Willcox, Verde Valley cultivate ripe conditions for winter wines.
Willcox, Verde Valley cultivate ripe conditions for winter wines.
The hostess turns the distinctive gold label so her guests can read, “Carlson Creek, 2018 Rule of Three, Red Blend, Arizona,” a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes that defines the style of Cotes du Rhone wine.
Her hospitality sets the stage for the world of winter wines, a perfect pairing for the cooler temperatures of the holiday season.
Standing as a prime example of Arizona’s winter wine offerings, one of the state’s largest and family-owned vineyards, Carlson Creek Vineyard, has just introduced its newest winter wines, the 2018 Rule of Three, 2018 Malbec, 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2020 Odyssey.
All four winter wines are available for seasonal sipping and purchase at the Carlson Creek Vineyard tasting rooms in Cottonwood, Scottsdale and Willcox, where the Carlson family operates its 320-acre vineyard in the heart of Cochise County, in southeastern Arizona.
“Winter wine tends to reflect and pair well with winter cuisine,” said Robert Carlson III, the co-founder who spearheaded the creation of the family business in 2008. “They are richer, heartier and higher in alcohol, and go well with the heavy holiday meals we associate with winter. In the summer months, wine is meant to be refreshing; in the winter it is to be warming. It is an excellent time for Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or our Rule of Three blend.”
According to an October press release on the Carlson winter wines, the 2018 Rule of Three is an award-winning wine, which has a dark and mysterious nose and tastes of overripe blackberry, blueberry and crushed violets, as well as a touch of vanilla and sweet sage.
The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon has an aroma of black cherry liqueur, uncut violets, and a subtle waft of cinnamon, followed by hints of Maraschino cherries and bright fresh raspberries on the palate.
The 2020 Odyssey is a unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec that was made especially for Carlson and his wife, Britney, for their wedding day in 2021, but a limited number of bottles are available for purchase at the three tasting rooms.
The Carlson extended family history includes farming in pre-war Poland and in the Midwestern fields of Illinois.
In 2008, Carlson, now 40, left his career as a stockbroker to pursue a less stressful life. He decided to reinvent the family dream of farming with vine planting on the original 40-acre plot of Carlson land in Willcox.
“We have always had a love of wine and viewed it as essential to a well-set table,” Carlson recalled. “But I was the one who brought the idea of starting a wine estate to my family just before the Great Recession. Our family had been farmers for generations in the United States and in Europe. Though our grandfather had mentioned some distant winemaking in the family’s past, we had no current experience. It was the burgeoning wine industry in Arizona that truly kindled our fascination. Once we saw the quality and the potential for growth, our love of wine grew into a passion for winemaking.”
Family roots in Arizona run deep, as most members have lived in the state “at one time or another,” Carlson said, “from my father’s parents time in Nogales, to my father’s time stationed at USMC Yuma, to all my siblings attending Arizona universities, and even as the location that my grandmother entered the United States.”
The Willcox area provides a favorable terroir, or complete natural environment for producing wines, which encompasses soil, topography and climate.
“It is an excellent area, as evidenced by the majority of Arizona wine grapes being grown there,” Carlson explained. “There are several factors that put it as the top wine-growing region. One is the elevation, which moderates temperature. The second is our sandy, loamy soil that is excellent for grapevines. Third is our unfettered access to water, for now. The last factor is often overlooked, and it is the agricultural community. The support network of this community from farm advisor, irrigation expertise, fertilizer production, ready at hand labor, to tractor mechanic and dealers, is essential to support an expanding growing region.”
Carlson encouraged other members of his family to join in the wine enterprise, including his younger brother, John, 33, who came on board as the head winemaker after studying winemaking and viticulture and interning at local wineries to gain experience.
Their father, Robert “Bob” Carlson, Jr., 70, longtime lawyer and a retired Marine fighter pilot, worked every step of the way with his sons, as a co-owner, financial advisor and even a day laborer in the vineyards. Their mother, Elizabeth Carlson, handles everything from accounting and retail merchandise, to representing Carlson Creek at wine festivals throughout the state. Their sister, Katherine Carlson, managed the development of the distinctive Carlson Creek logo, wine labels and other design needs and handles the company’s legal affairs. The eldest Carlson son, Robert, who lives in Gilbert, now splits his time between Willcox, Scottsdale and Cottonwood, overseeing sales, retail operations, distribution and the vineyard’s three tasting rooms, in addition to managing the vineyards and production facility with his brother, John, who lives in Scottsdale.
“My brother, John, and I develop the wines together,” Carlson noted, “though we take full input from our cellar staff. Good ideas are always welcome, so we encourage a collaborative atmosphere.”
In addition to in the tasting rooms, Carlson wines are available for purchase in Sedona at Art of Wine, Made in Arizona Wine and Gift, and Bashas’, as well as Sedona, State Bar, Cottonwood, The Grand Canyon Wine Company, Williams and at Vino Zona, Jerome.
Another good terroir for vineyards is the Verde Valley, where the Carlson family opened their third tasting room in December 2018 in Cottonwood on North Main Street.
“The terroir of the Valley is also outstanding, though more expensive and challenging to farm,” Carlson said. “I have always enjoyed the difference of the two regions. Water rights tend to be more difficult and the ag community is not as large, a good spot on either the Verde River or Oak Creek produced excellent concentration.”
There are some challenges for growing grapes in the Verde Valley, such as frost along the riverbeds that can provide channels for cold air and insects in the riparian areas can act as vectors for disease for grapevines, he added.
Carlson’s previous experience in the Verde Valley led to expansion of the family business into that region.
“I chose the Verde Valley because it is where I got my start in the Arizona wine industry. I worked harvests on many of the vineyards in the area, interned in one of the top cellars in the state, and got to know the character of the pioneering industry there. Plus, I just like spending time in such a beautiful place.”
The Carlson family has felt welcomed and encouraged by Verde Valley residents and visitors.
“The response we received was overwhelmingly positive,” Carlson said. “We made our wine in Verde Valley for almost half the winery’s existence before consolidating production in on our vineyard in Willcox. You can still find bottles in our tasting room that say either Camp Verde or Cornville. So, it was less of us going there to expand and it was returning. All of our ‘new neighbors’ were really just our old friends.”
Carlson does not see other wineries as competitors. In fact, he says the more wineries in the area, the better, as they attract more visitors.
“It is about growing the pie, instead of arguing over the pieces. But that is the Arizona wine industry for you: positive, supportive and forward looking. That is why I love it — that, and the delicious wine.”
Plans for Carlson Creek Vineyard include tours in Willcox after the New Year.
“The grounds surrounding our winery are currently being redone and we are excited to share all the improvements with our guests in early 2022.” FBN
By Betsey Bruner, FBN