November 28, 2023

Trailblazing Arizona Wines


Most of my focus on Arizona wineries has revolved around the small group of people at the forefront of the Northern Arizona wine scene. This is a Sedona based publication after all. My goal, though, is to promote Arizona wine in general, since the state as a whole is going through a period of growth, and shows real promise in joining a handful of other states as prominent American wine producers beyond California and the West coast.

All industries have their pioneers, and there are a few names in Arizona that carry recognition as the trailblazers who not only initiated the Arizona wine industry, but are leaders in quality, as well. And so I head down South to the wine valleys of Elgin and Sonoita to introduce you to one of Arizona’s most respected names in wine, Kent Callaghan, the owner and winemaker of Callaghan Vineyards.

The story of Callaghan Vineyards begins with Kent’s parents, Harold and Karen. They became involved in home winemaking in the late 1980s, and were familiar with the work of Dr. Gordon Dutt from the U of A, who had established the first commercial vineyard, still active in Arizona, Sonoita Vineyards. The hobby became something more. So, in 1988 Harold and Karen decided to give commercial winemaking a go and purchased some land in the high prairie grasslands of Sonoita. Kent and his family were asked to join the venture as partners, earning what Kent calls “literal sweat equity” in a family business.

The beginnings of Callaghan Vineyards took place May, 1990 with the initial plantings of the Buena Suerte Vineyard to Bordeaux varieties. That year saw record heat waves in Arizona, with Phoenix topping out over 120°F. Sonoita meanwhile saw temperatures in the range of 105°F. The grapes didn’t care for the heat and the new plantings suffered high losses. This began a process that continues to this day of replanting with different varieties and rootstocks to best match plant material to the weather conditions of the Southern Arizona high grasslands and the soils of Sonoita and Elgin.

Over time, the Callaghans came to rely on Spanish and Mediterranean grapes more suited to the area. Cabernet Sauvignon gave way to Tempranillo, Mourvèdre, and Grenache. The Bordeaux grape Petite Verdot still remains and provides Kent with a spicy/peppery/meaty character for many wines. The white wine grapes are populated predominately with Viognier and Riesling. Increasing amounts of Marsanne, Roussanne, Malvasia Bianca, and Grüner Veltliner have also recently been planted.

The first vintage of Callaghan was 1991, and the wines received critical success from the start. Callaghan Vineyards has routinely scored ratings of 90 or better on a 100 point scale from publications and critics such as Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Decanter, Karen MacNeil, Oz Clarke, Tom Stevenson, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as numerous awards. It’s this appreciation and acclaim his wines have received that Kent is most proud of in his career as a winemaker, particularly the positive reviews from Parker. This comes from a man whose wine was served at the White House on three separate occasions for official state functions, including the retirement ceremonies of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Kent and his wife Lisa bought out Kent’s parents in 1996 and have continued on, often involving their own children in the business. The critical acclaim has continued, and Kent remains true to the simple practices of acclaimed winemaking. Kent is as much a vineyard man as a winemaker and probably spends 85% of his time amongst the vines. Combine that with no frills winemaking that uses simple practices and limited intervention, with plenty of barrels and lees aging, and the results are year-in and year-out some the most acclaimed wines produced in Arizona.

Over time, a few wineries have cropped up around the Callaghans, and the Elgin/Sonoita region has become a small wine valley developing into a center for wine tourism. No visit to area is complete though without a stop at Callaghan Vineyards. Kent and his family will be the ones behind the bar serving you your tastings.

So when in Southern Arizona, stop by and enjoy one of Arizona’s leaders in wine and support a local family business putting Arizona wine on the map. Just remember to designate your driver when you do.

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