Sonoita American Viticultural Area (AVA)
By: Dr. Robin Dutt, Lori Reynolds, Mercé Mueller
Tucked away in South Eastern Arizona amidst the Sky Islands of the Santa Rita, Whetstone and Huachuca Mountains lies Arizona’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA). An odd place for the modern Arizona Wine Industry to take root, literally and figuratively, ranching is still the predominant culture in the area, but it is slowly changing to more and more Wineries and Vineyards within such a short period of time as the last 10 years.
The Sonoita AVA began as a research project by University of Arizona soil scientist, and pioneering vintner, Dr. Gordon Dutt in the 1970’s. He was looking to develop a drought resistant, high cash crop for Arizona and soon discovered that Arizona had a wine grape growing history dating back to 1690 with the Listan Preito grapes brought by Jesuit and Franciscan into the Southwest missions. Since the missionaries and missions controlled this vinifera stock the varietal name was gradually forgotten and replaced by a nickname “Mission” grape, which it claims to this day. He also learned Arizona had a burgeoning wine grape industry prior to prohibition; however, Arizona instituted prohibition before it was instigated on a national level thus ending this blooming commerce in its infancy. Nevertheless, Dr. Dutt was encouraged by knowing that wine grape growing had been successful in the past, required less water that more traditional crops like cotton and had a high cash value.
In the early 70’s, Rancher Blake Brophy showed Dr. Dutt some wild, gnarly Mission grapes abandoned on the sprawling Ignacio de Babocamori Spanish Land Grant that encompasses much of the Sonoita Plains. These tough old Mission vines were still producing even without years of care. In 1973, the first experimental vineyard plot was planted on the Babocamori. Emboldened by the heartiness of the Mission vine and the promising results of this current research, Dutt and Brophy began re-establishing viticulture on the Sonoita Plains by 1979. About this same time, Dutt and Brophy started the process of establishing the Sonoita Appellation. Unlike most European appellations, AVA’s specifies a geographic location more similar to the Italian Indicazione Geografica Tipica. AVA’s do not limit the types of grapes grown, the method of vinification, or crop yield.
The Sonoita AVA was finally established in 1984, and located about forty miles southeast of Tucson. The Sonoita AVA is a high altitude (4500-5000 feet) basin surrounded by the Santa Rita, Huachuca and Whetstone Mountains, and the Canelo Hills. In terms of size, Sonoita AVA is 208,000 square acres. Because of its unique geographical location, climate, and soil characteristics, Sonoita AVA offers exceptional conditions for producing wine. The nearby mountains’ igneous and sedimentary rocks create alluvial fans of thermic, deep gravelly loam that retain scarce available water. Combined with the cool air blowing over the mountains, Sonoita AVA is a prime wine-producing region. The Sonoita AVA produces several different grape varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Tannat, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Mission. To use the Sonoita appellation name at least 85% of the grapes used to make a wine must have been grown within the established AVA.
In the heart of the Sonoita AVA is Sonoita Vineyards, founded in 1983 by Dr. Gordon Dutt it has become Arizona’s oldest commercial winery. Over the years, the Sonoita AVA has grown to include Callaghan Vineyards (in 1990), Kief-Joshua Vineyards, AZ Hops and Vines, Flying Leap Vineyards, Dos Cabezas Wine Works, the Village of Elgin, Rancho Rossa Vineyards, Lighting Ridge Cellars, Wilhelm Family Vineyards, Hannah’s Hill, and the newest to the Sonoita AVA family, Rune Wines.
As the Sonoita AVA celebrates its wonderful wine history, the vineyards & wineries in the area invite you to visit them and discover a new side to the Arizona you may know.
About The Authors
Robin Dutt is the daughter-in-law of Dr. Gordon Dutt and was formative in the early years of the Sonoita AVA. Lori Reynolds, Dr. Dutt's granddaughter, is the current winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards and deeply involved in the Sonoita AVA wine growers community. Mercé Mueller, a long time employee at Sonoita Vineyards, is a local of the area and enjoys its deep historical ties to the past and the journey into the future.