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Wine Pioneers in Northern Arizona

First vines planted along Route 66; green packager switches gear

by Jane Firstenfeld
kind vines bottles
Kind Vines owner Dave Williamson sells wines to dozens of Arizona outlets in returnable, reusable bottles.
Coconino County, Ariz.—Arizona supports a grand total of 57 wineries: 23 in central Yavapai County (northwest of Phoenix) and 13 in Cochise County in the southern part of the state. At the moment, Kind Vines Sustainable Packaging Solutions in Flagstaff, Ariz., is Coconino County’s only licensed winery, according to WinesVinesDATA.

Not only is Kind Vines unique in its county, its unusual business model is perhaps the only one of its kind in the United States. Founded in 2010, and producing less than 1,000 cases annually, Kind Vine does not grow grapes, produce wine or have a tasting room or wine club for direct-to-consumer sales.

Owner Dave Williamson sources Kind Vines Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in bulk from California wineries, delivering them to Arizona in 275-gallon Vino Tote bags. He hand-sells his wines to dozens of retail and on-premise outlets in Arizona in returnable, reusable bottles. He claimed an astonishing 98% of all bottles were returned in 2012.

After sterilization in a re-jetted commercial dishwasher, the screen-printed bottles are ready for refilling: Current releases are a 2009 Lodi Chardonnay and a 2008 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Williamson maintains his flexibility, and the bottles’ utility, by keeping his labels generic: non-vintage California Chardonnay and California Cabernet Sauvignon. No new COLA (label approval) is needed.

Williamson has been using Vino Lock glass stoppers sourced from Europe. These attractive closures are also demonstrably reusable, and Williamson said 90% were returned with the empty bottles.

Williamson just learned the closures have been discontinued. His bottle source, Encore Glass in Benicia, Calif., still has a supply on hand, with bottles adapted for the stoppers. Williamson picked up a new stock of screen-printed bottles in Benicia last week.

Williamson said a 2012 study by climate science graduate students at Northern Arizona University (NAU) found his environmentally conscious business prevented putting about 8 metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Since start-up, Kind Vines has bottled at Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Training, a Native American business incubator. Williamson is now planning a move to Oak Creek Vineyards and Winery, a 1,500-case operation in Cornville, Ariz., in neighboring Yavapai County.

“With this move I'll be able to provide packaging services for the wine industry, which is what my intentions were when I began this project,” Williamson said. He plans now to print labels and apply them in-house. “This will make it easier to secure private-label business,” he noted.

Wagon Wheel puts down roots
If Ann and Louie Serna succeed, Coconino County will eventually have its own locally grown wines. Near a historic building along Rt. 66, which they hope to convert into their tasting room, the couple planted vines this spring.

“We planted about 2.5 acres with about 1,400 vines,” Ann Serna told Wines & Vines. The “planting party” put in hybrids recommended for cold-climate growing: Vidal #1, Foch, Seyval Blanc and Landot Noir.

“All are in grow tubes, and irrigation is in. We had two wells on adjacent land, 180 acres, and we have just successfully drilled four more that we will use to irrigate the vineyards,’’ Serna said.

Although local news reported that the Sernas expect a crop next year, Serna acknowledged: “It’s probably overly optimistic. I’ve been told it’s a 2- or 3-year process, minimum. Patience is not one of my virtues, but it may need to be.

“This past week we got all the fencing done in both fields, so we’ve done a lot in a little time. The momentum is there. As to the winter and how we are going to protect the plants, that’s the next step that we’ll tackle,’’ she said.

The Wagon Wheel Winery will take its name from The Wagon Wheel Lodge, a dilapidated hostelry built as a stagecoach stop in the late 19th century.

According to Serna, it was known as the McHat Inn until the early 1940s, providing a filling station, food and cabin rentals. “At one time, it actually offered ‘red light’ services, so it has a unique history,” she said.

The couple has applied for historic registration and is awaiting certification from the National Register of Historic Places. “We intend to restore the building to its original form,” Serna said.

“We have the go-ahead from the building department, but we’re having a road block with the septic department. They originally wanted a commercial application, which we submitted, then wanted residential, which we submitted, now they want to go back to commercial. I don’t know their thought process but in my view, the county is not very pro-development,” Serna said.

The Sernas have enlisted an elite team to guide their progress: Nikki Check from Yavapai College; Barnabas Kane, landscape architect; Doug Stroh, building architect; former viticulture/enology chair of CSU Fresno Robert Wample and owner of Edgeknoll consulting; consultant Bob Webb; Dan Devere of Morning Dew landscaping; Michael Amundson, NAU history professor among others. “We have built quite the team, as we truly want this project to succeed,” Serna said.

Once their plans come to fruition, Wagon Wheel will effectively double the size of the Coconino wine industry, prompting Serna to say, “There’s a Coconino County wine industry? I didn’t know this.”

Despite bureaucratic recalcitrance, Serna reported, “The excitement from all the neighbo rs is great, and people stop by every day, all day, just to see the progress.”


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