WILLCOX - Sarah and Rob Hammelman looked out across fields of lush vineyards set against the backdrop of rolling mountain ranges.

Smack in the middle of Willcox's emerging wine country, they had found their paradise.

By buying a 12-acre vineyard in the middle of nowhere, the couple joined a growing demographic of winemakers: people between the ages of 30 and 45 who are abandoning urban life to work the land.

"We're kind of part of that younger generation going back to farming in contrast to the exodus from rural areas," said Sarah, 30.

"We have such a young industry, probably 30 years behind most of the West Coast," added Rob, 36. "That's an exciting motivator for us to be a part of establishing a new industry and showing the world that we can make world-class wine in Arizona."

Any romantic ideals the Hammelmans had about life on the vineyard were laid to rest with their first harvest in 2010.

"It's a lot of lifting of buckets or crates," Sarah said last week as the couple prepared for the start of their fourth harvest this month. "It's intensive. You have to bend over to try and find all the grapes on the vines. It's not easy.

"There's a very romantic notion to a vineyard," she added. "But in its core it's farming, and farming is hard."

•••

Rob and Sarah Hammelman met over wine. He was the head winemaker at Two Rivers Winery and Chateau in Grand Junction, Colo., and she worked in marketing and sales.

Neither had set out to become vintners. She had earned a degree in psychology and had planned to become a nutritionist. He earned his degree in science and had taught at a charter high school in Phoenix.

Both had developed more than a passing interest in wine and the art of making it while in college. Sarah, who grew up in the suburbs of Denver, was introduced to wine on outings with friends and became enamored. She worked a harvest at Two Rivers, then joined the marketing and sales department before spending a harvest in the cellar at Etude Wines in California's Napa Valley to study pinot noir.

Rob's fascination led him in the summer of 2000 to Callaghan Vineyards in Sonoita, where he worked the harvest.

"That got me hooked," the St. Louis, Mo., native recalled. "I really got to appreciate the aromas and flavors that came from Arizona soil."

It didn't take him long to leave his teaching job and set out on a wine journey. He earned the equivalent of a master's degree in winemaking from Australia's University of Adelaide. He worked in one of Australia's most storied vineyards, the Old Garden Mourvedre, and after he and Sarah married, they spent a season in 2008 working at the historic Chateau de St. Cosme winery.

But he dreamed of returning to Arizona.

•••

A few years ago, the couple decided to revisit Rob's Arizona dream. They scouted a few properties before they found the 12-acre vineyard on the Willcox Bench, a high desert area bookended by the Chiricahua and Dragoon mountains. It sits at 4,300 feet in elevation on a sandy loam atop a bed of limestone. The weather is hot during the day and cool at night - ideal for growing grapes.

"The grapes love it," Rob said one recent Tuesday morning, standing among barrels of wine in their storefront winery in downtown Willcox while Sarah held their 4-month-old son Levi. "The elevation is ideal. We have similar climate to the wine regions of Argentina and Spain."

They named the vineyard Sand-Reckoner in a nod to Archimedes' system for counting how many grains of sand would fill the universe. It was a turnkey operation; three acres of vines had been in the ground since 1997, which meant the couple could immediately begin producing wine.

"The goal was to hit the ground running and have some mature vines," Rob said.

The first year was a culture shock. The couple wasn't used to being so isolated.

"You can see the closest neighbors," Sarah said, but if you wanted to drop in on them you had to walk about a half mile.

"It's just very different than anything I had known up to that point," she said. "When we lived in France ... we lived in a town of like 300 people off a dirt road in a little cottage. It was very rural there, too, so I kind of knew what to expect. You don't see a lot of people day to day."

The couple missed the conveniences of urban life, like restaurants, malls, movie theaters and the arts. But for every thing they gave up, they gained, Sarah said.

"The community we have here is stronger than anything that we've had living in suburban or urban areas before," she said.

•••

In about two weeks, the Hammelmans will harvest 9 tons of grapes. It's their fourth harvest and Sarah has high hopes for the Zinfandel crop.

"The first two years it rotted a lot so we weren't able to take a crop except enough for one barrel of port," she said. "But the last year and this year we've used some new methods and it seems to be responding really well."

They will combine their estate grapes with 20 tons from neighboring vineyards. Over the past three harvests they have produced almost a dozen vintages, including a Syrah called "7" that earned them an impressive 89 rating from Wine Spectator magazine.

"What's exciting is that this is still a fledgling business," Rob said. "We're all still experimenting."

"The reward is drinking the wine that we grow," Sarah said. "And being part of that pioneering spirit."

Coming Thursday in Caliente

Ever wonder what it would be like to pick wine grapes? Charron Vineyards in Vail is looking for volunteers to help harvest a record Merlot crop.

Sand-Reckoner Winery vintages

• 2012 Rosé - Made from mostly Nebbiolo grapes with a quarter Sangiovese and 4 percent Zinfandel; $22 a bottle.

• 2012 Malvasia Bianca - Made from 100 percent Malvasia Bianca grapes; $28.

• 2011 "2" - Blend of 72 percent Sangiovese, 28 percent Syrah; $30.

• 2010 "5" - Mix of 82 percent Sangiovese Grosso and 18 percent Syrah; $40.

Coming this fall:

• 2011 "7" - Syrah grapes aged 18 months in French oak barrels. $45.

• 2011 "11" - 100 percent Zinfandel, aged 22 months in neutral French oak. Price not set.

• 2012 "3" - Dry red Zinfandel aged a year.

• To buy: Proper restaurant, 300 E. Congress St. Whole Foods Market, 5555 E. River Road. Order by phone at 1-303-931-8472.

Willcox-area tasting rooms

• Sand-Reckoner Winery, 130 S. Haskell Ave. - Under construction, it is slated to open in November.

• Carlson Creek Vineyard, 115 Railview Ave. - 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 1; 1-520-766-3000, carlsoncreek.com

• Keeling Schaefer Vineyards, 154 N. Railroad Ave. - 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays; 1-520-766-0600, keelingschaefervineyards.com

• Pillsbury Wine's Vineyard Tasting Room, 6450 S. Bennett Place, 13 miles southeast of downtown Willcox at the vineyard - 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays; 1-520-384-3964, pillsburywine.com

• Coronado Vineyards, 2909 E. Country Club Drive, 4 miles east of Willcox off Interstate 10 - 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays,10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. 1-520-384-2993, coronadovineyards.com

• Zarpara Vineyard, 6777 S. Zarpara Lane, 15 miles south of Willcox off Hwy. 186. - 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. 1-602-885-8903 or www.zarpara.com

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com