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Wine Business Monthly, February 1, 2019
Hot Brands of 2018
by Erin Kirschenmann
Every year, when Wine Business Monthly creates our annual list of hot brands, we look forward for vintners, growers, wineries and wines that are making a statement in our industry. Quality is always an important consideration, but Hot Brands is more than a list of the “best” or most interesting wines we tasted during the year.
When we set out to choose our Hot Brands, our goal is to always represent the American wine industry. Often, that means discovering a new winery in an established region while also paying homage to the stalwarts who continue to move the industry forward. It means we look at wineries in non-West Coast, “traditional” winemaking states, or those who might be bucking a trend or trying new techniques. Our editors look for wines that are embodiments of national trends or have soaring sales. Sometimes we’ll choose the winemaker, not the wine.
Quite often, we end up with a couple of wines that were unexpected. During the search for a Pinot Nor, for example, we’ll discover a producer who is also making Tempranillo – and is doing such a good job of it, we adjust our plans to get that Tempranillo in. We’re never quite sure how the list will turn out, but it’s a chance for us to explore new regions, varietals and new winemakers.
Even so, every year we stumble upon a couple of themes. Those vary from year to year but, inevitably, we come across a couple of patterns amongst our choices.
The group this year is perhaps our most enterprising bunch yet: one winery started with Kickstarter funding, one is proving that high-quality wine in a can works, another saw enormous success after stealing the show at an important wine competition and two are putting Lodi on the map for something other than Zinfandel. Family is incredibly important: nearly all of the brands were started by couples, many with each partner contributing strong winemaking and sales and marketing backgrounds and two feature the next generation of family operations pushing the winery forward.
This year, we’ve selected wines from pioneers, newcomers, million-case wineries and more. While each may grow a different grape or go about making wine in unorthodox ways, all the winemakers selected reflect the diversity that is the wine culture in the United States and all have an innate desire to produce something they, and the consumer, will love.
In the end, this list is comprised of wines that we here at Wine Business Monthly would serve to winemakers. That’s exactly what we do, as representatives from each of these wineries were on hand to serve their wines to winemakers, grape growers and industry members at our annual Bottle Bash party at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in January. Cheers!
Arid, Arizona Climate Hosts Stunning Range of Varieties
Aridus Wine Co., 2015 Syrah
Forty-five miles from the Willcox, AZ-based Aridus Wine Company lies their
estate vineyards, nestled in the foothills of the nearby Chiricahua National Monument, known for its stone columns, called hoodoos, as well as balancing rocks.
Aridus is a play on the Latin word arid, a fitting name that reflects the climate of southeast Arizona. It was founded by Scott and Joan Dahmer, a couple who moved to Carefree, Arizona in 2001 in pursuit of a dream to start a winery/vineyard in a region that was beginning to blossom. They purchased the 40-acre property along Turkey Creek in 2009 and began planting. The cellar opened just four years later.
The estate is currently home to 6.2 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Malvasia Bianca, as well as 16 acres devoted to reds, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec. Plans to put some Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Petite Syrah and Graciano in the ground are in the works.
The wines are under the care of Lisa Strid, a former winemaker for E&J Gallo. Her career in wine began at her uncle’s vineyard and winery in Western Washington. “I just fell in love with it. I liked that it was physical, I liked being outside and I really like that there was a scientific element to it,” she said. It encouraged her to join the viticulture and enology program at Oregon State University. Strid interned at Alexana Winery in Oregon while in school and moved to California after graduation to work with Gallo.
But when she was in her 20s, she spent some time living in Tucson and she knew she’d like to come back. “I love it down here. It’s just the most beautiful landscape and the desert is such a wild place,” Strid said, noting that rattlesnakes are not uncommon, as are all manner of insects and reptiles. “There are just incredible creatures everywhere, and you really are up close and personal with nature.”
Strid’s plan was to stick it out in California and make wine with Gallo for a few more years, waiting for the burgeoning wine scene in Arizona to gain some more ground before making a move—but when she saw a posting for a winemaker position at Aridus, she knew it was her opportunity. She joined the team in June 2016 and has enjoyed moving Aridus forward with the Dahmers since.
“I was used to very large plots coming in, or working in research, requesting 25 tons at a time and it just arriving,” she said. “Here, it’s a lot more of going out to vineyards and looking at the four rows that are going to be ours, as opposed to receiving a massive sample from a vineyard.”
At Aridus, Strid is also getting the chance to be more hands-on with each of the varieties. If given the opportunity, there are other varieties she’d like to try, including Douro reds. “I’d really love to try Albarino here. I think there are a few growers that have small test plots of it at the moment, but I would really love to see it, especially in the Chiricahua Foothills,” she said, noting that Spanish varietals are gaining in popularity—she believes Arizona could grow them well.
“It’s interesting to see. You never know when a variety that has been traditionally grown in a different sort of climate might actually do well. It feels quite a bit like a testing ground right now. Everybody is just conducting a grand experiment,” she said.
In contrast to some other hot-climate regions around the country, the vineyards Aridus sources from sit anywhere from 4,100 to 5,200 feet in elevation. That elevation moderates the climate a bit and it can become extremely cold, she said, even resulting in very late frosts.
Between July and mid-September, monsoons will sweep through the region, dropping rain during a peak ripening season, making harvest an even more difficult process. Some years, Strid said, are pretty easy, others, like 2018 are not.
“The rains, they can be quite intense, and they generally only last about 30 minutes to an hour, but once they’re gone, it tends to dry out rather quickly, so we’re lucky in that we don’t necessarily see a lot of fungal pressure because of the rains. But it can be challenging because you can have the grapes ready to be picked, then a monsoon comes in and the Brix will drop and you have to wait again,” she said.
The Syrah is made from grapes currently grown at a couple of different vineyards in the area and is usually one of the first reds to come in each year. Strid said that there is usually a good balance of sugar ripeness and flavor development, and retains some of those quintessential Syrah characteristics, pepper and meatiness, but there’s also a “dusty quality” she says is unique to the region.
“I’m loving the Syrah that we’re getting,” Strid said. “I wouldn’t claim to know why it does so well here, but I’m really happy to work with it. It’s one of my favorites in terms of the reds.”
Like many wineries across the country, Aridus is moving to become an entirely estate-sourced operation. With that, comes an increase in production in both the winery’s lower-tier brand, the Tank Series, which will see distribution, as well as the launch of a Barrel Select program, a higher-tier than the Aridus tier. Aridus has seen staggering growth since 2015, when Strid joined the winemaking team. That first year, production doubled, and then nearly doubled it again the next year. Now, they are considering a small sparkling wine program, one that would be made completely in-house.
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