I bet the last time you visited Napa Valley you tasted Napa wine. Of course you did, that’s what we all do when we go to Napa. In early July we traveled to Napa for a wine tasting, but not of Napa wine. Whaat? Yes, we were invited to meet, and taste wine with, Lisa Strid, winemaker for Aridus Wine Company in Willcox, Arizona.
We have a soft spot in our hearts for the small railroad town of Willcox and especially for the interesting wines being made in the Willcox AVA (American Viticultural Area). Quite by coincidence we returned from a visit to this beautiful corner of southeastern Arizona only a month prior to this tasting. We were happy to have another taste Willcox wines and to hear another winemaker’s perspective of the region.
Meet Lisa Strid
Lisa Strid (pronounced streed) joined Aridus Wine Company as winemaker in June 2016. She first became interested in winemaking while working with her uncle in his small vineyard in Washington state. She went on to study enology and viticulture at Oregon State University. An internship at a small winery in Oregon’s Dundee Hills was followed by several positions at a very large winery you may have heard of, E&J Gallo.
This varied experience has given her a sense of small-lot winemaking as well as winemaking on a large scale along with all of the high-tech equipment that can come with it. Along the way Lisa earned her WSET Level 4 Diploma.
Aridus Wine Company
The name Aridus (pronounced air-ah-dus) comes from the Latin word meaning dry, arid or parched and is a nod to the Arizona desert. In 2009 Joan & Scott Dahmer purchased a 40-acre vineyard along Turkey Creek in Pearce, 45 minutes south of Willcox. The couple established Aridus Wine Co. in 2012, the same year they finished the renovation of a former apple warehouse in Willcox into the largest custom crush facility in Arizona. Not ones to stand still, apparently, they have since opened tasting rooms in both downtown Willcox and Old Town Scottsdale.
In 2017 Lisa oversaw the production of 27,000 gallons of wine at Aridus. Winemaking is based on grapes from California and New Mexico in addition to Willcox. The market for Willcox grapes is tight according to Lisa, so she will look to a grower in New Mexico for perhaps 25 tons of grapes in 2018.
Many are surprised to learn there is a growing (or any) wine culture in Arizona, but the Willcox AVA produces about 75% of the wine grapes in the state. In 2016 Willcox was the second AVA declared in Arizona, Sonoita was the first in 1984, and it covers about 26,000 acres in what is a closed basin around and south of the city of Willcox. Mountains ring the valley which sits at elevations of 4100 to 4500 feet above sea level.
21 vineyards, and 18 wineries, are established in the Willcox AVA and Lisa described the soils as sedimentary, loamy and alkaline. And the soils are very rocky, which has taken its toll on farm equipment in the estate vineyard.
The growing season is long in Willcox, but late spring frost is always a concern. Temperatures warm into the 70s and 80s by April and then rise into the 90s and above. Summer monsoons bring cooling temperatures and the weather generally remains mild through October.
The area receives only about 13 inches of rain per year, mostly from those summer monsoons between July and October. Storms move quickly and can drop a large amount of rain in a small amount of time, then the weather clears. The otherwise dry conditions allow the vineyards to dry quickly meaning the disease pressure from moisture is minimal. The dry conditions do, however, require drip irrigation in the vineyards.
Aridus Estate Vineyard and Grape Varieties
The Aridus estate vineyard is located just beyond the boundary of the Willcox AVA in what may someday become the Chiricahua Foothills AVA. The TTB application for approval of the AVA is pending. Further differentiation from the Willcox AVA will be required for approval. From Lisa’s perspective the differences are clear: cooler weather, higher elevation (5200 feet above sea level) and variable soil types.
The 40-acre vineyard in Pearce is bisected by Turkey Creek and the soils are different on each side of the creek. Lisa showed us soil samples from both and the color difference is obvious: one red loamy sand the other grey-brown. Red grape varieties are planted in the reddish soil and white varieties in the grey-brown soil.
Lisa showed us a list of the Aridus current release wines. The font was very small and the list included 22 wines. She described her winemaking as very small-lot using many varieties. The large number of varieties is attributable to the relatively short time wine grapes have been grown in the area. Everyone is still figuring out what works best in the challenging growing conditions.
What varieties does Lisa like from Willcox? She is super enthusiastic about Graciano and Syrah. She’s still thinking about Tempranillo because it can be difficult to work with. In terms of whites she likes Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia Bianca.
She is quickly discovering what varieties work best and indicated going forward the emphasis at Aridus would be on varietal wines, rather than blends, because, in part, that is Scott’s preference.
A Taste of Aridus Wines
In all we tasted 10 Aridus wines. All except one were varietal wines and included: Sauvignon Blanc, Orange Muscat, Tempranillo (both rosé and red) Mourvèdre, Graciano, Syrah and Malvasia Bianca. Below is a sampling of what we tasted. All are sourced from Willcox area vineyards.
2017 Aridus Estate Vineyard Field Blend. This wine is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia and Viognier all from the first harvest of Aridus Estate Vineyard. Partial wild ferment in neutral oak, partial in commercial yeast. Partial aging on the lees with stirring, partial brief aging with medium-toast oak chips. The result: stone fruit flavors, intense minerality and nice acidity.
2017 Aridus Tempranillo Rosé. Sourced from a vineyard south of Pearce in Elfrida. After a one-day maceration one barrel was bled off for the rosé. Fermentation in new Hungarian oak was followed by malolactic fermentation, which, in my experience, is not that common in rosé. The translucent ruby color was not dissimilar from Pinot Noir. Blueberry flavors, roundness in the mouth, drying tannins and a bit of sweetness on the finish make for a unique glass of rosé.
2015 Aridus Grenache. Sourced from two vineyards in Cochise County. Grenache from each vineyard site was vinified separately and aged for 15 months in oak before blending. This wine is 80% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 5% Malbec. The color is delicate ruby with aromas of roses and berries in a barely medium body with nice tannins. A super summer sipper with a bit of age.
2016 Aridus Graciano. This vineyard site characteristically ripens unevenly, so several lots were received as they ripen and they’re vinified separately. Another characteristic of the Alba Vineyards site is the peppery quality of the stems from the last lot. For that reason Lisa always includes some stems from that final lot. Delicious wine.
2016 Aridus Syrah. Syrah is sourced from two vineyard sites very close to each other. One is the Chiricahua Ranch Vineyard, which we visited when we were in Willcox, and Lisa remarked on the outstanding quality of fruit that comes from this vineyard. This densely colored Syrah has complex red and dark fruit flavors and nice tannins. 17% Viognier was co-fermented with the Syrah.
If you find yourself in Scottsdale, definitely plan a visit to the Aridus Wine Company tasting room. It is the most stylish tasting room on the Scottsdale Wine Trail, which currently includes five tasting rooms.
Many thanks to Lisa for taking time to share her knowledge of and enthusiasm for the Willcox AVA. We are big fans of the area’s wines as well. We also highly recommend a trek to the southeastern corner of Arizona for a visit to Willcox. There are four tasting rooms in downtown Willcox, Aridus is one of them, and eleven more located out in the vineyards. Consult the excellent Wines of Willcox website for detailed maps and information on the area.