Have you ever concocted an extravagant brainchild while sitting at a bar sipping on a glass of wine? You weren’t sure you would make that dream a reality come morning, for maybe it was just the ambience or company at hand, but it was important enough to ponder on it for the night. Most of us wake up and say, “What was I thinking, that is going to take way too much time and money, not to mention it is an insanely risky undertaking.”
One night in 2006, Greg Gonnerman sat at AZ Wine Shop in Scottsdale and designed the vision of making wine and owning his own vineyard. Unlike most people, he woke up in the morning and began mapping out his plan. I interviewed Gonnerman at AZ Wine Shop as we felt it was the best place to feel the soul of his work. We sat and chatted at the very bar where he danced with his thoughts about winemaking. Gonnerman poked his finger on the bar and said, “This is where it all started. I knew I needed a lot of education so I began doing tastings at AZ Wine Shop twice a week. My first attempt at winemaking was a gallon from Welch’s concentrate,” he laughed. “It really wasn’t that bad.”
The genesis of his plantings began in the low desert at three micro-vineyards in San Tan, Usery Pass, and Superstition in Mesa and Queen Creek in 2008. It was an experiment with assorted varieties in desert viticulture and it was called Goldmine Mountain Cellars.
“People told me I was crazy and that wine grapes would never thrive under 2,500 feet. There were many challenges such as sunburn, desiccation/raisining, uneven ripening, immature/unripe tannins, high brix at harvest, low acid at harvest, monsoon rain and mildew/rot” said Gonnerman.
He didn’t want to completely abandon Goldmine Mountain Cellars but was confident in his winemaking skills, and knew he would make wines of higher quality at higher elevations. Gonnerman began an extensive search for a spot to call home down high south where elevations are between 4,300 and 5,000 feet. We are at about 1,100 feet in Phoenix so his chances for success, although grape growing is never free of challenges, were going to increase dramatically.
Many conversations with nearby winemakers and soil samples later, he chose his location.
“The moment I pushed my boot into the dirt, I knew it was the right place for me and my grapes,” said Gonnerman.
It had electricity, a septic tank and a cargo container. He parked a camper trailer and went to work. And so was the birth of Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards, Arizona’s newest wine grape vineyard. The 40-acre vineyard site, with 10 planted to vines, is nestled in the foothills between the Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas mountains. Gonnerman bought the property in 2012 and had his first “Chiricahua Vineyard” crop in 2015, which is entirely sold out. He sells his grapes to various other winemakers like Sand Reckoner and Kent Callaghan.
Gonnerman established his own winery, Laramita Cellars, located on the property because he wanted to distinguish his own label from the others who purchase from him. He wanted to establish his own premier and exclusive wines unique to him and his own winemaking style.
Laramita Cellars had its first vintage in 2016 and had its first release party at AZ Wine Shop on April 27. Well that seems like the appropriate location to me, where the mind and the bar stool meets the boot and the dirt. The 2016 vintage is comprised of 31 cases of Rousanne, 31 cases of Dos Hermanas, a white blend of Rousanne, Marsanne and Viognier, 60 cases of a Mourvedre Rose, and 115 cases of Syrah, which should be released in July. It is going to be an intensely aged wine in neutral oak.
“I want to be known for making quality wine for early drinking” said Gonnerman.
So be on the lookout, these babies won’t last long. Gonnerman still holds his day job at General Dynamics as an engineer tech writer. His musings for the future of his 40-acre vineyard are constantly at hand. The vineyard is currently flourishing with plantings of Italian, Spanish and French varietals. He particularly seemed quite proud of the way the Petit Manseng and Vermentio are expressing themselves.
The winery itself, Laramita Cellars, sits on the vineyard and is currently nothing but a bare slab steel structure with electricity to the building. In my opinion if you know how to make great wine, the aesthetics of your surroundings are vastly insignificant.
Gonnerman also has visions of a home-site vineyard in the future. “I am thinking about a personal property with a home and about 5 acres planted to vine,” he said. Whether that means his 40-acre vineyard will become a retirement project or life-long journey is for him to know and for us to find out.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Gonnerman said: “You know, people enjoy talking about themselves, but I want you to know that I really enjoyed this interview.” Aww, I thought to myself. He then gave me a bottle of the 2016 Rousanne to take home and we parted ways. I enjoyed talking with you too, Greg. I took the bottle to imbibe with friends at a charity event. It was a delightfully rich combination of honey, tea, and nutty flavors; it also exemplified subtle tropical fruit and slight minerality. In my opinion, it had much in common with a classic California Chardonnay.
The next time you grab a bottle of Chardonnay from your local wine shop, why don’t you head over to AZ Wine in Scottsdale and pick up a bottle of Laramita’s 2016 Rousanne instead. You will have tried something new, supported a local winemaker, and intensified your own personal journey with the world of wine. There is so much to taste out there. Explore, and make America grape again.
– East Valley resident Darla Hoffmann is a certified specialist of wine and sommelier. She is the owner of About Wine, a wine education company, where she does on-site tastings and classes at restaurants, home parties and corporate events. She also works part time in one of Arizona’s award-winning tasting rooms, LDV Wine Gallery in Scottsdale. A member of The Wine Century Club, she has tasted over 100 grape varietals. Her goal is to share her knowledge and passion for wine, while educating our readers on the booming wine industry in the state of Arizona. If you are a wine collector looking for tastings and storage in the Valley, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at: www.aboutwineinaz.com.