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Arizona soil and wine pioneer remembered

Lee Allen WFP-lee-allen-dutt.jpg
Gordon Dutt, 91, was a wine pioneer in Arizona.
Gordon Dutt, 91, was called the 'face of Arizona wine.'

“Never be scared to do new things,” he said before setting out to plant the first commercial vineyard in Arizona half a century ago.

The era of Gordon Dutt ended in September when he died at age 91, although what he started continues in the form of Sonoita Vineyards, run by his granddaughter, Lori Reynolds.

If not the actual Father of Arizona Wines, he was an original pioneer, so early to the party that wine historian Erik Berg calls him "the face of Arizona wine.”

“Not only did he help start it and stay continuously active in it, nobody has had the length of experience and interaction with Arizona as him,” Berg is quoted in an Arizona Republic obituary.  “He was there at the beginning, active and involved and an important part of Arizona wines right up to the end.”

At the inaugural Southern Arizona wine festival a few years ago, a fund-raiser to build a University of Arizona research library on the subject of wine making, the then-retired scientist, the acknowledged Johnny Appleseed of local grape growers, said that when he planted his first vine, he never foresaw the start of an industry although, “I had all the hopes in the world that there would be somewhere in the state where we could make real quality wine and I hoped it was here in Southern Arizona.”

With a glass of locally-produced product and a twinkle in his eye, he said: “Wine is healthy and people who indulge moderately live longer --- I’m proof of that.”

Focus on grapes

Dutt was less involved in the process of making wine as he was in the matter of growing the grapes that went into making the wine.  The Montana native began his wine journey as a California soil scientist at UC Davis with its renowned viticulture and enology programs where he learned that grapes have a unique taste dependent on the soil in which they are grown.

Transferring to the faculty of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture in the early 1970s, he planted experimental grapes before expanding to his first collection of vines on a hillside in Sonoita in 1978.  The effort, the now 30+ acre Vina Sonoita, became known as the state’s first commercial vineyard planted at elevation 5,000 feet among rolling grasslands surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges.

Some four decades ago, the California transplant discovered things were done differently in the desert.  Writing in what was called The Four Corners Report [The Use of Soils for the Delineation of Viticultural Zones in the Four Corners Region], Dutt and fellow authors noted: “The California base 50-growing-degree-day model fails to predict zones in the Four Corners Region comparable to California in adaptable varieties, sugar and acid, or color of red varieties,” they wrote, advocating, “A new model has been developed based on modern soil surveys and altitude.”

“Wine professionals told him he was out of his mind, but his convictions and stubbornness helped him weather the criticism,” winery owner Kent Callaghan told the Arizona Daily Star.

With his persistence and subsequent successes, Dutt helped Sonoita earn an AVA or American Viticultural Area designation making the area an official federally-certified wine producing region in a state that now boasts more than 120 wineries.

Among many firsts attributed to the man with a pioneering spirit, Dutt was instrumental in assuring passage of the Arizona Farm Winery Law that allowed farm wineries to sell wines from their tasting rooms as well as the establishment of the Arizona Wine Growers Association and the Arizona Wine Commission.

Impact on other growers

Other growers looked to see what Dutt was up to before emulating his efforts  like hillside planting utilizing berms to minimize water use and reduce the effects of erosion.  Sustainability through innovation has always been a keyword like composting all wine-making byproducts like grape skins, stems, and seeds for use as fertilizer.

Dutt was known as a creative problem solver, “He didn’t take no for an answer,” said fellow University of Arizona researcher Merle Jensen, himself known as a pioneer in the area of drip irrigation.

“He planted grapevines on slopes and added salt to the soil to break down soil colloid so the water wouldn’t run off and he could collect it.  What did run off went into a pond where he covered the entire surface with floating aluminum cans to stop evaporation of the pond water,” Jensen remembered.  “He proved you could collect water if you did certain things to the soil.

“Because he never took no for an answer, he always found a way to circumvent regulations.  We were both crusaders for change who took on the system.  It’s easy for professors to go into a trance and stay there as long as they get paid, but we both thrived well when we forced things and made them happen.”

Reynolds, his granddaughter, is the winemaker now at Sonoita Vineyards: “He was such a pioneer and made an industry out of nothing," she said.  "Everybody at the University of Arizona thought he was crazy, literally crazy, thinking you could grow wine grapes in Arizona.”

Reminded that there is a fine line between insanity and genius, she noted: “He walked that fine line and should be remembered for his forward-thinking and his drive to never give up on his beliefs.”

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