What Kind of TOOL Makes Wine in the Desert?

The following post was submitted and written by Culinary Mercenary:

Ah, wine country.  The beautiful vineyards, the relaxing atmosphere, the wonderfully colorful people and the amazing landscape; Arizona is truly a remarkable place.  Whoa!!  Arizona?!?   Hell yes I say, Arizona.  Welcome to the new wine country, here in the Verde Valley in northern Arizona. 

Recently, I took my annual trip to lend my hands to the harvest and crush, an experience that everyone who “thinks” they know wine should endure.   I come out to Arizona once a year, in September, not just to visit my viticulturist friends, but to expand my ever so thirsty lust for knowledge of wine. 

I’m not just talking about the day to day general information, but a deeper understanding of how, why, for what reason, in what stage, on what level and much, much more.   I want to know what it takes to actually get that grape drink into those bottles, from dirt and vine, to fruit and bin, to barrel then bottle.  It is a long and tedious process that I feel most wine drinkers have no real understanding about.   I believe it is the general consensus that wine making is nothing more than a few well dressed Frenchmen pontificating about the smells and aromas of a wine and then talking about it and laughing irritatingly; wrong.  Wine making, as I am told, and have experienced, is 49% moving heavy shit, 49% cleaning shit and 2% drinking beer. 

Forklifts, pallet jacks, one ton bins, seven ton bins and 1500 pound barrels (when full) stacked up to five stories high, that is an average day in a wine makers life and let me tell you, it is worth every blister, bruise and sore muscle.  Physical labor is a must and the bigger/stronger the worker the better.  I stand six foot one and tip the scale at 250 pounds, I tend to think I am in pretty good shape going to the gym and such, but this was brutal work even for me.   Lifting, pushing and pulling over a ton of dead weight for hours on end, this is real blue collar work.

I had the opportunity to visit two of my good friends Eric Glomski of Page Springs Cellars (PSC) and Maynard Keenan of Caduceus Cellars.   In a separate project they come together to produce Arizona Stronghold Vineyards (their national brand). 

I started down at Page Springs Cellars in Cottonwood AZ, about half hour south of Sedona. The climate was cool, yes cool.  Peoples biggest misconception about these wineries is, "hey, isn’t Arizona full of just desert, cactus and cement?"  The answer is no.  In the Verde Valley the elevation is between 3500 to 5100 feet, and this makes for an amazing mix of micro climates to go along with the every so changing over lay climate that can be the most challenging issue for the farming aspect of the vineyards.  Frost is an issue, and pests such as raccoons, birds, javelina (a small wild pig) and other varmint, but not heat as many would expect.  I was able to assist in the stemming, inoculating, punching and ultimately pressing of some of the wines, those that were already oppressed I would help to barrel and wrack.  I enjoy my time at PSC because by now I am “one of the crew,” after a few years.  I spent some time in the lab as well where the wine is tested for progression, acid and base levels and for malolactic (ML) fermentation testing.  This is what occurs in the wine after the fermentation of sugars into alcohol, it is when the malic acid (a very sharp tannic acid) converts into lactic acid (a smoother more palatable acid, like in milk). 

The night before I left Eric at PSC we enjoyed an amazing meal at the renowned restaurant Elote in Sedona, authentic Oaxacan cuisine.  I tell you this, if you are in the Sedona area do yourself a favor and go here!!!  It is that good!!  I was fortunate enough to be in the company of friends that knew the Chef/owner Jeff Smedstad, a truly gifted chef in authentic Oaxacan Mexican cuisine, so we received  the “special” treatment.  I can not tell you all that I had because after the fifth course I lost my sights, maybe it was the constant crafty margaritas that miraculously kept appearing at my table.  Those, by the way, were outstanding!  But seriously, get out to Sedona, get a cab and get to Elote!

After an amazing meal and a great time at Page Springs Cellars I headed up north to Jerome, AZ to meet up with my friend Maynard Keenan, winemaker, viticulturist, musician, professional multi-tasker and all around good guy.  I had the pleasure of also working with wine consultant Greg Stokes from Paso Robles California, he was in town assisting Maynard in his crush.  Jerome houses the tasting room for Caduceus Cellars and has quite a history of its own.  It was once known as the billion dollar copper town and it burned to the ground three times in its history, for a while it became a ghost town and is now been revitalized as a home for artists, free thinkers and mostly hippies.  It is situated at an elevation of 5100 feet so for the first few hours your there, don’t go jogging.  It is a quaint little town with shops restaurants and bars, and of course a kick ass tasting room.  

Sangiovese Grosso was what I work on this time around.  Merkin vineyards produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sangiovese, Mouvedre, Malvasia Bianca, Nebiolo, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempernillo, Grenache, and more!  We stemmed, crushed, and barreled, but more than anything on this trip I had an opportunity to talk and pick the mind of a creative genius.  Whether he is making wine or music Maynard has a dedication and passion for everything and anything he does, maybe that is why we get along so well.  We made wine, moved and cleaned lots of shit, drank beer and talked about wine, life, food and much, much more but at the end of the day, as I drove away down the mountain lookkng back up at the town of Jerome perched ever so snug up high, I realized that this IS the new wine country, this IS the new frontier and this is worth it.

What I like most about both Maynard and Eric is their passion for their product, their respect for the land and their views on life in general. They do not make wine that chases the critics; they make the critics chase them.  The wine of Arizona is different, and as much as you may not believe it; it is that good.

So try something new, take a chance, get out of your comfort zone and live a little.  Stop following what magazines and critics say about wine and drink what you like.  Remember a $24 bottle of wine could be better than a $350 bottle if you know what you like and what to look for. 

As I like to say, if you are going to drink; drink well.

Viva La Cuisine!!!!

Culinary Mercenary