Arizona’s Wine Story
By Erik Berg, wine historian
Arizona’s Winemaking Past
Arizona has a long and diverse history of winemaking although its earliest origins are shrouded in mystery. Spanish settlers and missionaries first introduced viticulture to the lower Rio Grande River of New Mexico in the 1500s. But Spanish winemaking across the wider Southwest varied greatly from one location to another and was often restricted by local growing conditions and a scarcity of equipment and expertise. In 1703, the famous Jesuit explorer and missionary Father Eusebio Kino had a small vineyard (to produce wine for Mass) at his mission in present-day Sonora, Mexico. Further north, in what would become Arizona, later Spanish settlers and missionaries around Tucson were growing grapes, and probably making some wine, by the late 1700s, if not earlier.
Arizona became part of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century following the Mexican-American War and the Gadsden Purchase. Around the same time, gold and silver discoveries in the mountains of central Arizona led to the founding of Prescott and an influx of new prospectors and settlers who thirsted for more than riches. In addition to beer and whiskey, wine was also a popular drink in the new territory’s saloons and restaurants. But during the territory’s early years it was often in short supply. In desperation, a few early settlers around Prescott even tried making wine from the native canyon grapes that grew wild on the hillsides.
Further south, in the Salt River Valley, homesteaders around Phoenix started farms and orchards to supply the territory’s growing population. Sensing a ready market, they began experimenting with wine grapes and by the mid-1870s Phoenix saloon owner James Cotton was proudly touting his supply of ‘Vino del Pais’ (local wine) which he claimed was “superior to the native wines of California.” In nearby Mesa, the Bagley brothers started the territory’s first commercial winery in the early 1880s and soon had competition from other vintners like John Jones, George Sirrine, and Alois Cuber. Within a decade, the Salt River Valley was producing over 50,000 gallons of wine and brandy per year.
To the north, explorer and botanist Charles Perry noted the wild native grapevines of the Verde Valley and predicted the region would prove “especially adapted to producing wine and fruits.” But it was not until the late 1880s that a German immigrant named Henry Schuerman put that prediction to practice. At his farm along Oak Creek, near present-day Sedona, Schuerman established a substantial vineyard and winery that supplied happy customers in the nearby mining camp of Jerome.
By the start of the Twentieth century, Arizona’s wine industry was enjoying rapid growth. Not everyone was pleased. A prohibition movement was sweeping the country and, in 1915, Arizona enacted a total ban on the production and sale of alcohol. Wineries shut down, vineyards were uprooted, and Schuerman was even briefly jailed for trying to sell off his remaining inventory. Arizona’s budding wine industry was effectively nipped in the bud. Over the following years, determined Arizona wine drinkers found solace by making wine from table grapes or settling for raisin wine produced in illegal underground wineries.
The Birth of the Modern Arizona Wine Industry
Prohibition ended in 1933, but it would take several more decades for a local wine industry to reappear. A young soil scientist named Dr. Gordon Dutt would plant the first seeds of its revival. Dutt had worked in California’s wine country before taking a job at the University of Arizona where he quickly recognized the area’s winemaking potential. In the 1970s, he experimented with growing wine grapes near Oracle and later led a team of researchers to study the larger Southwest’s winemaking possibilities. Their landmark 1980 report highlighted the region’s strengths and inspired the planting of new vineyards.
With help from the Brophy family, Dutt also launched the state’s first modern commercial wine vineyard, Vina Sonoita, in 1979. Others soon followed his lead. In 1980, a group of Scottsdale wine enthusiasts led by Adrian Bosman started their own vineyards nearby and then partnered with Dutt to start Sonoita Vineyards Winery. In Tucson, Robert Webb opened the state’s first modern winery in 1980 using California grapes. A few years later, he planted his own vineyard near Willcox and built a large new winery and tasting room along Interstate 10. Other pioneering winery and vineyard owners from the 1980s included Tino Ocheltree, William Staltari, Tom Brady, Thomas Peabody, Jon and Frances Harvey, Penny Edwards, and Hollis Roberts.
The new winemakers faced many challenges including Arizona’s dated alcohol regulations. Wineries could only sell to distributors and were banned from direct sales to other businesses or the public. To address this, and other issues, the winemakers banded together in 1981 to form the Arizona Wine Growers Association (AWGA) with Bosman as the first president. The following year the new organization helped pass the Domestic Farm Winery Bill which allowed wineries to open tasting rooms and sell directly to customers. The law’s passage was a major milestone and inspired new growth. By 1984, Sonoita had become the Southwest’s first federally recognized American Viticulture Area (AVA) and hosted the state’s first local wine festival.
Despite these initial successes, Arizona’s early wine industry still faced numerous challenges in the form of plant diseases, marketing, public acceptance, and the slow process of trial and error required to find the best grapes and winemaking techniques for Arizona’s unique conditions. During this critical period, the AWGA continued to promote the industry, encouraged communication and cooperation, and advised the state legislature. Arizona wines steadily improved, markets expanded, and people began to take notice. In the mid-1990s, Sonoita winemaker Kent Callaghan attracted national attention with rave reviews from famous wine critic Robert Parker Jr. while in nearby Willcox new vineyards and wineries developed through the efforts Al Buhl, Sam Pillsbury, and Oregon winemaker Dick Erath.
In northern Arizona, Jon Marcus started Echo Canyon Vineyard and Winery near Sedona around 1997. His winery along the Cornville Road was soon joined by those of Javelina Leap, Oak Creek, and Page Springs Cellars. In 2007, musician-turned-vintner Maynard James Keenan and Eric Glomski of Page Springs Cellars teamed up to open Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and quickly became one of the state’s largest brands. Over the following years, new wineries and tasting rooms helped revitalize Cottonwood’s historic downtown and inspired Yavapai Community College to launch the state’s first enology program.
Today all of Arizona’s winemaking regions continue to see robust growth and Arizona wine is receiving greater recognition at both the local and national level. The state’s unique story and diverse geography inspire an industry that combines a respect for tradition with a pioneering spirit of innovation. The result is a perfect blend of the past and the possible – a culmination of four decades of modern effort backed by two centuries of winemaking history.
For a detailed account of Arizona’s wine history see “Equal Age for Age: The Growth, Death, and Rebirth of an Arizona Wine Industry, 1700 – 2000” by Erik Berg in the Autumn 2018 issue of The Journal of Arizona History.