Frost in April, hail last spring and late monsoon rains — including torrential downpours two weeks ago — have all contributed to a pretty poor wine grape harvest in much of Elgin, the Cochise County burg that plays second fiddle to its neighbor, the state’s wine-growing capital of Willcox.
Several vineyards on the stretch of low-lying Elgin Road have been forced to leave a lot of the fruit in the field because of rot and mold that developed after late summer rains. The vineyards — including neighbors Callaghan and Flying Leap — share one weather thing in common: they are often the epicenter of hail, rain, freeze and frost, and suffer the brunt of damage to their crops, vineyard operators said.
“We just picked it today and we left a lot of fruit on the ground,” Kent Callaghan said two weeks ago, adding that his overall yield will be down 65 percent over last year. “It’s going to be a small year.”
At Flying Leap, crews were out picking the tempranillo in mid-September, earlier than Mark Beres would have liked.
“We had to pick it. We couldn’t leave it on the vine any longer or it would rot,” said Beres, who owns Flying Leap with partners Marc Moeller and Tom Kitchens.
But they still lost 72 percent of the vintage, he said, pulling about a ton of tempranillo compared to last year’s 6.5 tons, “and that’s entirely a function of the rain. The rain just devastated us,” Beres said.
“Elgin is a very difficult place to grow fruit. The yields are low; you don’t get a lot of fruit. Maintaining the soil is difficult,” he said. “But Elgin is where people go. That’s where the big crowds go. For us, it’s the smart thing to do to grow a small vineyard and get most of our grapes from Willcox.”
Most of Arizona’s wine grapes — 75 percent of the state’s total — are grown in Willcox, said Rod Keeling, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association. The Sonoita/Elgin region brings in 18 percent of the state’s crop while the remaining grapes are grown in Sedona and the Verde Valley.
“Most of the frost this year was hit-or-miss,” said Keeling, who operates Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards in Pearce, outside Willcox. “It wasn’t as widespread as in the past, but Sonoita got smacked good. And anytime you get frozen out in the beginning of the season, the fruit never comes back. You have to wait until the next year.
“It is probably one of the most demanding places to grow fruit,” he said of Elgin. “It is a brutal place in many ways. (But) the fruit is good and they are producing wonderful wines there.”
Flying Leap’s Beres said that by the time they finish harvesting in mid-October, his vineyard will get three tons of fruit from Elgin. But at its Willcox farm, with 20 acres under vine and another 40 yet to be developed, Flying Leap’s harvest will yield about 70 tons of fruit — nearly double the 43 tons they harvested last year, he said.
That more than makes up for the losses at Elgin, he said, noting that Flying Leap should have enough fruit to produce 5,000 cases of wine.
But Callaghan said he will have to buy grapes from Willcox growers to even his odds. Rot issues at his 25-acre vineyards have hit his merlot and tempranillo crops, although his cabernet, mourvèdre and grenache, all susceptible to mold, have survived, he said.
Buying outside fruit is not an option at Rancho Rossa Vineyards, a small boutique winery in Elgin with five acres of vines on Cattle Ranch Lane located on a slope above Elgin Road, and 19 acres a quarter-mile away on Elgin Road.
Owner Chris Hamilton said he escaped the April frost that hit his Elgin Road neighbors — he’s higher up — but the late monsoon rains wreaked havoc on his grapes.
“It’s been really, really wet and it’s drying out,” he said two weeks ago as daytime temperatures returned to the low 90s. “But now we’re dealing with the rot issues. We’re picking today. All those bunches that rotted, they hit the ground and we pick the good ones.”
Hamilton estimated that he will bring in about 20 tons of fruit, about half of what he can harvest in a good year. That means he will only be able to produce 1,200 to 1,400 cases of wine.
“If we don’t pull enough, we’re out of luck,” he said, explaining that his customers appreciate that his wines are entirely estate grapes. “It is what it is; I can’t prevent the weather from taking my crop. There’s nothing you can do about it. It hurts our bottom line. … We just don’t make as much money.”
Hamilton, who is a commercial airlines pilot, bought his 300-acre spread in 1999 and planted his first vines on 24 acres in 2002. He opened his tasting room in 2006, pouring from his first vintages.
“We have a following who knows us specifically because we are 100 percent estate grapes,” he said. “I want to be the one who makes the wine, puts the cap on, puts on the label. It’s not just the money thing for me. … I take pride in my work and I do want it to be all of my product. I want to know that I started it from start to finish.”
Hamilton said he has no plans to raise his prices to compensate for his losses.
The picture is less bleak for some vineyards in Sonoita.
Arizona Hops and Vines on Highway 82 harvested 1ƒ tons of white grapes and 4 tons of reds, which winemaker Megan Haller attributed to her youth — she and her sister, Shannon Zouzoulas, have operated the vineyard for four years — and her “questionable farming skills.”
“Our fruit was great. I can’t say that the hail or frost impacted our yield. It was more likely my farming skills,” she joked. “Everything is turning out just so good and I am so excited about everything.”
Sonoita Vineyards, the oldest vineyard in Arizona, will be down about 500 pounds when they finish the harvest later this month, said field hand Lincoln Cranford.
“We don’t see this year as being a loss of anything other than the normal situation,” he said. “I think we’ve had hail a couple times … and that’s always a problem up here with hail tearing up your vines. But we tend to be a little more lucky because we are down the road a couple miles.”
Cranford said the vineyard escaped any serious mildew issues.
“It’s not as devastating as it sounds,” he said. “The fruit is still very durable.”