Harvest came early to Willcox wine country, courtesy of a kinder, gentler hand from Mother Nature.
But an hour south in Elgin/Sonoita, it could be another couple weeks before the harvest begins in earnest at Kent Callaghan’s namesake vineyards.
A late April frost wreaked havoc on his crops and pushed the harvest back weeks. It also has left him with what he thinks will be his smallest yield since the 2011 harvest, when he lost 85 percent of the crop to bad weather.
“You have to remember it’s far cooler here than most regions,” Callaghan said, adding that while Elgin and Willcox are separated by about 75 miles, they are worlds apart in terms of climate. The Elgin/Sonoita wine country sits at 4,700 feet in elevation; most of Willcox’s vineyards are at around 4,300 feet.
“These are two completely different growing regions,” he said Wednesday night as rain was forecast for Thursday morning. “They’re having a good harvest until now. They are actually getting rained on this week. It’s going to be problematic for them this week and for us, as well.”
The late monsoon rains have stopped most of the Willcox growers from harvesting the last of their reds, but they say they are still weeks ahead of schedule.
“The fruit’s been really good and I think this is going to be a great vintage,” said Robert Carlson, who runs his family’s Carlson Creek Vineyards sitting on 160 acres at the intersection of Robb Road and Kansas Settlement Road in Willcox. “We usually get a bunch of snow; we only had a little bit this year and it wasn’t terribly cold, so the vines on the vineyard woke up earlier than usual.”
By mid-August, Carlson had completed harvesting his white grapes and started focusing his attention on the reds. As of early last week, he had brought in about half of his red grapes before rainstorms late in the week ground everything to a halt.
“We’re still ahead of schedule,” he said, adding that he planned to get back to picking shortly.
Carlson said he anticipates he’ll harvest 60 tons of grapes, up from last year’s 35 tons. Some of the increase comes from 17 acres of newly matured vines.
Carlson Creek has 57 acres under vine with plans to plant another 100 acres. But those plans are on hold as the family focuses the next year on building a $2 million winery complex. It will include a tasting room, a large fermentation space and drive-through crush pads.
Sand-Reckoner Vineyards owner/winemaker Rob Hammelman spent the early part of last week harvesting part of his white grapes including Malvasia and vermentino. He said as far as he can tell, “everything is looking good.”
“The year started off warm. Everything came out early. The first half of the season was warm, warm, warm. Then midway through things slowed down,” he said. “We had a cool, late summer with lots of cloud cover. The grapes have ripened with lower sugar levels, but still with really nice ripe flavors.”
Among the small-batch varietals he is most excited about is his estate Sagrantino that he planted three years ago. It’s mostly grown in Italy, but Hammelman decided to plant it on his 12-acre Willcox vineyard because the conditions there are similar to the growing conditions in Italy. He anticipates that he’ll have enough Sagrantino to produce two barrels of wine.
Hammelman has about four acres under vine with plans to plant another five. For the past couple years, he has been buying fruit from seven or eight of his neighbors to ramp up production. He has gone from producing 500 cases of wine in the first couple years since his first harvest in 2010 to 2,000 cases the last two years.
“We are introducing some bigger lot wines. We have the ‘W’ white wine and we’re coming out with the ‘R,’ a red zinfandel Rome- style wine available as a keg wine for restaurants around Tucson,” he said, noting that Ermanos Craft Beer & Wine, and Tap & Bottle in Tucson carry his wines.
One of the newest vineyards selling Hammelman grapes is Rhumb Line Vineyard, 15 miles south of Willcox. Three years ago, Michelle Minta and Todd Myers bought the land and planted 10 acres of vines. This year is their first harvest, and Myers said he anticipates they will have 10 tons of grapes when they finish harvesting.
“We have been involved in the Arizona wine industry and we have loved the wine for quite a few years,” said Minta, who said she and her husband, both in their early 40s, were looking for an early retirement venture in farming when they found the Willcox land.
They have no intention of making their own wine or starting a label, she said. Instead, the couple believes they are helping the Arizona wine industry by providing grapes to other winemakers.
Callaghan said he also is buying fruit from Rhumb Line to fill in the gaps of his diminished harvest. But with 1,000 cases of wine on hand from previous vintages, he said the smaller crop “is not a problem for us at all. We are actually in great shape.”
And with the smaller harvest might come a better quality wine, Callaghan said.
“Not always, but generally speaking, the lighter the crop the sweeter, more intense flavor,” he said.
Callaghan expects to produce 2,000 cases of wine this year.