Family works together to start a vineyard

Robert Carlson, left, and his brother John pour a sample of the 2009 vintage wine in the new tasting room in Willcox, Ariz.
Photos by Steve Trusty.

Bob Carlson spent his summers on the family farm and ranch operations in central Nebraska. Like many, he dreamed he’d follow in the family business and become a farmer himself. After a career in the Marine Corps, an interest in law took over and he attended Western State College of Law and became a successful lawyer. As his practice grew, so did his interest in wine and winemaking. With the help of his family, he started Carlson Creek Vineyards in the fertile fields of southeastern Arizona.

His two sons grew up around orchards and vineyards in San Diego, and both had a keen interest in plants, wine and winemaking, and committed themselves to learning the trade. Robert is in charge of sales and overseeing the growing. He and his brother John are currently taking viticulture classes from the University of California-Davis. John has plans to work in the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, and Australia in the off-season, and is studying for certification for winemaking. He is also in charge of their newly opened tasting room. They have spent a considerable amount of time talking with, and studying the practices of, many growers and vintners around the country, and especially in Arizona, and a couple of trips to France have added to the store of knowledge.

Starting the business

The Carlson family formed an LLC in 2008 to start the business. Their plan was to purchase an established vineyard, but none available fit what their studies had determined would be the ideal operation, or their budget. They decided to start from scratch and found what they were looking for in what is known as the Kansas Settlement area in Cochise County, just outside Willcox, Ariz. There were two adjacent 80-acre parcels available. They purchased one and have the option to purchase the other 80 acres when the time is right for growth.

The ground, on the Willcox Bench, has a well-draining, sandy-loam soil. It had not been worked for many years and it sat on top of a large aquifer. The Willcox Bench is a slight rise of land about 4,200 feet above sea level. With irrigation, they can take advantage of the warm Arizona sun and the cool evenings to grow excellent wine grapes. Because the growing conditions are very similar to the Rhone Valley in southern France, the Carlsons are concentrating on Rhone varietals.

The first steps to creating the vineyards were clearing the land, fencing it and digging a well. They spent a considerable amount of time clearing the land of many years of mesquite growth and other plants. They then used a Caterpillar tractor with a grapple that ripped up the ground to a depth of 6 feet. They tested the soil and found that gypsum at 2 tons per acre would provide better growing conditions, so the gypsum was spread and disked in on 40 of the 80 acres. They decided to set up that whole 40 acres for drip irrigation as well. They installed the pipe and risers and dug a 500-foot well to assure plenty of water.

Because deer can be a big pest, the Carlson’s erected a 10-foot-high deer-proof fence around the 40-acre plot. They plan to develop the next 40 acres in the same way when they are ready for expansion. To protect the vines and fruit from rodents, they have erected five owl houses around the perimeter of the vineyard.

Growing the grapes

The Carlsons are planting in 3.3-acre blocks. In the spring of 2009, they planted one block of Syrah along with a half-block of Riesling and a half-block of Sauvignon Blanc. They planted 500 vines per acre, or 1,650 vines per block. Cardboard shelters were placed around each vine to protect the base and to encourage them to stretch. They obtained most of their plants from certified disease-free stock in California, and they plan to do some of their own grafting in the future.

The Carlsons were pleased with the amount of growth the vines showed the first season. Robert said their biggest surprise was how well the plants survived. “We were told we should be happy with a 95 percent take and we had at least 98 percent of the plants become established,” he said.

To encourage better root development, the plants set in last year were trimmed back to two buds this spring. The trellises were put in place this past winter so that this year they can start training the growth as the vines grow up out of the shelters. They expect to harvest a half-crop from these blocks in 2011.

This spring, another three blocks of vines were planted, including Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Sangiovese varieties. They now have about 16 acres planted and they plan to set out another 10 acres next year. They did experience a little bit of a setback with a frost the last week of April this year. Most vines were spared, however some showed damage and might have to be replanted.

John Carlson checks one of the gauges on the water system that draws water from their 500-foot well and is set up to provide fertigation as needed.

Planning for growth

They hired a vineyard manager to schedule and oversee planting, pruning, weeding, watering and other day-to-day operations. Weeding is done by people hoeing along the rows. They want to keep use of herbicides and other pesticides at a minimum, however they don’t plan to apply for organic certification so they can keep their options open. John says, “We want to be as green as possible, but we don’t want to be too limited if a problem crops up.” They are studying best management practice for the area and plan to follow them. The area around their well is set up for fertigation and for injection of other products if the need should arise.

Top, Nesting boxes for owls are placed strategically around the vineyard to attract owls that will keep mice and other rodents from damaging the fruit and the vines.
Bottom Left, Carlson Creek Vineyard has just opened this tasting room in historic downtown Willcox, Ariz. It is one of several open, or soon to be open, tasting rooms in the area that are working together to draw more tourists and wine enthusiasts.
Bottom Right, The new growth on last year’s planting received some frost damage in late April this year, but most, like this one, are sending out new leaves so they don’t expect too much of a setback.

Five acres, nearest the road, are set aside for the winery, tasting room and cellars, which they hope to have that ready to open in 2012. In the meantime, they have opened a wine tasting room in downtown Willcox. A couple other area wineries have, or soon will be, opening wineries nearby, and they are working together to attract visitors to the area and gain recognition. A wine trail, wine festivals and wine tastings will be an added draw.

The biggest challenge of Carlson Creek’s start-up has been the cash flow until they can harvest their first full crop. To assist with that, they purchase grapes from other growers in the area and contract the winemaking process. They produced 500 cases last year and expect to do about the same this year. The wine is sold at the tasting room, at special events and through a wine club they are starting.

While Carlson Creek Vineyard is Bob’s dream, his entire family is in on living it. His daughter Katherine oversaw the design and development of the Carlson Creek label and logo and is responsible for marketing and event planning, and his wife Liz is the financial officer of the winery. She also assists Katherine with event planning and catering.

You can tell by the excitement in Robert and John’s voices as they talk about the vineyard and wine business that they are not only assisting their dad with his dream, they are living their own. They are committed to making this a lifelong, growing enterprise.

Steve Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.