WILLCOX - Arizona's newest custom crush facility will process between 170 and 200 tons of grapes this fall, making it one of the largest commercial winemaking facilities in the state.

Aridus Wine Company also will release the first vintages produced at the sprawling facility, housed in an old apple warehouse on the southeast end of Willcox's main street. The winery processed 40 tons of fruit for Carlson Creek and Pillsbury Wine Company in its inaugural production last August, and those wines should be ready to bottle and sell by October, said Aridus owner Scott Dahmer.

Dahmer said he expects to process five times that amount of fruit this year from at least 10 Willcox-area vineyards including Pillsbury, Zarpara Vineyard, Golden Rule Vineyard and Sand-Reckoner Vineyards. Carlson Creek could be the largest customer; the vineyard is considering sending Aridus part or all of its nearly 60-ton yield - three times the amount of fruit Aridus processed for the family-owned vineyard last year, said Robert Carlson.

"Aridus came by at a very crucial time for us," said Carlson, whose family started the 120-acre vineyard on the Willcox Bench in 2008. "We were partnering with a Northern Arizona winery to make our wine, but we had outgrown their capacity."

Dahmer invested $5 million to renovate and equip the 32,000-square-foot apple warehouse into a state-of-the-art crush facility. The Diemme crusher-destemmer set up on the crush pad can process as much as 4 tons of fruit at a time. The juice then sits in 2,500- to 5,000-gallon steel fermenting tanks in the fermentation room for a week or two before being stored in barrels in the sprawling, climate-controlled barrel room.

Barrels are aged at least a year for whites and up to 22 months for reds before the wine is bottled using a GAI bottling line imported from Italy. The machine fills, caps - screw top or cork - and labels as many as 100 bottles an hour.

"I could have bought two Ferraris for the money I spent on that," Dahmer said during a recent tour of the facility.

Dahmer has hired Willcox vintner Rob Hammelman, who owns Sand-Reckoner Vineyards in Willcox, as Aridus' head winemaker.

Hammelman has run his own winery from a small storefront on the other end of Haskell Avenue since he and his wife, Sarah, bought their 12-acre vineyard in 2010. In addition to producing his own wines, he also made wine for Zarpara and Golden Rule; both vineyards are following him to Aridus.

Hammelman is well regarded in Arizona's wine industry for producing world-class vintages. He studied winemaking in Australia and made wine there and in France.

"He's one of my favorite winemakers in the state," said Carlson. "He makes excellent wine. Credentials in our industry count for very little. The real credentials are in the bottle."

"He's making very exceptional wines. I think he is among the top winemakers in the state," added Zarpara Vineyard owner Mark Jorve. "He's world class ... and I don't say that just because he's making it for us."

Hammelman said he will transfer production of his own wines to Aridus, as well. He expects to harvest 9 tons of grapes from his vines and will buy another 20 tons of grapes from neighboring vineyards.

"There's so much potential in Arizona's wine industry," said Dahmer, a former graphics artist who turned his love of wine into a midlife career change.

He owns Aridus and a 40-acre vineyard in Willcox's Turkey Creek with his wife, Joan, a Phoenix-area oncologist. The couple, originally from Kitchner, Ontario, Canada, spent years in California's wine country and became immersed in the wine culture.

It took the couple a few years after they moved to Arizona in 2001 to stumble upon the state's wine community.

They started work on Aridus in 2009, taking the advice of a consultant who suggested the biggest gap in Arizona's wine industry was the lack of a large custom crush facility.

Eventually Dahmer plans to plant seven varieties of grapes on his vineyard. Until then, he buys his grapes from other growers. This fall, he will release his debut vintage, an oaky chardonnay blended from wine aged in French oak and neutral barrels.

"If no one else likes it I know I'm going to drink it," Dahmer joked. "I'm really pleased with it."

Take a tour

Visit Aridus Wine, 1126 N. Haskell Ave., Willcox, and ask for a tour of the former apple warehouse before things get hopping in a couple weeks. The 2013 harvest will beginning arriving in about two weeks.

• Tasting room: Aridus will showcase the wines made at the winery when it opens its tasting room this fall at 145 N. Railview Ave., in downtown Willcox.

• Learn more: ariduswineco.com

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at church@azstarnet.com or 573-4642. See related story in today's Home + Life section.