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Arizona winery thrives in rolling desert grasslands
Ohio Correspondent

SONOITA, Ariz. — Sonoita Vineyards sits atop a scenic hill in the rolling desert grasslands near Tucson. It’s at an altitude of 5,000 feet and the soil there is nearly identical to that of Burgundy, France.

When Dr. Gordon Dutt, the winery’s founder, consulting winemaker and a soil scientist, was doing research at the University of Arizona for a drought-resistant crop he discovered that grapes would grow in the region, said Yvonne Downs, who works at the winery.

After a visit to Burgundy, the first experimental vineyard was planted in 1973. The commercial vineyard followed in 1979 and the winery opened in 1983. A cabernet from the vineyard was served at President George Bush’s inaugural in 1989.

“Our climate is sort of temperate - even though we get all different types of weather we always have sunshine,” Downs said. “In the summer when the grapes are growing it is quite warm, it gets up into the high 90s. But as soon as the sun goes down it gets very chilly. In the evenings in the summer it’s probably around 60 degrees which is ideal.”

The vineyard produces eight varietals, Downs said. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot, chardonnay, sauvignon Blanc, and a red grape called Mission.

“The Mission grape originated 200 years ago,” Downs said. “It was brought here by the Spaniards as an altar wine for the Catholic monasteries. It grew here in the 1800s.

“Gordon tells the story that the Apaches ran off the people that were growing it,” she said. “It grows now for us. Gordon blended it with a white grape called Columbard, which is semi-dry and fruity, and he called it Angel Wings. It is served in area churches as a communion wine.”

The vineyards had a major setback in recent years due to Pierce’s Disease, a bacteria carried by a leaf hopper. The vines had to be taken out and replanted.

“That was a hard lesson to learn to keep the vegetation clean between the rows,” Downs said. “Because it is a leaf hopper, it required vegetation to hop around.”

Dutt had to buy grapes to blend with the reduced number of grapes produced at the vineyard. Now, besides keeping the rows clean, Dutt planted a patch of blackberries away from the grapes vines.

The blackberries attract the leaf hopper and Dutton sprays them heavily, Downs said.

Production has been low since the vines were lost. The winery produced about 2500 cases of wine, about 5,500-6,000 gallons the past two years.

“We have a capacity to hold 10,000 gallons,” Downs said. “We’re still a small winery. We don’t ship at all. For quite a while now we have been selling 95 percent of the wine straight out of the winery.”

During the winter months the winery has about 50 tourists a day during the week and about 100 on weekend days. People from Phoenix and Tucson support the winery, said Downs.

“Dr. Dutt is the father of the grape growing industry in the state of Arizona and the four-corner state region,” she said. “He did all the soil research for those areas for the grape growing industry. He was learning when he did all this. He knew soil and water. He made his mistakes and other people learned from him.”

This farm news was published in the April 26, 2006 issue of Farm World.