Vine Before Its Time

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Arizona’s modern love affair with wine is barely 30 years old, but their courtship dates back to the 16th century.

Stephen Schwartz waited years to drink the label-less bottle of wine he’s holding in his hands. When the time finally comes, he’s almost too afraid to open it. “How do you taste a wine like this?” he asks. “You certainly don’t ask your wine-loving friends over. To tell you the truth, I

thought about doing the Sideways thing – pouring it into a paper cup and taking it into a local fast-food place.”

The zinfandel he excitedly uncorks is rare – less than a case exists – but the Sedona attorney has low expectations. The grapes, he knows, were harvested too early. The fruit wasn’t sweet enough. As he takes his first sip of the deep-purple liquid, he confirms it. “It isn’t bad,” he says. “But it isn’t good, either.”

So why the fuss over a mediocre zin? In a word: posterity. Schwartz’s wine may lack quality, but it teems with historical significance. The few bottles of precious juice that Schwartz has wrangled, waiting for just the right moment to experience, trace their ancestry along a vine-like thread to the earliest days of the Arizona Territory – another reminder that Arizona wine, though new to most people, boasts a history far older than the state itself.

It’s a popular misconception that Dr. Gordon Dutt was the first person to grow wine grapes in Arizona. In the 1970s, the University of Arizona soil scientist, surprised no one else in the state had done so, planted an experimental vineyard in southern Arizona. Dutt eventually founded Sonoita Vineyards, the state’s longest-running winery, just south of Elgin in 1983. Arizona’s history with grapes and wine, though, pre-dates Dutt by nearly four centuries.

In 1582, Spanish conquistador Antonio de Espejo set out on an expedition across present-day New Mexico and Arizona. Most historians agree he visited Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley, 100 miles north of Phoenix. “The river is surrounded by an abundance of grapevines, many walnuts and other trees,” wrote Diego Pérez de Luxán, who was traveling with Espejo. “This river we named El Rio de las Parras (The River of the Grapevines).”

These wild grapes, which centuries later were named Canyon grapes (vitis Arizonica), grew along rivers and streams – as they do today in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. However, they proved less suitable for making wine than the European species (vitis vinifera). It would be another century before a more well-known explorer would bring those vines from the Old World. That man was Father Eusebio Kino, the tireless Italian Jesuit priest who established two dozen missions across the Southwest, including Mission San José de Tumacácori, the oldest in Arizona, in 1691. The Jesuits were competing against the Franciscans to impress the Pope with the most conversions; Kino himself is said to have converted 40,000 Indians. Consequently, the Jesuits needed wine for the Holy Sacrament.

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The Schuermans made wine (left) at a winery near Sedona (right)
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Kino was serendipitously crisscrossing the general area where Dutt would plant grapes nearly three centuries later: the rolling high-country grasslands south and southwest of modern-day Tucson, where the soil and climate are remarkably similar to those of the Rhone region in southern France. By 1705, Kino confidently wrote his superiors in Rome, “We already have very good orchards and vineyards to make wine for the masses.”

The so-called Mission grapes – their exact origin was lost for 400 years – could be used to make a light-colored red wine or a brownish-toned white wine. The workhorse fruit’s flavor was described as characterless, but the wines were a mainstay of mission life until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, forcing the latter to abandon its Southwest missions. Wine grapes once again disappeared from Arizona. They might have remained absent until Dutt’s experimental vineyard if not for a 19th century German baker named Henry Schuerman.

Looking to avoid service in the Kaiser’s army, Schuerman immigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Prescott, circa 1884, acquiring 160 acres along Oak Creek near Sedona in settlement of a $400 debt. Failing to flip the land for quick profit, Schuerman and his wife planted an apple orchard and 76 acres of zinfandel grapes. Recognizing a lucrative niche market, the Schuermans began bottling the grapes, and Arizona’s first-known commercial winery was soon born. For 25 years, the Schuerman Winery supplied cowboys, loggers and miners from Jerome to Flagstaff with Red Rock Grape Wine.

In 1914, citizens of the two-year-old state of Arizona voted to ban alcohol, a law Schuerman chose to ignore. Two years later, he was arrested for selling two 50-gallon barrels of wine for $80 (see sidebar) and sentenced to six months in prison but was pardoned by Governor Thomas Campbell because of his civic accomplishments. Schuerman died in 1920, and by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, all that was left of the Schuerman Winery were a few scraggly vines. The owners’ winemaking know-how was all but dead, too.

Fast-forward to 2008, when Stephen Schwartz learned that Sherman Loy, Schuerman’s last surviving grandson, was tending two surviving vines on the site of the old winery. “He was thrilled to find someone willing to do something with them,” Schwartz says. The lawyer took clippings, planted them in his backyard and was finally able to harvest enough grapes for the first bottles of Schuerman Zinfandel in nearly 100 years – not the original stuff, but a modern facsimile.

“I was forced to harvest a couple days too early because it rained,” he says. “Zinfandel grapes are notoriously susceptible to rot when there’s late-season moisture.”

The Schuerman grapes, however, seemed to show a natural resistance. “Nobody knows what this stuff is,” Schwartz says. “Who knows what kind of hybridization has occurred over the years.” He says winemakers he’s talked to are intrigued by what a moisture-tolerant zinfandel grape could mean for the wine industry, especially in monsoon-plagued Arizona.

As the modern Arizona wine industry sprouts in all directions, Schwartz isn’t the only person trying to turn back the clock. At Tumacácori National Historical Park, the University of Arizona and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum launched the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project, an effort to restore the mission’s original five-acre orchard and gardens with the appropriate 17th-century cultivars. DNA testing has been a big help. In 2006, Spanish researchers were able to finally identify Mission grapes as a little-known Spanish variety called Listan Prieto.

Schwartz acknowledges his Schuerman vines will likely undergo their own DNA testing at some point, but he’s not in any hurry. “For the moment,” he says, “the mystery is the story.”