisfying results

Though most people might not think that an area an hour south of Tucson, Ariz., could produce good wine grapes, Kent Callaghan knows it can. Most growers say it starts with the grapes, but Callaghan says, “That is just the start.”

Arizona vineyard history

The first Arizona experimental vineyard was started in 1973 by Dr. Gordon Dutt and Blake Brophy. In 1979, Dutt decided to plant Arizona’s first commercial vineyard and in 1983 opened a winery. The 25-acre Sonoita Vineyards is still in operation today just outside Elgin.

Petit Verdot grapes await the rains of a morning storm heading to Callaghan Vineyards. This is just one of the 20 to 25 varieties grown at this Southeast Arizona vineyard.

Harold Callaghan made wine at home for a few years before deciding he wanted to make it a business. He was familiar with Dutt’s experiments and successes and decided to look for some land in that same area. In 1988 he purchased some land. Then, in the spring of 1990, Harold, his wife, Karen, and son, Kent, formed a family partnership and planted the first 17 acres of Callaghan Vineyards. They produced their first vintage of 300 cases of wine in 1991. Kent started buying out his parents in 1996 and is now the sole owner, as well as chief viticulturist, winemaker and vintner.

Kent Callaghan – viticulturist

Callaghan says the soil in the Sonoita-Elgin area is a sandy, gravelly clay loam. It is an iron-rich red soil that is also high in bicarbonates. It is low in nitrogen, zinc and phosphorus. Callaghan states, “It is very similar to some of the best grape growing soils of Spain.” The water in the area is also high in bicarbonates. Phosphoric acid is injected into the irrigation water to counter the bicarbonates and increase the phosphorus. Magnesium sulfate and zinc sulfate are applied as foliar sprays. He used to apply a fair amount of nitrogen, but doesn’t anymore. He found it produced too much vine and leaf growth and didn’t help the fruit. He started tissue testing and determined that enough nitrogen was present in the rain so additional applications aren’t necessary.

Callaghan frequently grafts new varieties on old vines as part of his continuing effort to grow varieties better suited to the area. Here is a Graciano grape grafted on a zinfandel. He switched his zinfandel plot to Graciano in 2009.

Callaghan notes that he usually doesn’t have many insect or disease problems. Four or five applications per year that include sulfur help keep many pests under control. Powdery mildew is an occasional problem. As far as insects, leaf skeletonizers are the top concern, followed by horn worms.

Excessive rainfall is the biggest weather-related problem. Too much rain at one time can cause rot problems and affect both the fruit and the vines. During dry periods the grapes are irrigated.

Hail can also be an issue. Callaghan only experienced hail once in the vineyard’s first 15 years, but there have been significant hail- storms seven out of the last eight years.

Because of the altitude – the vineyards are at about 4,800 feet above sea level – cold temperatures can be an issue, with spring frosts having the greatest potential to cause damage. Callaghan Vineyards experienced early May frosts in both 2010 and 2011.

About half of the original 17 acres remain in production with the original vines. Over the years, other varieties have been tried and an additional 8 acres were added for a total of 25 acres in production. Some varieties died out, others didn’t produce the quality of grapes desired, and some varieties were chosen because they were more suited to the local conditions. Callaghan says, “One example of needed change in varieties happened with Syrah grapes. I planted an acre and a half in 2001. Everyone in the area started having problems with Syrah decline and I took out the last of the Syrah in the winter of 2010.” He is now moving to more Graciano, a Spanish blending grape. He also likes the Petit Verdot from Bordeaux. For a white grape, Callaghan likes Malvasia Bianca. He says, “It is a very fragrant Mediterranean grape and probably the best Arizona white.” Overall, Callaghan grows 20 to 25 grape varieties.

This Graciano grape is showing the effects of a phosphorus deficiency. Phosphoric acid is regularly injected through the irrigation lines to counteract this.

There is a full-time person that helps in the vineyard and a part-time person in the tasting room. Callaghan hires up to six people to assist with the harvest. Early on he tried using volunteers that wanted to help with the harvest, but decided he’d rather pay the harvesters a fair wage. “I have more assurance they will get the job done and maintain the needed quality,” he explains. The harvest season starts the last week of August and goes into the middle of October.

Callaghan’s daughters, ages 15 and 17, have taken a real interest in the operation and help with harvesting and bottling.

Kent Callaghan – winemaker

When asked why he grows so many different varieties, Callaghan states, “It makes life much more interesting.” He bottles only blended wines. Because there are so many variables that determine the taste from each grape crop, he wants more variety to choose from. He says, “I can make much more interesting wine when I have more choices. If I was trying to maximize revenue, I’d do things differently. While I need to make a profit, my main concern is quality and interesting wines. I got into the business to make interesting wines.”

Besides growing the grapes and making the wine, Kent Callaghan can be found on the weekend in the tasting room. He is shown here with an unidentified taster (left).

Each year Callaghan produces one white and three or four red blends. He used to ferment the individual varieties and then make his blends. He started cofermenting certain varieties and this year will probably coferment 50 percent of his wine. He says, “My blends are determined by the vintage and the feel.”

Kent Callaghan – vintner

The wine merchant side of Callaghan came out early in the business. He sent some of his wine to wine critic Robert Parker, “The Wine Advocate,” and it got excellent reviews. His wines have received many other accolades since, and on three different occasions were chosen to be served in the White House.

The days start early at Callaghan Vineyards, but a view such as this adds to the enjoyment of viticulturists.

Ninety percent of his wine is sold on-site at the tasting room. The other 10 percent is sold through a distributor to Arizona restaurants and retail stores. The tasting room is open Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., year-round. The tasting room is about an hour south of Tucson. There were only three vineyards in that area seven years ago, and now there are 12. Callaghan says that is good for business. People don’t mind driving as far when they have more vineyards to visit.

Callaghan says he gets some business from the vineyard’s website (www.callaghanvineyards.com), but he notes, “I only update it about once or twice a year. My biggest draw is reputation. I rely a lot on word-of-mouth.”

Arizona and Callaghan wines – the future

Callaghan believes the future of Arizona wines is very good. Even with the economy in its present condition, there is room for some more vineyards in the Sonoita-Elgin area. Callaghan says, “When the economy gets back on track, we are not even close to saturation.” The industry is making inroads with the restaurants in Tucson and Phoenix. He says, “There is a lot more to be done, but progress is being made. While at the start there was rightful concern about availability and consistent quality, the local growers and winemakers have proven they can more than meet demand.”

A freshly disked vineyard is ready to produce a bumper crop of grapes that will be blended with other grapes from Callaghan Vineyards to make another interesting wine.

Callaghan advises those considering getting into the business to do their homework. He says, “Learn what works and what doesn’t. Don’t waste time on varieties that have proven to be inferior to others for the region. Start small and don’t overplant to begin with. Maximize the resources you have by talking with existing growers.”

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.