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Arizona's wine grape learning curve

Jim Graham’s persona embodies a glass of handcrafted wine; half full of opportunity, but never half empty. Graham is a new, optimistic southeastern Arizona wine grape grower who admits he has a world to learn about viticulture.

“It’s one thing to grow a vine; it’s another thing to bring grapes to harvest,” said Graham, just weeks after his first grape harvest this fall.

Jim and Ruth Graham, Cochise, Ariz., launched Golden Rule Vineyards in 2007. Located in Cochise County’s Sulphur Springs Valley, the grape vineyards sit adjacent to a busy Union Pacific railroad track. Located at 4,300 feet in elevation, the vineyards include plentiful sunshine, good soils and sufficient groundwater.

The Graham’s four-acre planting in 2007 was harvested this August. The varietals include Zinfandel, Shiraz, and Sangiovese.

“I think there is exciting potential in the Sulphur Springs Valley for raising extraordinary grapes,” Graham said. “The high elevation plus high ultraviolet light levels may have advantages for French varietal production.”

The same varietals were planted on seven additional acres in 2008. Plantings next spring will include a 3.75-acre block of Cabernet Sauvignon. Plans for 2011 include a combined 3.75-acre block of Petite Sirah and Petite Verdot, plus another 3.75-acre block of Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot grapes may be planted in 2012.

The long-term goal is 30-50 acres of vines. “We want very much to be an estate winery that creates handcrafted wine utilizing the latest technology,” said Graham while standing next to Zinfandel vines which had just bared first fruit.

Recession-based cash flow problems and other issues delayed the family’s goal to build the winery this year.

“While we had a good 2009 crop, we didn’t have enough volume,” Graham noted.

Graham’s immediate focus is expanding wine grape acreage and custom crushing elsewhere.

Graham and vineyard manager Don Sobey harvested about 10.5 tons from the four acres in August. The selling price was $1,000 to $1,500/ton.

“That’s a significant yield off vines in the first year of production,” Sobey said.

The grapes will create Arizona wines. Graham sold his grapes to: Page Springs Cellars, Cornville; Arizona Stronghold, Camp Verde; Pillsbury Wine Co., Phoenix (Sam Pillsbury is a U.S. filmmaker); Javelina Leap Winery, Sedona; and several others, all in Arizona.

The Grahams have no background in wine grapes, but solid footing as farmers. They grow 160-acres of pistachios on their Cochise Groves, LLC operation further down the rutted Golden Rule Road.

The couple sold their corn, soybean, hog, and beef cattle operation in Iowa in 1998 to manage Ruth’s parents’ out-of-state pistachio investment in Cochise.

“We found pistachios to be a bit of a roller coaster in production since pistachios are alternate bearing,” Graham said.

Searching for ways to add a value-added enterprise to the family farm business Graham explored building a pistachio processing plant.

“It wasn’t feasible due to the limited size of our operation,” Graham said. “The processing plant just didn’t pencil out for us … There are distinct advantages to crop diversification so we wouldn’t have all of our nuts in one basket. That’s why we diversified into wine grapes.”

Water is another key factor in the wine grape decision. Pistachio production in Cochise County requires about 4 acre-feet of water compared to about 2.5 acre-feet for grapes.

While groundwater supplies are currently adequate, electrical costs for pumping thin Graham’s wallet.

Graham’s pistachio-grape operation has five, 500-foot deep wells with a static water level of about 300 feet. The valley typically receives about 13 inches of rain annually. This year’s rainfall totals less than 4 inches so far.

Graham hired long-time friend Sobey in 2007 to assist with pistachios and as the vineyard manager. Sobey’s roots are in the corrections field. Before taking the grape plunge, the grape growers participated in a University of California, Davis varietal production short course to learn a few basics.

“Jim and I came into this with zero knowledge of viticulture,” Sobey said. “The culture of a vineyard is an entirely different animal.”

To advance their knowledge the grape newbies pick the brains of other vineyard owners and managers including those who purchase their grapes. Since Cochise County grape-growing conditions closely mimic those found in New Mexico, Sobey and Graham bend the ears of New Mexico State University viticulture specialists.

Sobey noted, “Many Texas and New Mexico wine grape growers concentrate on hybrids and the American varietals due to their climate. We think we can adapt our practices to make Mediterranean varietals work well here.”

The French varietals harvested in August matured several weeks early. The Shiraz grapes were picked on Aug. 12, followed by Sangiovese the next week, and then Zinfandel.

“We plan to manage the vines to produce about 3 tons per acre,” Sobey said.

The growers use the vertical shoot positioning (VSP) system for vine positioning and canopy development. Future vines may be trained in a split-canopy VSP.

“We have a lot of sun here and can gain improved balance and fruit load with a split canopy system that allows the sun in over the top,” Sobey explained. “This allows the sun to move down through the middle to enhance cluster development and minimize sunburned fruit.”

Initial plantings are in rows 10 feet wide and 6 feet between the vines (10-by-6). Plantings this spring will be 10-by-4 or 10-by-5.

“Moving some varietals closer together makes sense depending on vigor and canopy development,” Sobey said. “This can produce better grapes, healthier vines, and protect the crop.” The long-term plan is to harvest all grapes by hand.

Vineyard soils are loamy alluvial with granite which drain well, he notes.

Deer and rabbits are the main pest pressure early in the growing season. When the grapes entered the veraison stage (turning green to purple) this year, the vineyard mimicked scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s noted television episode “The Birds.” The onslaught of birds consumed or ruined 20 percent of the crop.

“Every type of songbird that existed in Arizona lived here for a while,” said Sobey. “It was pretty incredible.”

Unknown is whether the exceptionally dry summer and the almost non-existent rainy monsoon season attracted the birds to the moisture-laden grapes. Mylar tape and propane canons failed to keep the birds away. Netting and pre-recorded predator sounds broadcast through a sound system will hopefully ward off excess bird numbers.

The virgin grape site has no evidence of nematodes yet, Sobey says.

Summer temperatures in the Sulphur Springs Valley range from 95 to 105 degrees while early fall nights dip into the 50s; perfect for grape maturation.

Bud break occurred in March. A late-season freeze April 16-17 around 25 degrees caused some crop loss. Winter temperatures can plunge into the teens.

“We are working to develop healthy vines,” Sobey said. “That’s hard to do, but it’s a real goal. Healthy vines are essential to growing good fruit.”

Graham added, “Our price point will reflect quality wines with more expensive hands-on work. The price point should reflect good marketing and quality.”

Graham is bullish about wine grape growth in the valley which has about a dozen vineyards on about 200 acres; an amount that could easily surpass 500 acres in the next few years.

“We still haven’t learned which varieties will do best here and which specific clones within the varieties will produce the best berries for the wines we want to make,” Graham explained.

“No one has been able to identify that in Arizona wine grape production. It’s been somewhat of a shotgun approach in Arizona varietal plantings. People are making their best guess.”

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TAGS: Grapes
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