Sand-Reckoner, Willcox, and Arizona wines

How did this obsession begin? Here’s some backstory:

I was transitioning through this insane move from Houston to Oaxaca with numerous moving parts and some of this required me biding my time with Francisco’s mom and grandmother (lovingly ,Mama and Nana T) in Tucson, Arizona.

In the midst of this and lucky for me, I had the honor of being invited to attend the TexSom International Wine Awards as part of the sommelier retreat where we would write for the subsequent magazine as well as attend tastings and seminars. One of these seminars was serendipitously about the wines of Arizona done by the inimitable Elaine Chukan Brown. I went in not knowing what to expect albeit a little skeptical but I walked out a believer and for two months, I worked to track down one of my favorites of the bunch: Sand-Reckoner Vineyards.

They opened up a tasting room in downtown Tucson that I frequented more than I liked to admit. I talked through every wine available with the gracious and knowledgeable, Tana, who is reason enough to visit alone. It’s a stark, modern, and comfortable space akin to its up-and-coming contemporary and artsy neighbors. This is a block of Tucson I get goosebumps about.

Finally, a couple days before our move to Oaxaca, the scheduling gods answered and Francisco and I were able to spend the day with Sarah and Rob Hammelman from Sand-Reckoner. We tasted barrel samples, toured their vineyards (which is basically their backyard), and asked a million questions.

Sand-Reckoner is in Willcox AVA in Southeastern Arizona, very close to the borders of New Mexico and Mexico. It’s an hour and a half drive from Tucson and it sits on the Willcox Bench, a ridge that formed over the course of billions of years which is now essentially a drained lake whose water retention is kept in check by the emergence of its surrounding mountain ranges. The altitudes in their many vineyards including Cimaron, Rumbline, Cochise, Blue Moon, and Red Tree Ranch all vary from 4,000 to 5,000 feet holding newer vines but some at 20 years old. The soil type that remains is mostly sand and clay loam but bands of that infamous limestone zig-zag throughout the area.

You would think in an Arizona desert climate, there would be a lot of just straight-up heat but some viticultural hazards do include frost and a lot of wind and rain from early July. Rob’s way of combating this is all about canopy management and allowing air flow before the rains even begin. Sarah and Rob say that taking care of the vines through every possible seasonal hazard is key. It’s handiwork that resists the changing weather in a desert and monsoon-friendly climate.

Rob and Sarah have collectively worked in wineries all over the world including Napa Valley, Adelaide, Two Rivers Winery in Colorado, and at St. Combe in Gigondas. They met in Colorado and when they decided to run a winery and vineyard, the Arizona mountains called to them.

Their first vintage was in 2010 and their breakthrough in the market started in Phoenix and migrated to Tucson three to four years later. They gained some traction when local restaurants in these places began to feature some of their reds by the glass and now, they have production of about 2,500 cases per year.

We headed into the first room toward the back of their downtown Willcox winery and it’s where they store and keep their wines in old California barrels – all used and all at least five years old. There is little if any oak influence on these wines and it only does these wines and varieties justice. Some processes are somewhat old-school using a hand-ratcheted basket press and even foot-stomping their whites and roses with the stems on. 

Moving into the temperature-controlled second room,  it's easy to go in with a notion that New World warm climates would see barrels full of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but this room would prove you wrong. They take a lot of their influence here from Southern Rhone, Spain, and Italy with Portuguese and Languedoc clones, ones that Rob picks to suit the climate that he finds similar to these Old World-areas.

Their more well-known white bottlings include Picpoul and Vermentino, both with searing acid and beautiful fruit and savory notes that remind me of their Old World counterparts. Rob let us taste through tons of samples, all complex, savory, and so simple but beautifully balanced. The real treat was an orange Roussanne that spent forty days on the skins. The nose reminded me of Basque cider and sherry but the palate was full of apple skin, oranges, and white flowers. We were able to compare Tempranillos from the same vintage but different vineyards, an argument for terroir in this AVA (it’s true). Rather than creating Bordeaux blends in their typical style, Rob’s red blends see Petit-Verdot-dominant wines that carry an incredibly pleasing aroma of green bell pepper and green bean. Two of my favorites included a 2014 Syrah that was so obviously Syrah with black pepper, olive tapenade, and dried meat but also carried beautifully dried blue and black fruit. You’d think it was Northern Rhône but it was in a class of its own. I also found out that Rob and I shared a geekiness towards Southern Italian varieties and we got a tiny taste of Sagrantino - bloody and round yet lifted.

After our tasting, we headed over to meet Sarah (and their dog, Earl) at their vineyards. Everything was just flowering and required that canopy management that Rob had talked about. I was able to learn how to thin some shoots and air out a canopy. Geek central.

I am officially on the Arizona wine train. Thank you to Sarah and Rob for having us. I spent the past year spending a lot of my time behind a wine bar with notecards, blind practices, and popcorn theory over text message. I came out to a vineyard and remembered what it means to study wine and meet the makers and taste what people are doing in their little corner of the world. What seemed to be the case was that these winemakers have a special hand in manipulating wines in the bottle in order to sync with the output that the region is giving them - a true relationship between earth and winemaker and another definition of terroir that I believe gets overlooked.

Not a lot of Arizona wines are getting distributed outside of the state but I think you need to ask for them. They’re ready and willing to show you what they are putting their livelihoods into. Take it! Check out their website here and read more of their story - http://www.sand-reckoner.com/.