Growing great grapes where least expected

Photos by Don Dale.
Rod Keeling and Jan Schaefer created their Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards and winery in a wild part of southeastern Arizona, where they are creating a market for their Syrahs and Grenaches. Above, These Syrah vines are one of three Rhone Valley varieties chosen for the southeastern Arizona site.

Rod Keeling and his wife Jan Schaefer have lived in cities all their lives, until now. They’ve never been farmers, until now. They have never engaged in the arcane and arduous craft of growing wine grapes, until now.

Where are they now? They live in the wilderness, by city standards, in southeastern Arizona. They have a 21-acre vineyard, as well as their own winery, and they’re getting good yield and quality.

They are growing their berries in an area where grapes have never been grown, on soil that has never been farmed, with the backdrop of a wild mountain formerly inhabited by Apache Indians and now designated, in part, a wilderness area.

They are doing quite well. Their first wines, Syrah and Grenache, are finding ready buyers within the state.

Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards’ address is listed as Pearce, Ariz., but in reality it is miles from there. It is set in Rock Creek, on the western slopes of the rugged Chiricahua Mountains. It’s quite a haul from their former home in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Keeling was a corporate pilot early in his career and later the community redevelopment director for the City of Tempe. Schaefer was the director of economic development for Tempe.

“We decided when we were looking at retirement that we would look at farming,” Keeling says. That was partly because his grandfather was a farmer in central Arizona, and they have maintained close contact with the land because his brother has now taken over that operation. They looked at growing grapes because they had been home winemakers for years and had trouble finding grapes.

The 2,100-square-foot winery at Rock Creek is already too small for the 40 tons of grapes harvested in 2007.

The search for grapes among Arizona’s dwindling wine industry led the pair to conclude that more were needed. Testing of 18 acres of land they had bought for retirement in remote Cochise County revealed that it might make good vineyard ground. That led to planting, which began in 2004. Now Keeling is so active in the state’s wine industry that he has become president of the 28-winery association, though he maintains that it is because of his people skills rather than his grape-growing skills.

Those have proven to be considerable, though. The original planting was 9 acres of Syrah and 6 acres of Grenache, and 6.5 acres of the former are now in production as are 2.25 acres of the latter. They have also planted 2.5 acres of Mourvedre. “This spring we’re going to plant 4 acres of Viognier,” Keeling says. These are all Rhone Valley-type wine grapes that have had some success in Arizona previously.

“Whatever we plant, we plant late budders,” he notes, because at almost 5,000 feet of elevation they fear late spring freezes and need vines that will hold until l warm weather takes hold. They got their information from sources as various as seminars; Herrick Grapevines, their California rootstock supplier; and Mike Kilby, a wine grape consultant who was formerly a grape specialist with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

The soil in Rock Creek is more acidic than the usual Southwestern soils, Keeling says, because the area consists of sandy loam soils deposited volcanically. Their initial planting was on soils with a pH of about 5.8, so they have a program of treating with lime at planting and once a year or more if indicated by soil tests.

“I can’t put ammonia-based fertilizers on this place,” Keeling points out, because it is too acidic. He goes to nearby Willcox and has an ag supplier custom-mix a blend based on calcium, with calcium nitrate being the primary supplier of nitrogen. This is supplied via fertigation through drip lines, so he purchases it as a liquid. When he goes through town he takes along a 200-gallon tank on a small trailer to be filled. Testing is essential, since these soils require amendments of such elements as boron and zinc.

Based on other vineyard information from Cochise County and California, Keeling and Schaefer decided on unilateral cordon and spur trellising. They wanted to maximize sunlight on the fruit and foliage so that they could get a small crop the second year, which they did. The fruiting wire is 4 feet high, so they get good air circulation under the vines. With this system, they have found that they can achieve an early harvest, as well as more of a fruiting zone across the wire than they could have achieved with the more conventional bilateral system.

Again, to maximize sunlight on the vines yet allow tractor access down the rows, they planted 10 feet between rows and 5 feet between vines. This is fairly standard in the state now, though some vineyards are as narrow as 8 feet between rows and 4 feet between plants. Keeling says he definitely wanted mechanical access, which is proving helpful already. They harvested 40 tons of fruit in 2007, which would have been a burden if handled manually.

“Theoretically, that’s what makes the wine good,” Keeling says of maximum sunlight on the fruit. He also used vertical shoot positioning to promote vertical growth, averting sunburn on the berries by simply not pruning the canopy excessively. Even though it is Arizona, sunlight is pretty mild at this elevation.

The other part of this equation is to minimize vegetative growth and hit production marks, thus assuring quality of wine. They aimed at 2 tons per acre yield, and they are already achieving that on the Grenache and Syrah. Both varieties are vigorous clones on 1130P rootstock, which is drought resistant and proven in Arizona though grown in California. Keeling says he doesn’t want to “de-vigor” the rootstock, because the harsh climate here will tame it down naturally.

Keeling and Schaefer decided on unilateral cordons and 10-foot spacing to allow sunlight to reach the fruit. A 48-inch fruiting wire allows good air circulation under the vines.

This may all seem very experimental, considering the unknowns presented by this region, but Keeling says that doing a lot of research and consulting with experts beforehand has allowed them to grow healthy plants. He has had a 95 percent survival rate on the acreage nearest the winery, and an 85 percent rate at the lower vineyard, which is pretty good for a first-time grower on first-time ground. They had a little Syrah harvest in 2005, and in 2006 the vines produced 1.5 tons of fruit.

With two people managing this acreage—Keeler tends to the crop, while Schaefer focuses on sales and marketing—it is important to have efficient irrigation. Especially when you only have two wells providing a total of 44 gallons per minute. He uses Rain Bird and Netafim poly lines with Rain Bird external emitters, starting the vines with one emitter in the first year and going to two in the second year. Water is directed to the rootzones by spaghetti tubing from the emitters.

One thing they have learned about the Arizona climate is that the vines must be irrigated year-round. Their biggest kill came in winter dormancy, when a freeze killed dehydrated vines. Now he waters every 15 days in the winter, unless it rains or snows in the meantime.

On the positive side, an isolated setting like this leaves the vineyard virtually pest-free. Most of the pests have been local native insects that caused unexpected, but not severe, problems.

Drip irrigation year-round and fertigation with calcium-based fertilizers were found best for this dry climate with acidic soils.

“We’ve only sprayed one time in four seasons,” Keeling points out, and that was an application of Assail on leafhoppers. The other main pest has been a native leaf cutter ant that lives in mesquite trees and eats buds at night. He controls those by baiting them on the ground with Amdro. He has no intention at this time of creating an organic vineyard.

Keeling notes that the biggest issue he has had to deal with was as president of the winegrowers’ association. This was a political battle waged against liquor distributors who wanted to take away Arizona wineries’ right to sell at the site and self-distribute to other retail outlets and restaurants. That battle was won, though he says it may reappear at some point.

For now, Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards has been selling its wine, primarily its Three Sisters Syrah, through the winery, select retail outlets and restaurants in Bisbee, Tucson and the Phoenix area. The couple aims to gradually expand markets as more wine becomes available, being careful to not acquire outlets that they can’t reliably supply. Their small winery is already overcrowded, and they still haven’t reached their predicted peak production of about 4,000 cases, so they have some real decisions to make in the future.

One conclusion that is emerging is that Grenache is proving to be the best vine for this location. It doesn’t establish quite as quickly as Syrah, and has very dramatic boron needs, but it produces a distinctive wine with great flavors, Keeling says. The beautiful winery, which will soon have a new matching house next door, utilizes 1.5-ton plastic fermenters for the fermentation process. They go directly to oak barrels from there for all varieties.

A visitor might wonder how securely the grape-growing hook has been sunk into Keeling and Schaefer, because they say now that they are secure with the 21 acres of producing vines they will eventually have at this setting. However, they are already well beyond their original goal of 9 acres, are planning to plant 2 test acres of Pinot Noir at a friend’s vineyard in the valley, and bemoan the fact that they need more space in the 2,100-square-foot winery.

The Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards may have gone from a home winemaking hobby to a working estate winery, but these things tend to grow despite the cost of about $25,000 per acre to bring a vineyard in this area up to the eight or 10-year mark (that doesn’t include elements such as wells and the winery). One thing is certain, though. An Arizona wine industry that was down to nine wineries a few years ago has more than tripled in size. There are now about 500 acres in production in the state, and it is adventuresome, passionate grape growers like Keeling and Schaefer who are making it happen.

Keeling doesn’t definitively rule out future acreage expansion. “It’s an evolution,” he says. See their Web site at www.keelingschaefervine yards.com for a closer look at what’s happening now.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.