The Desert Leaf June 2013 : Page 36

Winemakers’ Secret Ingredient 36 DesertLeaf l June 2013 Story and Photography by Bill Norman Last August nearly 100 volunteers, mostly from Tucson, showed up on a Saturday morning to help harvest grapes.

Winemakers’ Secret Ingredient

Bill Norman

Last August nearly 100 volunteers, mostly from Tucson, showed up on a Saturday morning to help harvest grapes.<br /> <br /> We’ve heard it said that it takes a village to raise a child, but has anyone considered how many volunteers it takes to produce an award-winning wine?<br /> <br /> Entrepreneurs in Arizona’s burgeoning wine industry are getting a pretty good grip on that number.<br /> <br /> Our state now has dozens of vineyards, and they are producing some exceptional wines—a distinct contrast to the situation just a few years back when the number of winemakers here could be counted on two hands, and the quality, except in a few notable instances, was mediocre.<br /> <br /> One factor that may not be apparent, however, is the number of people who are contributing labor to achieve the final grape-derived product.<br /> <br /> Kent Callaghan, owner of Callaghan Vineyards in Elgin, has been making award-winning wines (three have been served at White House dinners of state) for 23 years. Wine Spectator magazine has consistently scored his reds, in particular, high in its rankings.Callaghan studied with the University of California Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.<br /> <br /> In the first three years, when the family vineyard acreage was small, he and his dad handled all of the work themselves, from tilling the soil, planting and fertilizing to stringing vine support wires, harvesting, crushing, pressing, bottling and marketing. Then for the next 14 years, he went it alone.<br /> <br /> “Six years ago, I finally realized I just couldn’t keep up with it during growing season,” he admits. Now he uses volunteers year-round for tasks such as planting new vines; pruning back older ones; thinning the leaves; stretching bird netting over ripening grapes; harvesting; and operating the tasting room where prospective buyers can sample his vintages.<br /> <br /> Milton and Sue Craig, co-owners of Charron Vineyards north of Sonoita, have been in the winemaking business three years. They both held management positions in information Technology, but one day decided they needed a major change.<br /> <br /> In their vineyard’s short tenure, their wines have impressed local judges. Their White Merlot took first place in the dessert category and best of show at the 2012 Santa Cruz County Fair. In the same competition, their Santa Rita Rosé won first place in the whites category.<br /> <br /> The Craigs have learned the value of volunteers, big time. Last August nearly 100 volunteers, mostly from Tucson, showed up on a Saturday morning to help harvest grapes. (Charron had sent out a newsletter announcing the event.) Milton had figured it would be a two-day effort, but the enthusiastic crew finished the job by 1p. m. on day one.<br /> <br /> “They are the friendliest, hardest working people on Earth,” he says.<br /> <br /> When asked why he thinks such people show up on his doorstep ready to work, he muses, “Our customers enjoy having a hand in creating the wine they’ll be drinking after the new wines are released. It’s a fun day for all of us, as well.”<br /> <br /> Volunteers Jeff and Lori Redmann of Tucson added their own perspectives. She’s an institutional researcher for the University of Arizona; he’s an auditor for Raytheon. “We volunteer partly to learn about the winemaking process, and partly to give back to the community, as well as just to help out the Craigs,” Jeff says.<br /> <br /> During that warm August day, the Craigs’ daughter Emma drove a golf cart up and down the rows of vines, offering cold water, sodas and cookies to grateful volunteers. As noon approached, everyone took a break for complimentary hot dogs, hamburgers and soft drinks, water or wine in the air-conditioned Charron tasting room and its exterior mister-cooled porch.<br /> <br /> As is the case at Charron, Callaghan off ers all the tools and gloves his volunteers will need for their work.Cold water is on hand. As additional incentive, he offers them free wine tastings and discounts on the price of full bottles and cases.<br /> <br /> Beverly Werber from Tucson has been helping out at Callaghan’s and several other area wineries for about a year and a half. She’s a retired communications consultant who moved here from Los Angeles, and she helps out with fundraisers and communications efforts for several Tucson non-profits.<br /> <br /> “It’s a lot of fun,” she says of the work in the vineyards. “It’s great being a part of Arizona’s growing wine industry.”<br /> <br /> Giving her some pointers on a January morning was Wayne Tomasi, who’s a Callaghan veteran volunteer of six years. He’s a retired professor of electrical engineering; author of 20- some books; avid hiker; and, with his wife, substitute-teaches in grades K-12 at schools in and near Elgin/Sonoita wine country.<br /> <br /> “I’ve been interested in wine for a Long time. I grew up on a dairy farm, and this is a completely different crop,” he says.<br /> <br /> Callaghan figures one reason people volunteer is that it’s a life experience of doing something new and learning about the basics of wine production.<br /> <br /> One winemaker who hasn’t had quite as much luck with volunteers is Sam Pillsbury, primary owner of Pillsbury Wine Company. He is also a film director from New Zealand.<br /> <br /> He figures that the problem lies primarily with distance. Although his tasting room and main sales venue is located in Cottonwood, in the Verde Valley between Phoenix and Flagstaff , his vineyards are near Kansas Settlement in Cochise County.<br /> <br /> “For many volunteers it would be a 200-mile drive,” he acknowledges, “but we’re very grateful for any assistance we can get.” He says breakfast or lunch can be provided, and there’s now even a house on site if workers want to overnight.<br /> <br /> His winery is no slouch when it comes to accolades. Phoenix magazine named it Best Local Winemaker; Arizona Foothills magazine named it Best Arizona Winery. Wine Spectator gave Pillsbury’s Petite Sirah its top ranking of 89.<br /> <br /> For more information about these wineries and volunteer opportunities, visit; and The three also communicate through online newsletters and social media. The Arizona Wine Growers Association website,, provides details about winemakers statewide.<br /> <br /> Bill Norman is a local freelance writer, photographer and DesertLeaf editor.<br /> Comments for publication should be addressed to

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