In 1975, a rancher named Blake Brophy entreated Dutt to build a vineyard at the Ignacio de Babocomari Ranch in Sonoita. Brophy believed his land was similar to that in France where he’d traveled.
Though Dutt feared that the grapes for red wine might bleach in the intense Arizona sun, producing wines with poor color and low acidity, he was pleased to find that his concerns were unfounded.
Dutt expanded his knowledge even further by planting yet another experimental vineyard after winning a federal grant of $95,000 from the “Four Corners Commission,” a project to help stimulate the economies of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. His first crop of wines was successful, due partly to a system of water harvesting he developed that used the hillside and building berms to reduce the effects of erosion and the overall amount of water needed to irrigate. Confident of the region’s future, he established his commercial vineyard in 1979.
Now Dutt’s Mission style winery and tasting room building sit atop a hill in the center of the Sonoita appellation bordered by the Santa Rita, Whetstone and Huachuca mountains and Canola Hills.
“This part of Arizona is a lot different than most folks imagine,” Dutt said. “We’re at an altitude of 5,000 feet, set in rolling grasslands dotted with white oak, and the soil is nearly identical to that of Burgundy, France.” He said the red clay soil, or “terra rosa,” like that in France’s Cot D’Or area, produces great wines.
Owner and winemaker at Sonoita Vineyards, Dutt opened the winery in 1983, and grew its output from 300 gallons to more than 10,000 gallons per year on 20 acres of vines. Varieties grown in the estate include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Mission and Syrah. The vineyard’s 1987 reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is considered one of the finest wines ever produced in Arizona. Dutt’s wines are sold in Whole Foods Markets, and distributed widely in the Southwest.
The pioneer of Arizona wines continues to promote the region through classes at the vineyard, which includes a lunch and six wine pairings.
The now well-established vineyard has had its ups and downs, though. In the 1980s, Pierce’s disease attacked the region’s vineyards – a vine-killing bacteria carried by mosquito-like insects called “sharpshooters.” In 1991, Dutt’s vineyard had to be replanted – and no wine was produced for three years. Dutt later kept the disease at bay by planting blackberry bushes around the vineyards, attracting the sharpshooters. Then he sprayed insecticide on the bushes, which killed the pests before they reached the vineyards.
In 2006, a drought, followed by hail, sharpshooters and cool summer – bad for wine grapes – then followed by late rains, meant that many of the grapes rotted before harvest. Recent grape crops have been much better.
According to the Arizona Wine Grower’s Association, climate and soil studies show the region to be similar to Rivera Del Duero, Spain, Southeastern Australia, Southern France and is almost identical to Paso Robles, California.
Dutt approves of the planting of varietals that embrace the grapes from these regions, and also grows “Mission” grapes, using the stock of some of the earliest vines used in the region.