The rolling high desert grasslands of southeastern Arizona represent the state’s original wine country, the state’s first American Viticultural Area established over three decades ago.
Flying Leap Vineyards joined that presence in 2010. “We started out with a 20 acre parcel and planted our first grapes in 2011. We added a second and third block by 2015 and are now in our 4th block after eight years of expanding the property,” said Mark Beres, President/CEO and master distiller.
The alcoholic-beverage producer now represents 100 acres with 60 currently under cultivation producing 18 varieties of grapes. “We produce both wines and distilled spirits so we’re farmers, producers, and sellers, all under one roof,” he said. “We’re one of the most vertically integrated wine and spirits companies in the country.”
Among their unique qualities are their best sellers -- a blended Spanish grape, Grenache Graziano, infused with real habanero chiles, and Trio, a high-alcohol three-grape blend.
Another thing that sets them apart is using something that most growers either compost or toss out completely – grappa, or non-traditional brandy. This is made not from wine, but from fruit remnants, the pomace slurry mix of crushed grapes, skins, seeds, and juice that is pressed and filtered. Pomace is rich in sugar, nitrogen, and amino acids and other goodies that can be made into eau-de-vin or a “second wine”.
“If you take raisins and squeeze them down to almost nothing but a skin caked together and slightly moist, that’s pomace,” Beres said. “It’s dense and full of seeds and stems, a by-product of the wine press. Wine comes directly out of the press and is distilled into brandy. Pomace comes out the other end of the wine press, and at our vineyard, gets processed into our own aperitif.”
A business decision
Making grappa was a business decision. “I pay X dollars to grow grapes and get so many tons of fruit from my investment,” Beres said. “I produce wine that returns a certain value. Most vineyards throw their pomace into the garbage or sprinkle it back on the vineyard as compost. We prefer to take that by-product and recycle it into another salable market item, spreading the cost of that crop over more sellable products and lowering the cost-per-pound basis of the fruit itself.
“If I spend X dollars to grow crop and can then distribute that cost over a broader product portfolio, my price-per-pound of fruit goes down. Producing grappa gives us a really strong, competitive advantage over other growers.”
To make a 25-30 gallon barrel, it takes about six acres of previously-used grape and a lot of added cost and labor involvement with the heavy, bulky mass. “The logistics in handling pomace and the costs of producing it are great,” he said.
But then comes the customer side of it. “We sell shots of our locally-distilled whiskeys for $6 an ounce while grappa returns at $10 an ounce for a 144 proof libation with a 72% alcohol content that requires some dilution before consumption.”
Currently some 15 50-gallon barrels, now four years old, continue the aging process process in French oak casks filled with a seasonal blend of Viognier, Malvasia Blanca, Grenache Blanc, Pic Poul, Ugni blanc, and Marsanne skins.
“We don’t rush things to market,” added Beres. “The longer it ages, the more it develops a smoother sipping spirit.”