Emboldened by the runaway growth of Arizona winemaking, a colony of daring do-it-yourselfers is trying to turn dusty, disrespected Kingman into the state’s next wine hotspot.

Oenophiles of the I-10

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Lifestyle Issue: September 2016
Group Free

 

You've arrived in Kingman, Arizona.

How do you know? It’s that moment you pull into a Denny’s parking lot, look across the street, and see another Denny’s. 

Cultural diversity is not the traditional calling card of this Mohave County city. Sitting on the eastern edge of the Mohave Desert about 85 miles southeast of Las Vegas, where the Colorado River Valley dissolves into a vast, semi-arid flat, Kingman is known chiefly as a trucker town, one of the lesser diversions on historical Route 66. It’s a place you use to stretch your legs on the way to Vegas or California. Stretch, pee, leave. 

Of course, not everyone sees Kingman this way. Home to 60,000 people, greater Kingman also boasts a robust farming community, most of it concentrated in a sandy, massive, Rhode Island-size desert basin northeast of town – full of big, uncrowded ranches and fenceless properties, where retirees and rural-minded folk can permanently cut the cord on big-city bustle.

Ultimately, it was this dimension of Kingman – not the absence of ballet troupes and post-nouvelle French bistros – that left the biggest impression on California auto shop kingpin Carlos Cella when he first visited the area in 2006. Specifically, he liked the soil – the sandy, gravelly, unpromising-looking dirt that no home gardener in his right mind would use for summer squash.

“I took a sample and sent it to Irvine, California, at a lab that I use,” Cella recalls, surveying the neat rows of grapevines on his 20-acre property at Cella Winery. “You know, for pH and other things... potassium, magnesium. And it came back really, really good. Better than my vineyard in California. So then I knew.” 

As it turns out, Cella’s epiphany marked the beginning of the unlikeliest of things, and most delightful of paradoxes, in Kingman: a wine scene.

To fully appreciate the phenomenon of wine in Kingman, it pays to step back and look at a map – specifically, a color-coded map of Arizona that demonstrates elevation. If you plot Arizona’s most respected and productive wine regions – Verde Valley, Willcox and Sonoita/Elgin – on such a map, you’ll notice something interesting: They all reside in the same general “color,” which is to say, the 3,500- to 4,800-foot range, about twice as high as the Valley of the Sun.

 

With respect to hot-climate grapevine cultivation, the advantage of higher elevation is manifest: It offers cooler temperatures akin to the great wine regions of Europe and California. Of course, a winegrower doesn’t want to plant too high, lest he invite the risk of early-season frost and loss of growth. This is one reason why, say, Prescott at 5,400 feet would prove challenging for grapevines. 

Josh Moffitt is a Scottsdale-based real estate agent and vineyard broker. He says it’s a widely held fiction that the Valley is too hot and dry for grapevine cultivation. In fact, the fruit does spectacularly well here. “Phoenix used to be one of the great growing regions for table grapes, before Mexican growers undercut the market,” Moffitt says. “With the heat and sunshine, [grapes] ripen quicker and get to market quicker.” 

But a lickety-split growing season is not the ideal arrangement for vitis vinifera, the family of small, tart grapes from which wine is produced. “Grapes grow great in Phoenix, but not for wine,” Moffitt says. “[Wine grapes] need longer on the vine for balance, a longer hang-time on the vine. More time to develop balance between the sugar and the bitter [components]. Otherwise you get a flaccid, uninteresting wine.”

To that end, a cooler, higher elevation gives wine-grape growers the longer hang-time they need – typically about six months. And there are other benefits. “[Another] thing about elevation that’s good for wine, is the higher you go, the thicker the skin of the grape gets to protect it from UV light,” Moffitt says. “And that affects the ratio of skin to liquid. It gives you a more jammy and complex wine.”

By Moffitt’s reckoning, the “sweet spot” for Arizona wine is around 3,500 feet. “That’s about the elevation of the Willcox bench,” Moffitt says, referring to the fertile neighborhood in Southern Arizona wine country that such well-regarded growers as Pillsbury Wine Company, Sand-Reckoner Vineyards and Bodega Pierce call home. “You get the advantages [of higher elevation] without some of the winter-kill issues that higher-elevation wineries deal with. People remember the time the four wineries in Sonoita [at 4,800 feet] got destroyed by hail. It killed harvest and vines, too.”

3,500 feet is also roughly the elevation of Cornville, where the much-admired estate wines of Page Springs Cellars and Javelina Leap Vineyard & Winery are grown.

And, yes, it also happens to be the elevation of Kingman. 

 

After selling his auto-body shop in Huntington Beach, Cella did not come to Arizona alone. The Argentina native also brought along his wife Zulma and fellow Orange County residents Don and Jo Stetson. 

Jo Stetson was Cella’s longtime banker in California. Her husband Don was winding down after a long career producing aerial shows. Like Cella, they were interested in moving to Kingman and snapping up some inexpensive single-family homes as rental investments. And they also had a notion to make wine as a retirement hobby of sorts. 

But did Kingman immediately strike them as a promising region for a vineyard? “To be honest, the first time out, hitting that dirt road – hell, no,” Jo, feisty and bespectacled, says. “But it was quiet and peaceful, and we liked that.” 

Encouraged by those favorable pH readings – according to winemaking literature, the ideal soil for vitis vinifera is just south of a neutral 7 on the pH scale, at a slightly acidic 6.5 – Cella recruited the Stetsons to invest with him on the original, 5-acre lot where Cella Winery stands today. Cella drilled a well to tap the vast aquifer under the valley and in 2008 planted familiar red varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Malbec. 

A jovial, compact man of Italian lineage who suggests John Belushi had the late comic lived into his 60s, Cella did not stumble into winemaking blindly. His childhood on a rural homestead outside Buenos Aires involved tending the tiny family vineyard and participating in seasonal off-the-books crushings; winemaking “was a chore, not a choice,” he recalls. Later, after immigrating to the U.S. and amassing his fortune in California, he purchased and developed a winery in the Temecula Valley outside Riverside, riding the wave as the region grew to become Southern California’s premier winemaking area.  

So even though he was impressed with the “excellent drainage” of Kingman’s sandy soil – so vital in monsoon regions, where standing water can infect grapevines with mildew rot – he was also sensitive to his new vineyard’s limitations, which is why he declined to plant any white varietals. “Good weather for white grapes is humidity and cold, and we don’t have either,” Cella says reasonably within the comfortable confines of his tasting room, as Zulma sets out a platter of cheese and fruit for visitors. “But for red grapes, it’s great. My vines here actually use less water than the ones in Temecula.”

Meanwhile, the Stetsons watched, learned and ultimately planted their own vineyard not 200 meters down the road on Moonscape Way, surrendering their stake in the Cella vineyard. (Neither party will get into specifics, but Cella intimates there was a financial disagreement over the material costs of running the winery.)

The Stetsons put Merlot, Cabernet, Malbec and Zinfandel in the ground in the spring of 2013 – sturdy, popular varietals, but none of the Rhône family, such as Syrah and Mourvèdre, reputed to 

excel in  Arizona’s climate. “We had no idea what to grow in the ground, tell you the truth,” Don Stetson says with a laugh.

An easygoing silver fox, Don was less willing to chance it when his grapes were ready to harvest – he called Arizona wine pioneer Eric Glomski, who runs a sizable “custom-crush” concierge winemaking business in addition to owning and running Page Springs Cellars and Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. Trucking its Kingman grapes to Glomski’s facility in Camp Verde, Stetson Winery bottled its first estate Zinfandel and Merlot vintages this year. 

The Stetsons are nothing if not ambitious; in 2012, they opened a 6,500-square-foot, hangar-like tasting room and outdoor event space off the vineyard, one the most lavish of its kind in the state, pouring outsourced wines.

“We thought it was a good fit for the community,” Jo says. “Kingman didn’t have anything like this before... a nice place for weddings and things like that. People aren’t necessarily the biggest wine drinkers out here, but who doesn’t like a pretty place to throw a party?”

Cella harvested his first vintage in 2010 and crushed, fermented and bottled it on a small-volume system at his vineyard, eventually running his production to a few hundred cases a year, but rarely registering as a blip outside Mohave County, where all of his wine is sold.

 

  

Sunlight, soil and water aren’t the only tricky aspects of farming grapes – there’s also the small matter of harvesting them, which can be a troublesome proposition in places without a large pool of freelance farm laborers. 

However, harvesting turned out to be a breeze for Painted Rock Vineyards owners Bill and Angela Maddox when they harvested their debut vintage last fall – they just went out and made some friends. “Ange rounded up a couple people from the neighborhood,” Bill, an engaging Sam Elliott lookalike, recalls. “Like there’s a doctor who lives down the way. Great guy. Helped us plant and harvest. So we did it that way. We all just went out and picked them. We have some really nice neighbors.”

The yield from that harvest is resting in five 20-gallon jugs in an air-conditioned shed just off the 2-acre vineyard – enough Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to fill about 500 wine bottles when the Maddoxes unleash the vintage this fall.

It represents a significant professional step for the winemakers, and also a meaningful symbolic step for Kingman, which will then boast the largest, densest cluster of wineries in Arizona outside the big three growing regions. The Maddoxes have poured the foundation for a 3,000-square-foot tasting room and hope to have it running by 2017.

Bill and Angela – who met online seven years ago and married soon after – are likely in a more advanced position than their Kingman wine colleagues were at comparable stages in their wine endeavors, for the simple fact that both were full-time professional farmers before moving to Arizona: Bill as an orchard manager in Washington’s Columbia Valley, Angela working vineyards in Australian wine country.

Consequently, Bill was able to knowledgeably select the root stalk that he and Angela would graft their chosen varietals onto: “Something that works in high altitudes, warmer weather and is drought-resistant,” he says. And Angela has the know-how to pare back grapevine growth made over-exuberant by the ample Arizona sunshine. 

“It’s astounding how quickly these vines started to yield,” says Angela, who planted the vines in 2014 and pulled usable fruit from them just one season later, a year sooner than expected. “But all that growth this early in the plant’s lifespan is bad for the roots, and bad for the fruit. So we trim them back.” The couple has formed a friendship and partnership with Cella down the road; he helps manage their crush and bottling, they lend him their expertise in the vagaries of crop management. 

The Maddoxes’ farming expertise will be useful, because growing grapes in Kingman surely offers some challenges. Despite the elevation, the weather is hot and the days are long, and over-ripening is always a danger. Exhibit A: Stetson’s new estate Zinfandel, which gives you a startling boom of minerality and alcohol on the front end, the result of a “late pressing,” Glomski says. (It should be noted that the wine settles in nicely on the third or fourth mouthful.)

Given these challenges, and its relatively remote location, does Kingman have the potential to lure more tyro winemakers to its sandy basin? Glomski admits he never considered Kingman farmland when he first started growing grapes for his Arizona wine operation, but “that was because we didn’t want to live in Kingman” – it had little to do with the climate or conditions. “One of the things we’ve been stressing for years is that Arizona is so diverse,” he says. “From down near Yuma at sea level with its sand dunes to Phoenix to ponderosa forests, there’s so many different biomes in this state... it’s a huge area with a wide diversity of soil. The challenge is to adapt farming practices to that unique environment.”

He also applauds the winemakers’ trailblazing spirit in bringing wine to an area that, frankly, doesn’t fit the typical political profile of a wine region. 

“Who says wine just needs to be this thing that hip people do in cultural hubs?” he asks. “People thought I was nuts for being [a winemaker] in Central Arizona in the first place, so who am I to judge? Those guys found a home [in Kingman] and a way to enhance that place, bring culture and history to it.  And that’s the essence of wine.”

On that note, a bit of red-state mojo has already crept into the Kingman terroir, in the form of printed Bible verses that Jo Stetson and her pastor placed in every hole the Stetsons dug for their grapevines during their initial planting in 2013 – a fun aside for her local clientele, who tend to be church-going folk.

Accessibility will also work in Kingman’s favor. Land near the Cella and Stetson wineries was selling for as little as $2,000 an acre at the time of this writing; a 5-acre parcel with a working well already installed can be had for as little as $15,000. At the height of the market in 2006, Cella bought his 5-acre parcel for $80,000. 

“The [economic] recovery is happening a little slower up here,” Cella says. “There’s some opportunity [for investors].”

 

 

The transformative power of wine has already begun to color Kingman. The city concluded its 6th Annual Kingman Food and Wine festival last May, with the Stetsons’ “Pink Pistol” rosé taking first place in its category, and eager locals have been flocking to the Stetson Winery’s intermittent special events. Jo says more than 2,500 bluegrass fans attended the Pickin’ in the Vines event at their vineyard.

Only time will tell if Kingman ultimately joins the Verde Valley, Sonoita/Elgin and Willcox among the list of official “wine trails” sanctioned by the Arizona Wine Growers Association (arizonawine.org); the change would require a board vote, and the region’s numbers are still relatively small, its political clout limited.

But the Kingman crew is hopeful. “I love seeing new wineries, new tasting rooms open,” Cella says. “Side by side, no problem. That’s what people like. I want this to be wine country.”