Sitting restlessly in his office in downtown Tempe, Ariz., Rod Keeling is ready to toast goodbye to a job he has enjoyed as director of the Downtown Tempe Community. Spanning a career that included flying as a commercial pilot and as the main street program coordinator for the Arizona Department of Commerce, he will soon realize his life-long passion: full-time vintner.

His agricultural roots were first planted as a child on the family cotton operation near Casa Grande, Ariz. In 2000, Keeling and his wife, Jan Schaefer, purchased 18 acres on Rock Creek at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains near Pearce in southeastern Arizona. The couple has built and nurtured the Cochise County vineyard, and are excited about their first wine release just in time for Christmas: 45 cases of 2005 Two Reds Grenache, a spicy Rhone blend with 14 percent Syrah, available strictly through a “friend’s list”; and 350 cases of 2005 Three Sisters Syrah, a big, earthy, fruit-forward, full bodied Rhone for sale to the public.

While Arizona is often touted as the low desert with months of 100-degree scorching summer days, growing wine grapes is often deemed impossible. But high desert elevations of 3,700 to 5,300 feet with daytime highs of 85-90 degrees and evening lows of 65-70 degrees make the mountain region climate in northern and southern Arizona suitable for growing wine grapes.

Pioneer days

Gordon Dutt is considered the father of Arizona’s wine industry. He earned his doctorate from the University of California at Davis. As a soil science professor at the University of Arizona, he worked hand in hand with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify suitable specialty crops that could be grown in the four corner states – Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Wine grapes made the Arizona list.

Dutt and A. Blake Brophy established Arizona’s first experimental vineyard on the Ignacio de Babocomari Ranch in southern Arizona in 1973. While Arizona’s intense sun was expected to bleach the grapes for red wine and produce wines with poor color and low acidity, the results were quite the opposite. Red wines with brilliant color and acidity were the rule. Dutt’s analytical work concluded that Arizona soil in potential grape-growing areas was nearly identical to the ground in Burgundy, France.

In 1978, Dutt developed Arizona’s first commercial winery, his Sonoita Vineyards in Elgin, and opened the winery in 1983. His first Cabernet vintage was produced in 1984. His wine was served at President George Bush Sr.’s inauguration.

Progress

Today, Arizona’s infantile wine industry includes 22 wineries and 30 vineyards on 400 acres, adding an estimated economic value of $18-20 million to the state’s economy. Keeling noted acreage and gallons have doubled over the last five years, and could double again by 2008. As president of the 50-member Arizona Wine Growers Association, Keeling said the organization’s goal is to achieve a $60 million industry by 2008.

Today, Arizona’s ground zero for vineyards and wineries (four locations) is the towns of Elgin and Sonoita, located about 30 miles north of the Mexico border in Santa Cruz County. The youthful industry pales in comparison to its well-respected neighbor, California, that boasts a $1.6 billion wine grape industry, according to the California Department of Agriculture’s 2004 Statistical Review.

Arizona is not seeking to copy California’ wine successes. Instead, it is mirroring Oregon’s wine industry, which has worked hard discovering the varieties best for Oregon. While Oregon’s niche may be considered Pinot Noir, Keeling said Arizona’s future shining star could be Grenache.

Applause

From its early days, Arizona’s infant wine industry has experienced trials and tribulations. In the first years, “People tried to enter the wine business but few understood the wine business,” said Keeling. “A lot of wine money has gone to wine heaven in Arizona over the years.”

True enough, Arizona is no California, but the Grand Canyon State’s tried and true wine entrepreneurs feel they are due respect – and even a toast.

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com