Lightning Ridge Cellars

Can you make wine in Arizona, of all places?  You sure can.  In fact, wine is made in every single one of these United States, but that’s a story for another day.

In the 1600s, missionaries brought grapevines to the deserts south of Tucson to make communion wine (surprise!). Henry Schuerman established the state’s first known commercial winery near Sedona in the late 1880s.

A draft dodger avoiding the Kaiser’s army, Schuerman had made his way to Arizona during its earliest days, where he opened the first hotel in the newly created territorial capital of Prescott.

Although he had never been a farmer, he eventually planted an orchard on 160 acres that he had acquired. In addition to apples, peaches, apricots, pears, and quinces, in recognition of his Germanic roots he planted a vineyard.  76 acres of Zinfandel to be exact.

The Schuerman Winery was located near to what is now Red Rock State Park in Sedona. Photo courtesy of Sedona Historical Society.

For 25 years, the Schuerman Winery sold Zinfandel throughout Arizona.  Then came New Year’s Day 1915, when, by popular vote, the good citizens of the infant state of Arizona instituted a total ban on alcohol (predating national Prohibition by five years).  And that was the end of that.

At least for a while.  In the 1970s, as Americans’ interest in wine was beginning to grow, a soil scientist named Gordon Dutt got a grant to study water retention in southern Arizona, and happened to learn that grapes might grow well in the Sonoita area. Dutt founded Vina Sonoita Vineyards, then advocated to change state laws to allow vintners to sell on a large scale once again.  Today, Arizona’s 110 licensed wineries gross over $56 million per year.

One of those wineries is Lightning Ridge Cellars, founded by husband-and-wife team Ann and Ron Roncone in 2004.  Both began with engineering careers in San Francisco in the early 1980s; optical for Ron, and mechanical for Ann.  At the time, it was quite unusual for a woman to be in such a male-dominated field.  It’s not all that common even today.

They also both shared an Italian heritage, and growing up in Italian families there was always wine on the table as a matter of course.   Even during her work as an engineer, Ann was drawn to winemaking as a hobby.  “Wine was just a drive, and I wanted to try my hand at making some,” she said. “So, I got a kit. A five-gallon bucket, a can of concentrate, and parts.”

Rather than relying on that concentrate, an easy intro for novices, she bought 200 pounds of Zinfandel grapes and handcrafted her first wine from that fruit. She soon planted vines on the property that she owned with Ron, and continued to make wine while working as an engineer. Her growing thirst for knowledge led her to the  University of California – Davis, the renowned college for viticulture. “I took every single course that I could,” said Ann.

For two weeks every September for the next four years, Ann took a “vacation” and worked as a cellar rat at various wineries in the Bay area. “I would show up for work and semi flatbeds filled with grapes that needed processing would show up,” she recalled. “It was a rag-tag little group but it was really fun, and it was amazing to get that hands-on experience.”

By 2002, Ann told her husband that that she wanted to be a winemaker full time.  He was cautious about the decision, but agreeable.  The idea of doing so in northern California was quickly squashed, due to the high prices they encountered for land .  But, at the beginning of his career Ron had completed his graduate work at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and knew the area well. They learned that the Sonoita-Elgin region was designated as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) which gave it credibility, although at the time there were just three wineries in the area.

In 2004, Ron was able to secure a job at Raytheon in Tucson.  Once relocated, Ann and Ron purchased a 20-acre property at 5,100 ft. elevation in Sonoita. They spent a year drilling wells (six tries until getting one right), installing electricity, building a fence, creating irrigation infrastructure, and building trellises.  They then planted their first grapes: Montepulciano, Primitivo (aka Zinfandel), Malvasia Bianca, Muscat Cannelli, and Aglianico. “It was a little unnerving because no one in Sonoita-Elgin had these grapes growing at the time,” said Ann.

The Lightning Ridge winery and estate vineyard.

Rather than beginning production immediately, Ann wanted to open Lightning Ridge Cellars with estate wines (not a particularly cost-effective plan). So, they patiently waited. On Halloween 2009, they finally opened their tasting room. “And, it just was so fun!,” said Ann. “It took time to find us, but once people did, they really enjoyed our wines.”

The very-Italian bocce ball court.

One of the first varietals Ann had planted in her vineyard was Primitivo, but it didn’t thrive.  After seven years, just half of the original vines remained.  In 2012 they were removed entirely.  The 9-1/2 acre estate vineyard is now composed of:
2-1/2 acres of Montepulciano
1 acre of Sagrantino
2 acres of Aglianico
1/2 acre of Muscat Cannelli
1 acre of Malvasia Bianca
1 acre of Cabernet Sauvignon (specifically for blending with Sangiovese to make a Super Tuscan)
1/2 acre of Nebbiolo
1 acre of Sangiovese

The vineyard only sees about 18 inches of rain each year, most of which falls from July to August during Arizona’s monsoon season, so the need to draw water from a well is imperative.

The banquet hall and barrel room.

Ann’s preference is for single varietal wines, such as the following two. “Because you can then taste and experience specifically what the varietal can do,” said Ann. “It’s fun to have people try a varietal they wouldn’t otherwise try or know.”

Lightning Ridge Cellars Montepulciano 2018

Montepulciano is widely planted throughout Italy, especially in the southeastern regions. This 100% Montpulciano was sourced from the Lightning Ridge estate vineyard in Sonoita, and is Lightning Ridge’s flagship varietal.  “A lot of Italian [grapes] are warm-weather varietals, and man, they love it here,” Ann shared.  She added that Sonoita’s 5,000-foot elevation can bring April frosts, so late-budding Montepulciano fares well in  the area.

This wine was aged for 30 months in 50% new European and American oak barrels.  A dark opaque brick red, it is moderately aromatic, featuring bright red fruit and cola notes. The smooth palate offers raspberry, red plum, cranberry, and spice, especially white pepper.  There is a little bit of Madiera-like raisin flavor as well.  There is good supporting acidity.  Because the tannins are quite moderate, drink this young, as its aging potential is limited.  Production was 190 cases.  ABV is 14.4%.

Lightning Ridge Cellars Graciano 2018

Graciano [grah-see-YAH-no  Sp. grah-THYAH-no] hails from the Rioja and Navarra regions of Spain.  This selection is an outlier in the Lightning Ridge portfolio, as the varietal is not Italian, and, although sourced from Sonoita, the fruit comes from a third-party grower.  (Ann did do some research to see if Graciano is produced in Italy.  As it turns out, it is, where it is pronounced grah-CHI-ah-no.  That’s how she decided to go for a non-Italian varietal.)

It follows Ann’s 100% varietal credo, however.  The wine spent two years in 30% new European and 60% neutral oak barrels.  It is a semi-transparent garnet, and is lightly aromatic.  Those aromas include boysenberries and leather.  The palate features rather recessive fruit, some cocoa, zippy acidity, and well-balanced tannins.  Ann made 90 cases.  ABV is 14.9%.

(In keeping with the Italian theme, Ann thought the vines would like to be joined by some olive trees, from which Lightning Ridge now produces a line of olive oils.)

http://lightningridgecellars.com/

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Ser Winery

Ser Winery

 

In the tradition-bound world of wine, winemaking has, predictably, been dominated by men. For example, there are about 4,800 wineries in California, but only 10 percent have female lead winemakers. (When it comes to winery ownership, the number does jump up to about 19 percent, according to Woman Owned Wineries, a nationwide directory of female wine entrepreneurs.)

Encouragingly, however, greater educational opportunities (as opposed to the historically more usual inheriting a wine operation) have been opening the possibility of becoming a winemaker to more and more women. One of these is Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery in Aptos, California, due east of Santa Cruz.

The winemaker

Over the course of her 19-year career (so far), Walsh has held just about every position in the wine industry, including associate winemaker, winemaker, vineyard manager, grower-relations manager, and owner. She was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1975. An early interest in wine drew her to Michigan State University, graduating with honors in 1998. At the time, the undergraduate department of Viticulture and Enology there was, remarkably, comprised of just two students. This provided a highly unusual opportunity to be immersively mentored by Horticulture professors in grape growing and winemaking. As part of her last semester at MSU, she attended a sustainable agriculture university, EARTH, in Costa Rica. While there, Walsh became proficient in Spanish, and she solidified her commitment to sustainable agriculture.

Nicole Walsh

Nicole Walsh    Photo: www.wildu.co

After graduation, she worked for four years on the Leelanau peninsula in northern Michigan. This small AVA (one of five in Michigan) is home to 27 wineries, and has diverse microclimates uniquely suited to cool-climate wine grapes, particularly Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. During her time there, she managed vineyards and honed her winemakeing skills.

In early 2001, she married Kevin Walsh, and together they moved to Santa Cruz, California. Shortly thereafter, in February, she started working with Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Vineyard.

Walsh took a sabbatical from Bonny Doon in 2008, when she moved with her husband and young son to Marlborough, New Zealand. After a year, she returned to Santa Cruz to develop Bonny Doon’s newest property in San Juan Bautista. She continues to manage that property as well as make wine at Bonny Doon’s Santa Cruz winery.

In 2012, reflecting on her New Zealand experience, especially with Pinot Noir, Walsh decided to start her own wine brand as well, which she christened Ser, which is Spanish for “expressing identity or origin; having the intrinsic quality of.”

“I was inspired for the name after reading an article by Andrew Jefford, ‘Wine and Astonishment’. It was in that writing that the notion of the ‘being’ of wine truly resonated with me. Being is different than existing. It is true, wine exists; you can touch it, smell it, drink it. To quote Jefford, ‘Being, by contrast, is the ‘isness’ inside.’ In other words, the natural essence of the grapes unique to each specific growing area. I am dedicated to preserving the ‘isness’ of wine, to allow its true varietal expression and the place and time of its origins,” shared Walsh. Clearly, this thinking closely aligns with the traditional concept of terroir.

She continued, “Jefford also talks of that first moment of insight, that moment when some people decide to devote their professional life to wine. He says,’It gives the lucky few who choose to ‘grow wine’ the chance to use craft to embody, reflect, and echo nature itself.’ I am privileged to be one of those ‘lucky few.'”

Ser Winery Tasting Room

Ser Winery Tasting Room in Aptos, California

Once the winery was underway, she began working with local Santa Cruz Mountain growers to purchase fruit from a number of interesting vineyards with distinct microclimates in the appellation. In symbiotic partnership with those farmers, she started experimenting with several varieties, such as Riesling and Chardonnay (both of which she had worked with on Leelanau), Syrah, Mourvedre, and a much less-known variety, Cabernet Pfeffer. She is committed to preserving and enhancing the unique character of the varietals used in her wine.

Ser’s label, designed by local artist and teacher Jenny Angelacos, was inspired by an ocean wave and Walsh’s love of surfing. It is intended to convey the unifying thread that connects the diverse places from which she sources her grapes.

The wines

Nicole Walsh hard at work; winemaking doesn’t get more hands-on than this.
Photo: www.wildu.co

Ser Dry Riesling Wirz Vineyard 2017

OK, I’m going to be honest about this up-front: although Riesling is, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest white-wine grapes, and makes classic food-friendly wines in a range of styles from quite dry to very sweet, I’ve never been much of a fan.  But I enjoyed this expression, so kudos to Ms Walsh.

The fruit came from the Wirz Vineyard, located in San Benito County’s Cienega Valley, in the foothills of the Gabilan Mountain Range at about 1100 feet above sea level and 25 miles or so from the Pacific Ocean. It is composed of granite and limestone soil. Owner Pat Wirz employs head training, dry farming and organic techniques on the over 90-year-old Cabernet Pfeffer and 60-year-old Riesling vines.

In “head training,” vines are tied to a wooden stake positioned at each one. The stake generally stands three to four feet above the soil surface. When used conservatively, this system is ideally suited to production of low to moderate quantities of high-quality grapes.

To make this wine, Walsh pressed whole grape clusters in stainless steel, which was also used for fermentation. She used an indigenous yeast, and the wine was bottled prior to malolactic fermentation to lend softness without stripping the acidity.  It is medium yellow in the glass, with a nose of olive oil and delicate floral notes.  These are followed by mostly tart citrus on the palate, particularly lime, with subtle hints of pear and apple. It’s balanced out by that good acidity, and wraps up with a medium finish. The ABV is 13% and 160 cases were made.

Ser Pinot Noir Tondre Grapefield 2016

This is the first time I have encountered a vineyard referred to as a “grapefield.”  It was planted in 1997 on six and half acres in the heart of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. It now has seven blocks in 104 acres, 81 of which are planted with  Pinot Noir. Tondre Grapefield is SIP Certified.

Composition is 100% Pinot Noir, all from the Tondre Grapefield, and harvested from 10-year-old Pommard clone vines. (The Pommard clone was originally sourced from the Château de Pommard in Burgundy by Dr. Harold Olmo of the UC Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology in the early 1970s.)

Walsh created this Pinot Noir by starting with five days of cold soak. Indigenous yeast was used for the eight days of primary fermentation. This was followed by four days of maceration before being pressed into neutral French puncheons (large oak barrels that usually hold 80 to 133 gallons) for 14 months of malolactic ageing.

This shows Pinot Noir’s classic clear, bright red in the glass. The nose offers aromas of cherry, blackberry, and roast plum.  The palate is dominated by tart cherry.  The wine has excellent balance, and it all wraps up with a long finish.  ABV is 13.5%. Just 80 cases were produced.

Ser Cabernet Pfeffer Central Coast 2016

Cabernet Pfeffer is an extremely rare variety with less than 12 acres grown in California, most of them located in San Benito, a wine region at the southern end of the Santa Cruz mountains. It was once thought to be a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and another, unknown variety, and to have been bred in Los Altos Hills, California, in the late 19th century by farmer and winemaker William Pfeffer. However, a recent ampelography ( the field of botany concerned with the identification and classification of grapevines) study by UC Davis on the Wirz vines discovered they are are in fact Mourtaou, a  French variety from the Bordeaux region. Whether the variety was named after the farmer or for its spicy characteristics (Pfeffer is German for pepper) is a mystery.

Ser’s Cabernet Pffefer began with five days of cold soak with a small addition of sulphur . Indigenous yeast was used for the ten days of fermentation. This was followed by ten days of maceration before being pressed into barrels, of which 50% were neutral and 50% were new French oak. After three months, the wine was transferred  to neutral oak for 14 months of barrel ageing. The blend is 76% Cabernet Pfeffer and 24% Cabernet Franc.

The wine starts with a bright, clear red cherry color in the glass, much like the Pinot Noir.  But then we move on.  The nose shows plenty of juicy fruit, like cherry Starburst candy (seriously) and hints of violets.  Then come flavors of those same juicy cherries.  Also, since  Cab Pffefer is known for its spice and pepper, I was surprised on first trying it that those were subtle, at best.  But after about two hours of air, it’s “Hello pepper!” settling on the back of the tongue.  It is supported by good acidity, fine tannins that resemble those of Cabernet Sauvignon, and a medium, slightly bitter finish. The alcohol is 13.3%, and  220 cases were produced.

Pair this with any food you would have with Zinfandel, particularly lamb.  I made a pan-seared lamb chops with a lemon and rosemary marinade.

Ser Rosé of Grenache Loma Del Rio Vineyard 2020

The Loma del Rio vineyard is located on the west side of the Salinas Valley at the foot of the Santa Lucia Highlands just south of King City. Walsh declares it, “one of my favorite sites for Grenache.”

This wine was whole-cluster pressed to stainless steel. The juice was clarified with a centrifuge to help mitigate smoke taint due to the wildfires in the region at time of harvest.  Happily, none is evident. It was bottled without malolactic fermentation after four months on the lees.

This wine is a delicate pink salmon, with an unassuming aroma to match, one that is primarily rose petal.  The palate offers strawberry and guava. There is plenty of juicy grapefruit-laced acidity, and a medium finish.  This is a wine that benefits from not being numbed.  After being on the counter for a while, and it came up from the refrigerator temperature of 36° F to about 50° F, the nose didn’t change much, but the flavors became much more apparent.  Walsh made 100 cases, and the ABV is 13%.

Graciano Bokisch Vineyard 2018

This wine is all Graciano (aka Morrestel in France), a red-wine grape traditionally hailing from the Rioja and Navarra regions of Spain.  The fruit was sourced from the Terra Alta vineyard farmed by Bokisch Vineyards, a winery and grape grower located in the Clement Hills subdistrict of the Lodi AVA.  Grown on Redding gravelly clay loam, the vines are roughly 19 years old.  Markus Bokisch named this property “Terra Alta” because it reminded him of  the wine region near his home town in the Catalunya region of Spain.  The vineyard is Certified Organic by CCOF and  Certified Green by the Lodi Rules Program

After fermentation  in one-ton bins, the wine was pressed to neutral French oak puncheons and aged for 16 months.  It pours a transparent purple, with mouth-watering aromas of red and black fruit.  On the palate, this is predominately cherries and red berries, with a bit of white pepper spice.  It has a medium body, not unlike a Pinot Noir.  It is supported by good tannins that offer up just a hint of bitterness.  Walsh made 70 cases, and the ABV is 13.4%.

 

Other Ser wines

Although I haven’t tried them, in addition to these selections Ser Winery also offers Rosé of Cinsaut (a red-wine grape from Languedoc-Roussillon, usually characterized by a light body, high acidity, and low tannins), Sparkling Riesling, a second Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a second (!) Cabernet Pfeffer sourced from the Wirz vineyard.  There is a wine club with three shipment options, the easiest and most reliable way to obtain these limited-production wines.

http://www.serwinery.com/

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