Arizona: the Grand Canyon State’s Flower is the saguaro cactus flower; its State Bird is the cactus wren, its State Reptile is the ridged-nosed rattlesnake, and its State Amphibian is the Arizona tree frog. Arizona even has an official State Neckwear, the Bolo tie.
But nowhere on the list, provided by Tucson Realton Brenda O’Brien, is a State Beverage. Soon, however, there could be one: wine.
Vintners like Scott and Joan Dahmer, founders of Aridus Wine Company, are helping fuel the growth of the Arizona wine industry. “Our state’s motto has five Cs: climate, cattle, cotton, citrus and copper,” he said. “Why not add a sixth? Cabernet. I believe Arizona is the next up-and-coming wine region.”
Winemaker Lisa Strid was in Napa this week, and at the Napa Wine Academy she poured 10 the wines she is making for Aridus, in the Wilcox AVA, in southeastern Arizona, which was approved as Arizona’s second wine appellation in 2016.
Admittedly, Strid said, wine is not a huge part of Arizona’s economic picture now; state-wide production is about 200,000 gallons of wine a year. All the same, Wilcox now has 21 vineyards and 18 wineries, including Aridus, which gets its name from the Latin word for “dry, arid, parched, thirsty and rain-less” — conditions that winemakers in this high desert region contend with; but the Wilcox AVA is now growing 74 percent of Arizona’s wine grapes.
The Dahmers came to Arizona from Canada, by way of California. Scott graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and Joan from medical school at the University of Western Ontario. They lived for a time in Healdsburg, where they caught the wine bug, for which we know there is no cure except to find the ways and means to make it. In 2001, they moved, with their two children, to Carefree, Ariz.
They fell for the wild desert landscape, and land being more affordable than in Northern California, in 2009, they purchased 40 acres by Turkey Creek in Pearce, Ariz., not far from the gravesite of the outlaw Johnny Ringo. They began planting grapes at site at 5,200 feet in the Chiricahua Foothills. They also found a former apple warehouse in nearby Wilcox, which they converted into a custom-crush facility. They added a tasting room using reclaimed local timber, and the project won an Excellence in Design award from the International Interior Designer’s Association for sustainability and interior design.
Strid, a native of Wyoming, joined the Aridus team in 2016. She had studied enology and viticulture at Oregon State University and worked at Alexana Winery in the Dundee Hills of Oregon before moving to E & J Gallo Winery, where she worked on the specialty wine team before becoming a research winemaker.
She was up for the challenges of making wine in Wilcox where they have “extremes” of weather, including 100-degree days in summer, wind and hail in July and “monsoon” rains from the Sea of Cortez during August and September. The sky opens up during these storms, she said, and rain pours down for an hour. “It’s not really a problem,” she added. “It’s so hot, everything dries up right away. That is about the extent of the rain they receive each year, she said. Average rainfall in Wilcox is 13 inches a year.
“I love the desert,” said Strid, who had previously lived in Arizona. Hiring her as their winemaker, you might say, Aridus found its stride.
At Aridus, Strid oversees production of 22 different, small-lot wines from a dizzying variety of grapes: malbec, morvedre, malvasia bianca, muscat, tempranillo, grenache, petite sirah, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah. Right now Aridus buys grapes, primarily from vineyards in Arizona, New Mexico. She also makes chardonnay from California grapes and a pinot noir from Oregon fruit.
“It’s a growing, small industry,” she said. “People are still figuring out what are the best grapes to grow and what we can do with them. They do already know, she said, that “chardonnay does not do well in the desert.”
Primarily, she is making single variety wines. “Scott is into single variety bottlings,” she said, but she also experiments with blends.
Her own favorite so far? “ It’s syrah,” she said. “I love what it does here. Everyone is going on about tempranillo and I’m fine with that, but I love the syrah.”
Strid poured 10 wines for the group at Napa Wine Academy. And the reaction, from where this reporter was sitting was that they were well-made, beautifully balanced and extremely enjoyable. Some of Strid’s comments are included below with the list.
— 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($33.60) Made from New Mexico and Arizona grapes that arrived “in two to three blocks at varying Brix. “It’s tropical,” she said, “papaya and citrus, but there’s a hint of green that I like.”
— 2017 Estate Vineyard Field Blend ($28) Made from the first harvest of their own Airdus estate, this is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Viognier. “We wanted something, light, easy-drinking and fun,” she said. The 11 percent alcohol helps fit that goal.
— 2016 Orange Muscat ($31.50) An odd duck made from grapes from the Mimbres Valley in New Mexico. It’s fermented on the skins and held in barrels for a year. She described its long finish as “almost whiskey-like,” prompting a response from a taster: “I wouldn’t have thought of whiskey, but now that you said it, yes.”
— 2017 Tempranillo Rosé ($29.40) “No one has to tell you how popular rosé is,” Strid said. “We wanted to do a wine that pushed the limit.” Interesting fact: they fermented and aged it in new Hungarian oak, partly because they’d run out of American oak barrels. This wine, she writes, is a “meditation on the possibilities of Arizona tempranillo.”
—2015 Grenache ($38). “Grenache is tricky in Arizona,” Strid said. “It’s sensitive to light and heat.” This one she made from grapes from two different Arizona vineyards, kept separate in oak barrels for just over a year and then blended. “I wanted to bring an older one,” she said, to show how it was developing — enjoyably.
— 2016 Mourvèdre, ($28) This grape is widely planted in Arizona, Strid said, and it yields a “meaty, full-bodied, rustic wine. I love its cinnamon notes,” she said.
— 2016 Tempranillo ($39.90): “We acidified it,” she said of this dusky, rose colored wine. “It’s built to hold up to a bit of age with its high level of acidity. This wine is showing well now, but we expect the fresh fruit aromas and refreshing acidity to carry this wine for another five to seven years.”
— 2016 Graciano ($36.75) The fruit for this wine was delivered in three lots from vineyards in Cochise County in Arizona that came in over a month, so it was fermented separately, two lots destemmed but the last one was half-destemmed and half whole clusters. “I loved the peppery stems,” Strid said. “I wanted to get that into the wine.”
— 2016 Syrah ($36.75): Strid added 17 percent Viognier, prior to fermentation to this, her personal favorite. It did seem most evocative of the desert that yielded the grapes, with its sage and spice. “Desert rain,” she described it.
— 2015 Mavasia Bianca ($29.40) “semi-sweet” was actually pretty sweet (1.2 grams/liter) but it was elegant, fresh, and tropical.
Strid’s one apology was that she’d been unable to bring a Malbec, which she thinks Aridus does well — so well, in fact, it was sold out. Most of their wines sell out, she said, mostly in Arizona, and mostly at their Scottsdale tasting room.
“But our numbers keep growing at the Wilcox tasting room, too,” she added. “More and more people are stopping by.”