Tasting room in Tucson: 3 U.S. Air Force Academy grads pilot Flying Leap vineyards to new heights

2014-02-27T00:00:00Z 2014-07-03T10:23:29Z Tasting room in Tucson: 3 U.S. Air Force Academy grads pilot Flying Leap vineyards to new heightsBy Cathalena E. Burch Arizona Daily Star

Swift Family Photography via Flying Leap Vineyards

Swift Family Photogrpahy via Flying Leap Vineyards Arizona Daily Star

ELGIN

One of Arizona’s fastest-growing wineries is bringing the vineyard experience to Tucson.

On Saturday, Flying Leap Vineyards, with farms in Willcox and Elgin, will open its first Tucson tasting room in a 1,000-square-foot space at St. Philip’s Plaza. It is the first domestic farm winery to venture into the Tucson market with a tasting room.

“Willcox is 100 miles away. One of the weaknesses of the Arizona wine industry is the remoteness of our properties,” said Mark Beres, who owns Flying Leap with longtime friends Marc Moeller and Thomas Kitchens. “A lot of Tucsonans aren’t aware that there is a distinct, wonderful wine country just 45 miles south of Sixth and Congress. We wanted to bring wine country closer to the discriminating wine connoisseurs.”

The Tucson tasting room will be the fourth the trio of owners has opened since launching Flying Leap in 2010. In three years, they went from staring out at 60 acres of dirt in Willcox, to harvesting more than 20 planted acres of fruit-producing vines spread over two farms.

And, they say, they are just getting started.

In late spring or early summer, they plan to release their first estate wine, a 2013 grenache rosé. The wine is aging in a 2,000-liter flex tank in the cold storage of the winery’s Elgin facilities, acquired when Flying Leap bought Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery in January 2013.

Flying Leap’s first vintages were made from blends of barreled Canelo Hills wines that were part of that purchase. Late this year or early next, Flying Leap will uncork its first Willcox estate wines including tempranillo, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon and a cabernet sauvignon dessert wine, grenache, sangiovese and a mourvèdre. Those wines are aging in 38 225-liter oak barrels stacked in tidy rows at the winery. Those wines will sell for $25 to $40 a bottle.

The front of the Elgin winery is a rustic tasting room, with a crafted wooden bar and a picnic table. The tasting rooms in Bisbee, Willcox and Tucson double as art galleries in a partnership between Flying Leap and Willcox-based Trust Art & Design, which features Southern Arizona artists.

“We feel pretty strongly that there’s a good connection between wine and art,” said Kim Johnson, who owns Trust Art & Design with her husband Thomas. “It’s locally crafted wine and we focus mainly on local artists.”

The goal, say Beres and Moeller, is to create a business model that goes beyond just pouring and selling wine.

Moeller maps out the business strategies and Beres builds them. Kitchens, who confessed he is not as analytically driven as his partners, is the creative force, designing the trio’s logo and its tasting rooms.

The three men, all in their mid-40s, have been friends since they met at the Air Force Academy in Colorado in the late 1980s. After graduating, Kitchens did his advanced flight training in Texas, while Beres and Moeller did theirs in Phoenix. The trio kept in touch as their military service took them around the world to war zones and the fringes of war zones.

Beres, who earned an aeronautical engineering degree and served as a Special Forces pilot in two theaters of war, retired from the military in 2006 and moved to Tucson to work for Raytheon. Moeller, whose career included eight years piloting Air Force Two for vice presidents and political dignitaries, retired in 2011 and moved to Tucson to work in information technology at Tucson Medical Center. Kitchens left active duty in May 2001 but continued in the reserves, which included a year of active duty after 9/11. He plans to move to Tucson, where his father grew up and where he still has relatives, as soon as he sells his home in Seattle.

Moeller said he and Beres had long talked about going into business together, but he envisioned they would do something related to aeronautical engineering. But when Beres called him up in 2010 with an idea to start a hobby farm and grow wine grapes, he proposed they take a leap of faith and go all in.

“We didn’t want to get stuck in that hobby market. We didn’t want to get stuck in that market where you’re doing a lot of work for not a lot of gain,” said Moeller. “We looked at this from the very beginning as a business and a successful business and a for-profit business.”

“I’m very good at taking a new concept and ... taking that project and all the diverse aspects that go into it and moving it down the road,” said Beres.

Kitchens remembers when Beres called him with the idea in 2011.

“What? A vineyard in the desert?” was his initial reaction. But when Beres took him to the property in Willcox, Kitchens said he could see the potential and “kicked in some of my hard-earned retirement money” to become part of the team.

Both Beres and Moeller have farming in their backgrounds. Beres’s family farmed in his native Walla Walla, Wash., and he spent part of his youth working in local vineyards. Moeller, a California native, was born to German and Swiss immigrants and counts winemakers among his relatives in Switzerland.

Beres runs the farm side of the operation, overseeing crop managment.

“We started small in Kansas Settlement,” Beres said, planting two blocks, 20 acres in all, over two years.

Each acre in Willcox is densely packed 1,900 vines to the acre, to boost fruit yields. The vineyard at Elgin is loosely packed, he noted.

“It’s never an exact science, but we’re having some great success in our viticulture,” Beres said.

Beres also manages the farm infrastructure including designing and installing pump injection systems into the well system.

“He is really able to take a project and analyze it and figure out what needs to be done, and then goes out and does it,” said Moeller, who describes himself as a “visionary winemaker.”

Moeller and Flying Leap’s tasting room manager, Rolf Sasse, take care of the winemaking. Sasse, a native of Germany and a former member of the German Air Force, has lived in Tucson about a year.

“I’ve got these very talented Germans making wine,” Beres said.

In addition to designing the tasting rooms, Kitchens also is the face of the winery when it comes to festivals and wine events including last fall’s Arizona Winegrowers Festival in Phoenix. Kitchens is laid-back and easily mixes with customers, Beres said.

Kitchens said he is confident the Tucson tasting room will be a success, in large part because of the popularity of the farm-to-table movement. Tucson’s burgeoning craft brewing community is a testament to that.

“You have the same thing in wine. We’re kind of the sister (to craft brewing), but it takes a lot more time to put a finished product before the customer than it does with beer. We are kind of the longer-term, more sophisticated sister,” he said. “I think Tucson is definitely ready for us.”

Kitchens said he hopes that visiting Flying Leap in Tucson will encourage people to make the 90-minute drive to Willcox to support that community’s wine industry.

“I think that the Arizona wine industry is going to continue … (to grow) and hopefully we can really make Willcox a destination ... the next Sonoita or the next Page Springs or Cottonwood,” he said.

Contact reporter Cathalena

E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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