Arizona wine is defined by its exceptionally unique landscape, and the men and women who produce it reflect this singular character.
There is no wine-growing region on Earth like the Grand Canyon State, and the mysteries and pleasures of Arizona wine remain largely a secret to many. Nonetheless, the trailblazing winegrowers toiling on rocky hills and arid fields are quietly building a world-class movement, from the dirt up.
Terroir is what the initiates call it: the soil, climate, and terrain that determine the expression and flavors of wine grapes. While Arizona’s landscape invokes stereotypes such as hot, dry, and nothing but desert; Eric Glomski, founder and owner of Page Springs Cellars and several other vineyards and wineries across the state, debunked these assumptions.
“Our challenge is cold and wetness, it’s the exact opposite of what everybody thinks, and people just need to remember that Arizona is amazingly diverse elevationally,” said Glomski. “We have a little slice of all of North America somewhere in this state, so I think we can grow any grape on the planet here someday, we just need to find that right little niche.”
Across the state’s three wine growing regions; Sonoita, Willcox, and the Verde Valley; a growing family of vintners are reaching back to Old World traditions, learning from each other, trailblazing with new varietals and techniques, and generally undermining the conventions of ‘modern wines,’ championed by California’s Napa Valley.
“As more people live here, and the industry is growing, they’re kind of growing together,” said Chris Beelendorf, a former sommelier and current account manager for wine at the boutique Phoenix distributor, Quail.
According to the last U.S. Department of Agriculture report, the upstart state reported at least 64 vineyards planting almost a thousand acres, and bringing in over $2.2 million in 2014. And wine tourism is creating over $56 million dollars in revenue annually, growing 50 percent since 2011, according to Northern Arizona University.
This does bring with it its share of detractors.
“For Californians, the rest of America does not exist as a wine-producing state,” said Sam Pillsbury, owner and winegrower of Pillsbury Wine Company, whose vineyards are seated in 100 acres in Willcox, in Cochise County.
Pillsbury was familiarized with California and its wine culture as a Hollywood producer, although he may be best known for his 1984 award-winning New Zealand cult hit The Quiet Earth, which celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lists in his top ten favorite sci-fi films.
Pillsbury brought this signature creativity to the Arizona wine scene in the late ‘90s, when his imagination was captured by a $12 bottle of Cochise County wine, bought on a whim.
“I opened that bottle that night, and in 25 years of drinking chard, I’d never tasted anything like it. And I knew it was terroir,” Pillsbury said. “I literally went down the next day and bought 40 acres next to that vineyard. That’s where my vineyard is now, and 75 percent of Arizona wine is now grown in the area right around my vineyard. It’s one of the most perfect places on Earth to grow wine.”
In 2000 Pillsbury launched his first venture, in partnership with Al Buhl of Dos Cabezas WineWorks, and later sold to Glomskiin order to focus on his own vision. His new career would also win many awards, and is helping to build an international reputation for Arizona among more boutique connoisseurs.
“Goddammit, my 2015 Syrah just won a double gold in the San Francisco Chronicle, which was one of three double golds out of 55 entries from all over the United Sates. From my little piece of cheap dirt, down by the Mexican border,” Pillsbury declared in a mischievous New Zealand accent.
Pillsbury had re-discovered something Spanish Conquistadors stumbled on in the 16th century, when they used native grapes to produce Communion wine.
In the 1970s, pioneers like Dr. Gordon Dutt, of the University of Arizona, and founder of Sonoita vineyards, revived this tradition and began to modernize it. So-called Old World grapes, especially those identified with France’s Rhône Valley and Burgundy region, thrived in the high desert, with all its limestone and volcanic rock.
Today, science and experimentation have only begun to unravel the full potential of Arizona wine. On Nov. 11th, Dutt was among honorees at the inaugural Festival at the Farm and Founders Dinner at the University of Arizona Campus Agriculture Center. The two-day celebration, hosted by the Arizona Wine Growers Association, showcased 20 wineries and more than 120 wines, and raised funds for the university’s Arizona Wine Library and Research Center.
“This is still the first big step,” said Glomski, “we don’t even know what grapes to plant here yet.”
Among favorite Arizona varietals: Grenache, Syrah, Pinot Gris, and Viognier; all highly nuanced grapes that serve best to compliment food, and are often blended for maximum effect.
“Eric Glomski is a master blender… It’s like everybody else is painting in black and white, and Eric has, like the full palette,” said Beelendorf.
Glomski indeed sees his work as an art. He said his “epiphanal moment” came when an actual artist, living off the land outside of Prescott, helped him make a batch of apple wine from a small local orchard, and the magic of Arizona terroir first struck him.
“I smelled the wine at first, obviously, and then I tasted it. And the coolest thing happened, which was it really, really reminded me in this kind of deep, spiritual way, of that orchard,” he said. “I just realized that I could be an artist too, and I could capture landscapes in these liquid bottles. And after that I was possessed.”
Glomski left a master’s program in river ecology at Northern Arizona University, and went to volunteer in the wine harvest in California. He earned himself a job, and cut his winemaking teeth under the Santa Cruz Mountains’ “Prince of Pinot Noir,” David Bruce.
But he always intended to return to Arizona, and when the time came he began a succession of growing projects from his Page Spring Cellars. Among them, possibly Arizona wine’s biggest claim to fame–especially among millennials–the 2007 Arizona Stronghold joint venture with the world-famous frontman of the rock bands Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer; Maynard James Keenan.
The two parted ways in 2014, and Glomski now leads Arizona Stronghold himself, but the project achieved an entirely new level of success for Arizona wine, at its peak distributing in 35 states, four Canadian provinces, and Australia. It also brought the wine, and its terroir, to some of the world’s greatest palates.
“I don’t think California’s doing many Sangioveses like that,” said renowned wine critic and former editor of Wine Spectator, James Suckling, tasting a blend in the breakout 2010 documentary “Blood into Wine,” which centered on Keenan.
Suckling also compared the geography and volcanic soil of the Willcox region to “parts of the Rhone Valley,” and said it “reminds me of vineyards I’ve been to a number of times in Sicily.”
Current Stronghold head winemaker, Matthew Reica, also sees Arizona’s terroir as the heart of its industry, and the key to its success. He explained why, even at its scale, Arizona Stronghold relies on Old World techniques to bring out the best in their grapes, and doesn’t expect to drastically expand anytime soon.
“If anywhere in Europe has a similar profile, in a winemaking sense, it would be Tuscany,” Reica said. “Arizona is not currently capable of making big, bold, modern-style wines… So it’s much easier, much more applicable for us to look back to our European cousins and how they do it, because we match up much better.”
While overseeing operations at Stronghold, Glomski continues to make breakthroughs from Page Springs Cellars today, where a 4,000 gallon-per-minute natural spring irrigates all the fields, and produce is grown on-sight for the tasting room’s menu. Over the years, Page Springs Cellars has become known as a premiere destination for experiencing wine in Arizona.
Alongside traditional connoisseurs from around the state and far beyond, the original Glomski project also draws many millennials to its adventurous program, aligning perfectly with Glomski's mission for education and innovation.
“Paige Springs has probably as beautiful a winery as anywhere; if you were in Sonoma, if you were in Napa, could be in France, Paige Springs Cellars is stunning. The wines are fantastic, and the setting is amazing,” said Beelendorf.
“For my 21st birthday I went there, so it was a really cool experience,” said Alexa Avila, a senior at Arizona State University’s downtown campus. She said her first flight of all-Arizona wine, along with the Southwestern hospitality, made the event a great memory.
At his home winery, Glomski himself embodies the connection between the land and the winemaker. On a sight that he surveyed years before for one of his river ecology projects, he produced 70 different wines last year, and is constantly testing the boundaries of the gorgeous Verde Valley.
Meanwhile, Arizona Stronghold remains Arizona’s largest vineyard and winery. Last year, it even took home the Arizona Republic Wine Competition’s Best of Show, and swept almost every category.
“People who have tasted the wine recognize it as completely legitimate, world-class wine,” said Beelendorf, noting that Sonoita is very similar in altitude to most Washington vineyards, although it surprisingly gets about an inch more of annual rain. “California is known more for big, bold wines, and Arizona is more about finesse.”
“How Arizona’s going to compete is not going to be head to head,” said Beelendorf. “You know, it’s going to be more like a quick boxer fighting a power boxer. So you’re going to have some big Napa cabs versus maybe, a refined, refreshing Grenache and Viognier that you can’t find in California... Viognier is an example of an expensive wine to make that we have a much better value of production for."
As for quality, Beelendorf compared Arizona’s rise as a national competitor to the movie “Bottle Shock,” about the 1976 “Judgement of Paris,” when California bested French wine on its own soil in a blind taste test.
“That’s kind of what Arizona is going through now, except that it’s against Napa, it’s against Oregon," he said. "There’s no way that Arizona is ever going to produce Pinot and Cab. It’s not the right climate, and those are really what drive the market in California. What we’re going to be able to produce are different varietals with a whole different style, and I think it will just really compliment extremely well!”
…Just nobody tell that to Eric.
A small Phoenix dog shelter has been quietly taking on the most challenging rescue work as a community-oriented labor of love for almost a decade. Due to the growth of the Phoenix metro area and the steadily growing reputation it has earned–now internationally– among shelters, advocates, and vets, now it is facing more need than ever, and struggling to convert ‘click-tivism’ into revenue.
Mayday Pit Bull Rescue & Advocacy is a shelter and foster-care network that saves abused, traumatized, or disabled pure-bred and mixed-breed pit bulls, as well as some others, from euthanasia in shelters from right here in the Valley, to as far as Cairo, Egypt.
The Phoenix non-profit also networks with other organizations and local events, and uses its large social media following to increase awareness and acceptance for the breed, which remains the most stigmatized and vulnerable to abuse.
Most Mayday dogs come from county shelters or the Humane Society, both of whom often seek out Mayday’s help with dogs they don’t have the resources to save. The group has become well known in professional communities for going beyond extraordinary lengths to save its dogs.
“Why not? These dogs have value,” is co-founder and current President Jennifer Mazzocchi’s philosophy. She works tirelessly to sustain the group of driven volunteers, but says it needs help from the community to which it gives so much to serve; now more than ever.
“She just is a ray of brightness in a world that is looking pretty dim sometimes to me,” said Shari Mulvehill from Scottsdale, of Mazzocchi. Mulvehill has adopted two Mayday dogs herself since 2014, and, like a lot of other adopters, began volunteering at the shelter soon thereafter.
“That’s where I met Timmy, and this just shows, I think, Mayday at its best,” said Shari, who went on to describe the remarkable recovery her second Mayday dog Timmy made from paralysis due to a crushed pelvis, to near fully-regained mobility. “Timmy was going to be euthanized, and they went down and recovered him. He was a six-month pup…And the doctor said it’s like a miracle how he recovered,” Mulvehill said.
“What I particularly like about Mayday is they take the ones of last resort,” Mulvehill said, “You know, there’s never enough money to save everybody, or enough space, or enough people to help–that’s their only shortcoming is there’s just never enough. Their hearts are huge.”
Surgeries are a large expense for the organization, that has been operating on a very tight, roughly $100,000 budget for the last couple years–almost all of which goes directly to operating expenses.
“Knight,” an extremely friendly and energetic two-year-old pit bull who was left for dead after a dogfight in Egypt, is just one example. Mayday was asked to take him and he was flown to Phoenix, where it arranged for immediate facial reconstructive surgery and several other procedures to save Knight’s life.
Today, only some scars, and a Two-Face-style sneer where part of his lip is missing, hint at the trauma he survived. Yet Mayday’s organizers have to sit down and pick only a very few candidates at a time that it can afford to expend those resources on.
Knight is also a perfect example of the dilemma Mayday faces as its profile grows. It is called on by more and more public and private organizations to save dogs that nobody else can or will, but its donor base hasn’t seen the growth one would associate with its 150,000 strong Facebook following.
Shelter manager Ashley Blase of Phoenix recalled going on a cross-country drive in January to save one of Mayday’s residents, Monk, from a Rhode Island shelter where he had been put on a euthanasia list after twice being returned due to behavioral issues from trauma.
Luigi, a fifteen-year-old brindle greyhound-pit bull mix lounged in a sand box as Blase showed off the large, meticulous, dog-park like backyard of the shelter. Luigi was being attended by another volunteer, Tricia Schmoyer, who has been working at the shelter for three years, and works in finance in Sun City.
“Once these dogs trust you, they are truly your best friend. We all have too many,” Schmoyer laughed.
The small shelter houses about 10 dogs that are awaiting adoption or are residents, while Mayday’s foster program usually supports closer to 50 dogs as they receive necessary medical treatment, physical and psychological rehabilitation, and behavioral work. The dedication and professionalism of the all-volunteer organization has become known as world-class. It has about twenty volunteers whom have undergone extensive vetting and training.
“Training usually lasts about one to two months, and you usually shadow a trainer over that time, until you can handle the dogs on your own. It’s a lot more serious than other shelters,” said Blase.
Considering the enormous cost of care for its extreme special-needs dogs, Mayday adoptions are a cheap $250. The application process is extremely rigorous, though, to ensure the commitment that Mayday makes to its dogs will be upheld by prospective adopters. A “Mayday Dog” forever has a home at the shelter, regardless of its circumstances
October marks the tenth anniversary of National Pit Bull Awareness Month, and Mayday is hoping more than ever that the awareness raised will translate into a lot more investment of life-saving time and money from its own community.
Pig & Pickle, an off-beat, locally-owned restaurant in Scottsdale, hosted a celebration on Saturday of the life of its most unique customer and friend, and it was a community event to be remembered.
Richard P. Best was a patriot in the highest sense, and the kind of guy you would love to have a… martini with. Something of a real-life, Yankee James Bond, much of his story may never be told publicly, but he lived a life that touched more people every day than many do in a year.
Best passed away on August 26, 2017, at the age of 92. At least 50 people gathered to remember him at his favorite Friday happy hour haunt, where he left yet another indelible imprint on his community, as he’d done his whole life.
“Time and a pleasant smile" was all Best ever claimed to want from people, and he wrested some of both from even those most resistant to his unorthodox charm. He also hurled George Carlin-like insults and one-liners, indiscriminately dubbing anyone he pleased monikers like “Bonehead,” “Short Stuff,” and much worse.
“He had names for everyone and everything,” said his son, Mike.
And when he’d had his fun, he’d give you the warmest hug you ever felt, and leave you waiting to see him again. Sometimes he’d pull you down close to him to deliver a few quiet words of personal encouragement that you’d never forget.
Best and Pig & Pickle found each other at just the right time. In 2012, The newly-opened, chef-driven gastropub with a soulful vibe was trying to find a foothold in South Scottsdale, and tap into a new community of local drinkers, foodies, and good-hearted miscreants. Best qualified as all three, although he would undoubtedly have challenged such slander–possibly excepting ‘drinker.’
“We were just starting and so wet behind the ears, and he’s looking at us like, these are good souls and they’re doing a good thing, and I want to support it. And he did till the end. I mean he had his wake here,” said Pig & Pickle owner Clayton MacGregor of Gilbert.
For his part, Best was recently devastated by the sudden December 2011 loss of his beloved wife of 55 years, Hanni.
“I truly thought that her death would be the death of him. But, in true R.P. fashion, he began to rebuild his world,” said Best’s daughter, Nancy. She and her two brothers, Mike and Steve “counselled him that the only way to get back to a normal life was to create a routine and stick to it. So, he went about creating a routine for himself.”
To its great benefit, Pig & Pickle became a regular part of that routine.
“He kind of signifies for us what we set out to create, a place that, you know, you could come and have a good time no matter what age you were. You have a 90-year-old guy sitting at the bar, joking with 25-year-old girls, next to a 30-year-old bartender. And still so young, relating to current affairs, and they were into what he’s into,” MacGregor said.
“The thing that I liked most about Richard is the way that as soon as he walked in the door–albeit, slowly– how the whole place just changed and everybody was just in a good mood and wanted to go talk to him, and his infectious smile. He could look at ya and smile, he’d just make you melt,” remembered former bar manager Dustin “Skot” Boettcher, now living outside of Denver.
Still, as much as the owners, staff, and regulars loved Best, most only had bits or pieces of his history, which only served to grow the legend of “King Richard.”
Best was born in Paris, Illinois, on September 7, 1924. At 19-years-old, he enlisted in the Army in the last year of World War Two and trained for clandestine operations at Stanford. When the war ended, he was sent, along with only twelve other soldiers, to another Paris–this time at an invitation to Sorbonne by President Charles de Gaulle.
His stint in France would be but one of many official and unofficial postings in the post-War and Cold War periods, and well beyond. He worked as an intelligence officer in the Army until 1968, when he returned to the U.S. and went to work with the highly-secretive Air Force Foreign Technology Division (FTD).
“The technology that was being developed for use in the Air Force arsenal with their secrets secured by the FTD, would lead Dad to another place, Los Alamos New Mexico,” said his son Steve. Best remained “part of the L.A. family for almost 30 years.”
Across an immense career, Best traveled the world, from divided Berlin, where he met young Miss Johanna “Hanni” Schwaighofer; to Austria, which he and Hanni both visited annually until they were unable to; to Greece where their children were raised for some time.
“Dad worked in an innocuous office near downtown Athens, none of us had any idea what he was doing,” Steve said. “Oddly and coincidentally, the government of Greece in the mid-60s, was being swayed by the influences of the Soviet Union, and with swift and thorough secret action on the part of Dad and his colleagues, that government fell apart in a coup, and our stay in Athens ended a year later.”
After his work at Los Alamos, Best Went on to hold roles with Pentagon counterintelligence leadership, and didn’t retire until 2007 when he was a spry 82-years-old. All told, Best put in roughly six decades of service at the highest levels of counterintelligence.
“Even though Dad thought that any temperature above 75 was incredibly uncivilized, they made the decision to move to Arizona. That May, my parents moved to Scottsdale and began to embrace desert living,” Nancy said.
So it came about that, half-way through his retirement to the Valley of the Sun, Best stopped in to check out a hip new bar in the neighborhood. Bond rarely took his martini alone.
Through the duration of Best’s patronage, most of the incredible revelations of his life and career didn’t become common knowledge at Pig & Pickle until his passing, but it seemed to explain quite a bit.
Knowledgeable on almost every subject, and incredibly well-read, he recommended books in the restaurant constantly, and was delighted when his tips were taken up.
He once made sure that a cook received a copy of Kevin Powers’ poetic, jarring rumination on war and its consequences, “The Yellow Birds.” The young man was a veteran who had witnessed his brother’s death at the hands of an IED in Afghanistan, was injured himself, and struggled with PTSD and depression. He was imminently grateful to be so understood and connected to by someone who barely knew him.
Skot Boettcher–at a large six feet–recalled being man-handled by the never-tall nonagenarian.
“I’ll never forget, I was shaking his hand when he was driving home once, and he almost pulled me right in to his Chevy window. You know, like that guy still had it, and we all loved him and it was great having him around. Yeah, he was a great one,” Boetcher said.
Many–perhaps most–of Best’s quotes aren’t quite fit for print, just like much, if not most of his work isn’t easily talked about. He was a man alive on so many levels that he seemed to have one to match any individual, and yet those who met him usually got a notion they couldn’t quite match his.
“Every time I saw him, he put a smile on my face because, not only was he genuinely caring in his soul, but I mean, he really enjoyed his time with us. Nancy said we added years to his life and we didn’t even know it, and it just seemed like he gave just as much back to us,” MacGregor said.
Best sent a letter to more than 300 people every Christmas, and kept a birthday calendar with a card to be sent for almost every day of the year. When he passed, his son Mike found 30 of them waiting to be mailed in his desk.
Someone who spends so long doing such important work, hidden from the world it is shaping, tends to speak to, and move people with force. At the end of “King” Richard Best’s life, that force was one of sheer willful love, and it was simply overwhelming.