Aridus Bets on Growth of Arizona Winemaking

State's first winery focused on custom crush opens in time for excellent vintage

by Andrew Adams
Aridus crush pad
The crush pad at the new Aridus Wine Company custom crush winery in Willcox, Ariz.
Willcox, Ariz.—This small desert town once served as a rail hub for southeastern Arizona’s cattle industry. Today, some hope that it could become a hub of the state’s fast-growing wine industry. Aridus Wine Company, Arizona’s first winery to be focused on custom crush services, opened here in time for the 2012 vintage.


Winemaker James Callahan told Wines & Vines only a few wineries in the state have had space to rent for custom crushing but those extra tanks are growing sparse. Callahan joined Aridus in May from Kosta Browne Winery in Sebastopol, Calif., where he was cellarmaster.

Callahan grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and earned a sommelier certificate while in college after developing a taste for wine while working in restaurants. His first job in the industry was a 2007 internship at an Arizona winery that made wine with California fruit. He went on to complete harvest internships in Walla Walla, Wash., New Zealand and at Kosta Browne, the last of which turned into a full time post.

He said it was hard to leave his job at highly rated Kosta Browne but jumped at an opportunity to work closer to his family and explore the virgin territory of Arizona winemaking. “I like the idea it’s a pioneering type of spirit here,” he said. “It’s not that you’re following in someone else’s footprints.”

The state’s nascent industry continues to expand and growers reported last week that the 2012 vintage would showcase the state’s remarkable wine quality.

‘Everything you need’
Aridus takes its name from the “arid” landscape surrounding Willcox. Phoenix couple Scott and Joan Dahmer own the winery. Callahan said the Dahmers worked with Napa Valley consultant Cary Gott who told them an estate winery would require a significant investment that wouldn’t be paid off for quite some time.

Gott counseled a custom crush winery, however, could see a profit far quicker, would be in demand and help improve winemaking in the region.

“We have pretty much everything you need,” Callahan said. “We’re going to do some good things out here.”

The winery’s crush pad includes a Diemme Kappa destemmer; elevator and vibratory sorting table with a Milani dosing hopper and 3” Francesca must pump. The press is a Diemme Velvet 40 bladder press. In the cellar are 15 Santa Rosa Stainless tanks that range in capacity from 870 to 4,000 gallons and four TranStore open-top tanks. Callahan said he also plans to use one ton and half ton MacroBins for fermentations.

The winery has a GAI bottling line on order. All basic wine analysis can be done in an in-house lab that should have enzymatic analysis equipment by next harvest, Callahan said.

The winery is housed in a 25,000-square-foot former apple warehouse with a 5,000-square-foot, covered crush area outside the main building. Inside, the fermentation area takes up 5,000 square feet, the bottling area is 5,000 square feet and the rest is cold barrel storage.

Callahan said rates are currently $26 per case for whites and $32 for reds based on an estimated yield of 62 cases per ton. Winemaking services cost an additional $8 per case. The fees cover everything except bottling.

Carlson Creek Vineyards and Pillsbury Wine Company crushed 15 tons of fruit each at Aridus this past harvest. Carlson Creek has a tasting room in downtown Willcox and Callahan said Aridus is working on opening its own tasting room in town as well.

Quality harvest
Aridus crushed 15 tons of Chardonnay and Syrah made with California fruit for its own label. Callahan said the owners will likely keep a California Chardonnay and Syrah in their lineup, but the winemaker said the future focus would be Arizona fruit. After his first vintage in the desert, Callahan said he was impressed.

“The fruit that came in this year has been superb,” Callahan said. “Arizona has had a rough few vintages during the last few years, and this year everything came in perfect. Great flavors, great colors, lots of character and I am really excited to have this be my first vintage working with Arizona fruit.”

Callahan said he has been impressed with the aromatic white grapes Symphony and Malvasia Bianca and sturdy reds like Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. “What surprised me is the quality of the Petite Sirah that comes from out here. It’s really good,” he said, adding he thinks varieties with thick skins can better handle the desert sun.

Wine country in the desert
While some of Arizona’s pioneer settlers grew grapes to supply miners with wine, the state was one of the first to adopt Prohibition, effectively putting the industry in a long dormancy.

The state’s only AVA, Sonoita, was established in 1984, but Arizona wine still received little attention until Maynard James Keenan, who owns Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards and Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, deflected the bright lights of his rock band TOOL’s fame and a film documentary onto the state’s wineries and vineyards.

According to WinesVinesDATA, Arizona has just less than 1,000 acres of vines and 49 bonded wineries. The average price per bottle is $22 and most wineries produce between 1,000 and 5,000 cases a year.

One of the newer growers in the state is the small Alcantara Vineyard and Winery near the Verde River in the northern grape growing area of the state. Kerry Loftus, the operations manager, said the winery has 12 acres planted with 18 varieties. She said while the winery’s Merlot has fared well they’re still trying to figure out what grows best in their area.

She said the plan is to only use estate fruit by next year, making it the first winery in the region to do so. Loftus said the winery harvested 34 tons starting in mid August and wrapping up by the end of September. Growing conditions were ideal and the fruit looks remarkable. “It should be a really good year.”

Rod Snapp, owner of Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley offered just one word about the 2012 harvest: “Spectacular.”

Snapp has made wine in Arizona for 13 years and said he’s continually surprised by how Arizona wines offer a more mature flavor profile in less time. “I thought it was a fluke, man we just got lucky maybe, but no it’s consistent,” he said.

Javelina produces about 3,000 cases a year of Italian varietals, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Snapp grew about 10% of the 45 tons he crushed this year, sourcing the rest from a variety of growers, most of whom are in the southern part of the state.

He’s excited to see the industry growing as new vineyards are planted every year. Many of the new growers are Arizona residents who are converting ranch land into vineyards. Growers are planting at 3,500 to 4,000 feet in elevation, which provides the necessary diurnal temperature change. “We’re just fortunate with the sun and we have land,” Snapp concluded.

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