Sonoita Vineyards is not only the oldest winery in Arizona – it’s also one of the most innovative.
We talked to Lori Reynolds, Head Winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards to learn more about the unique challenges and rewards of running a family vineyard in the intense Arizona climate.
CRUSHBREW: Can you tell us a bit about your background in winemaking? How/ did you get started and when did you get involved with Sonoita Vineyards?
LORI REYNOLDS: I was brought up in the Arizona Wine Industry. My Grandfather, Dr Gordon Dutt, restarted the wine industry here in Arizona in the 1970’s. He was a professor at the University of Arizona, researching places to plant and grow grapes as well as which varieties to grow and where. Grandpa always says, “You want it warmer in Arizona, go downhill, and you want it cooler, go up hill.” So he tested soils all around Arizona including Yuma, Tucson, Sonoita/Elgin, Page Ranch, etc.
When he came to Elgin, he was blown away by the results. The Sonoita-Elgin area findings were a match to Burgundy, France. Gordon planted our vineyard Vina Sonoita in 1979, and with friends and family founded Sonoita Vineyards Winery in 1983. The following year, Blake Brophy (from the Babacomori Ranch) and Gordon formed the Sonoita AVA (American Viticulture Area) in 1984. The Sonoita AVA wineries just celebrated 31 years this last November. I would say our soil and microclimate, also known as terroir, are what make the Sonoita AVA unique and different from other areas. Our AVA allows for deep rich reds and bright, crisp whites. Our wines have been enjoyed by many including an inaugural dinner at the White House. Sonoita Vineyards wines have done very well year after year in national and international competitions.
CRUSBREW: Sonoita is the oldest commercial vineyard and winery in Arizona. Can you tell our readers about its beginnings and how this title makes you different/unique in the winemaking world?
LR: My mother has told me I have been giving tours of our winery since before I could talk. She would set me on the tasting table while she was helping customers and I would just babble about our wines. I became head winemaker here at Sonoita Vineyards in 2013 after completing my Viticulture and Enology Certificate from UC Davis. My husband, Robi Reynolds, and our three boys moved to Sonoita in 2011.
Robi took over the Vineyard, and I stayed at the winery. I am so blessed to be working alongside my husband. He has a green thumb and is successful growing beautiful wine grapes every year. I was very lucky to be mentored by Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards. Kent and I worked together for a year after I took over and I am so thankful for his knowledge and support.
C: Although you’ve grown considerably over the years, you have decided to remain “small,” focusing on boutique batches of less than 2,000 bottles per vintage. Can you tell us why you went this route and how this has allowed you to focus on other important aspects?
LR: We have remained a boutique winery all these years. This allows us to produce small batch unique wines that express our unique terroir. We currently produce between 2500-3000 cases of wine a year — that equates to 5900-7100 gallons of wine. We do not have an automated bottling line; everything is hand bottled, corked, labeled, and foiled. We also hand harvest our vineyard this produces a higher quality grape (and, therefore, wine). And we have an outstanding and knowledgeable staff that makes everyone’s Sonoita Vineyards wine experience unforgettable.
C: Can you tell us a bit about your wines, what you produce and how do you choose what flavors to combine? Any personal favorites among the wines you produce?
LR: We make a complete lighter and sweeter flight of wines alongside a bolder and drier flight. Our most popular white wine is our Cochise County Colombard, an off-dry white wine with aromas of apple and pear. A favorite red wine is MeCaSah (pronounced Mi Casa) an equal blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, dry red wine with aromas of cherries and tobacco, with a rich palate. We also produce some unique wines for Arizona, such as Pinot Noir and Mission. With all of the hard work, enthusiasm, and dedication I have for each variety and wine, I have a very hard time choosing a favorite, but I love our 2012 Petite Sirah right now.
C: What are the pros and cons of growing/producing wine in the climate of the American Southwest? How have you approached those challenges/taken advantage of what the region has to offer?
LR: Growing grapes in Sonoita creates unique challenges such as a late frost, the monsoon rains, and hail. Our temperatures are perfect – we very rarely see 100 degrees at the warmest part of the day, and we will cool down to 65 degrees once the sun goes down during the growing season April-August.
Gordon planted our vineyard on a hill using the natural contours of the land, also known as terracing. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, but it also helps for water harvesting during monsoon, and air flow throughout the year. Year after year we are thrilled with the color, aroma, mouthfeel, taste, and finish of each variety.
C: What’s next for Sonoita? Any changes or additions planned?
LR: We are concentrating on always improving our craft. Gordon is also excited to let everyone know about the new expansion of the winery. Gordon and Robi have been researching cellars, and they cannot wait to share the progress of our underground cellar to everyone in April.