Three unique vintners of Southern Arizona’s wine country

Robert Carlson III – Carlson Creek Vineyard

Robert Carlson III moved to Arizona when he was 18 from Southern California to study aerospace engineering. His dream of being an astronaut was quickly shattered when he realized what engineers have to do. He then studied art, political science, economics and pre-law. After graduating and working in politics for a bit, he was offered a position as a stockbroker at Charles Schwab.

In 2008, he realized that it wasn’t the right environment for him. “The market was crashing, and I was working at my desk for 10 hour days,” he remembers.  Perhaps it was his screen saver that subliminally changed his course – it was rows of grapes growing in a vineyard.

“I had gotten into wine while in college,” Robert explains. “[I had] friends [who] worked at high-end restaurants, and we used to do the complimentary tasting from distributors and occasional drink the unfinished bottle that tables would order at the end of the night. I got to try wines I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.”

His family had been into farming for generations back east, and his father and grandfather had always wanted to get back into it, so he came to his father (his grandfather had already passed) and the rest of his immediate family with his idea to start a vineyard. Everyone was on board, so Robert cashed in his 401K to help buy the land in Willcox, east of Tucson, and they started from scratch.

“The day after I quit Charles Schwab, I started looking for an internship at a winery, took classes at UC Davis, read everything I could find and hired people who knew what they were doing,” says Robert. His brother, John, did the same. He moved from Santa Barbara to help with the winery. John had a liquor license before he could legally drink – now he heads up the winemaking at Carlson Creek.

There were a number of factors that led to the decision to purchase land in Willcox. “The magic of Willcox is first and foremost the altitude. The mitigating effects of altitude can make up for your latitude,” explains Robert. “Nice warm days and cooler nights allow the grapes to fully ripen while retaining a lot of their acids.” You need a lot of acid in grapes to balance out the alcohol levels and sugars to make a balanced wine. Willcox also has well-draining soil. This type of soil benefits the grapevines since they don’t like their “feet wet” and it also prevents things like disease and mold.

They buy their vine cuttings from disease-certified nurseries out of state, mostly in California. “We buy from disease-certified nurseries because if you were to bring in vines from other parts of the world, there is the possibility of disease. In fact, doing just that almost destroyed the world’s grape population in the 1880s,” explains Robert. “[The] Phylloxera [aphid] came across with the vines and destroyed vineyards across Europe. It feeds on the roots, and the European grapevines weren’t as adapted as the American vines.” The Europeans then began grafting the Phylloxera-resistant American rootstock onto their grapevines, providing a solution to the infestation. The majority of grapes are still grown that way today. “So those $1,000 bottles of Bordeaux – they have American roots,” jokes Robert.

Carlson Creek grows 11 different varieties of grapes including Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache and Mourvedre. They currently have 60 acres under vine and are the third-largest vineyard in the state. The 2016 harvest sold the most grapes in their entire history – sourcing to 10 other Arizona wineries.

This demand for grapes led to their recent expansion of 280 total acres and the purchase of a second tasting room in Scottsdale and a new space in Willcox. This new space (an old Chevy dealership built in the 1940s) will be home to a new tasting room, along with space for fermentation, aging and bottling of future vintages.

Robert’s goal for the future includes bringing more acreage under vine. “I’d like to see us [become] a large regional to semi-national presence. The idea would be to plant out our entire vineyard – 280 acres – so that would make us the largest vineyard in the state,” he says.

No matter how big Carlson Creek Vineyard gets, the most rewarding thing for Robert is that he is doing something with his family. “I talk to my parents every day. I have a better family connection than I would have had I stayed in finance,” he says. “That family connection we get from having the winery, there is also a more intimate connection in what you do. Every day is different. You can be in the vineyard one day and the next traveling around the world extolling the benefits of Arizona wines. The personal connection to it is more real than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”

Carlson Creek Vineyard’s wine tasting rooms are located at 115 Railview Ave. in Willcox and 4142 N. Marshall Way in Scottsdale. Hours at the Willcox location are 11 am to 5 pm Thursday through Sunday and Scottsdale hours are noon to 8 pm Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, contact 520-766-3000 (480-947-0636 in Scottsdale) or visit

Lori Reynolds, Sonoita Vineyards

Sonoita Vineyards is the oldest commercial vineyard and winery in Arizona. Dr. Gordon Dutt started an experimental vineyard in 1973 along with Frank and Blake Brophy on the Brophy’s Babacomari Ranch in Elgin, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson. Dr. Dutt was a soil scientist at the University of Arizona and was doing soil testing at the time when he discovered that the soil’s composition on the ranch was a 99% match to soil in the Burgundy region of France. After having success with the experimental vineyard, he began operating the first commercial vineyard in Arizona in 1979 and opened the winery in 1983.

Today, Lori Reynolds runs the vineyard that her grandfather began. She grew up and attended high school in Safford, AZ where her mother started a charter school and her father was a corrections officer. They would come to the vineyard often.

Lori attended the University of Arizona to study veterinary medicine with a minor in chemistry. After she had graduated, she discovered that the vet life was not for her. She took a few years off to start her family until one day, she spoke to her grandfather about what her next path should be. “He told me, ‘You were born to do wine,’ and I thought, I love wine – you’re right,” says Lori.

She took classes through the UC Davis Extension program and earned her degree in viticulture and enology. She then was mentored by fellow vintner, Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards. “He helped me taste and test barrels, and after a year was up, I was on my own,” explains Lori.

Sonoita Vineyards “is a one-stop shop” and currently has 40 acres under vine growing varieties such as Pinot Noir, Petit Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese and Mission.

“The Mission variety is the ‘old grape’ of the Catholic Church used to make the communion wine,” says Lori. “And Sangiovese is my grandfather’s favorite grape.” Dr. Dutt is 87 years old and resides in the foothills of Tucson. He occasionally makes it out to the vineyard. “He loves to come down and boss everybody around during harvest,” jokes Lori.

Lori is thankful that he still can visit. She is also thankful he set up the vineyard with sustainability in mind. The vines grow terraced up a hill so that when it rains, water comes down into berms and gets caught, watering the rows. Any excess rushes down the hill and flows into a retaining pond to sustain the cattle that live on the ranch. This way, the two wells on the property can take a break when it rains. “Grandpa knew we live in a desert and we need to harvest as much water as we can,” explains Lori. Even the gray water from the winery goes to water the grass.

Lori admits that her biggest challenge with running a winery is being a mother too. With “three active little boys” she has to fit in planting, harvesting, soccer, baseball and school, but she admits, “I love what I do. I get to share my art and science with everybody. I love it!”

She also hopes that her children can take the winery into its third generation and keep living in Elgin. “Our winery is not just a production facility, there is a vineyard house on the property – my kids call it the ‘farmhouse,’” says Lori. This way she can keep her grandfather’s vision moving forward. “Winemakers are Type A personalities – we may have different ways of doing it, but we all get to the same end – producing world-class wines.”

Sonoita Vineyards is located at 290 Elgin-Canelo Road in Elgin. Their tasting room is open from 10 am to 4 pm daily, except major holidays. They will be hosting their annual HarvestFest on July 29 from 10 am-4 pm. For more information, contact 520-455-5893 or visit

Kief Manning, Kief-Joshua Vineyards

It seems like Kief Joshua Manning was meant to be a winemaker. “I started working in a wine shop when I was 15 and making beer and wine as a hobby at the house,” he remembers. He went to UC Davis in California for two semesters and then moved to Australia, finishing his undergrad degree in wine technology, marketing and management at Monash University. He then went on to earn a master’s in viticulture and enology from the University of Melbourne.

He worked in Australia for five years and then returned to Arizona, starting his winery in Elgin, southeast of Tucson, in 2003.

When he first started Kief-Joshua Vineyards, there were only five wineries in the entire state of Arizona. “This is the second oldest wine growing region in the country – in Southern Arizona – dating back to 1560,” Kief explains. “Most people don’t realize that it was illegal to make wine in Arizona between 1915 to 1980.” The winemaking happening now in the state is a re-emergence of a former industry. “We’ve been the fastest growing wine industry in the country for the last 10 or 12 years. We’ve gone from five wineries in 2003 to 104 today in the whole state,” he adds.

His vineyard is located on 60 acres with 24 total acres under vine. “We process everything here on site. We do all of our own winemaking and then most of our wine is sold out of our cellar door at the tasting room, but we are also available in [locations around] the state and at Total Wine and Cost Plus World Market,” says Kief.

Being able to share his wine with others is one of Kief’s favorite parts of the process. “You spend a whole year growing the grapes; then you spend a year and a half to two and a half years producing the product. Once you get the wine in the glass, you can stand back and say – after three years we can let other people taste it now.”

He admits the biggest challenge of running a vineyard is a combination of Mother Nature and time. “This is a small family business. It’s just me and my mom [Charlene] and dad [Jeff],” says Kief. He did have one employee who left recently. She worked for Kief while her husband was in military training at nearby Fort Huachuca. “After having an employee, I think I’ll have to find some more,” he jokes.

There is no argument that he needs the help. Kief opened a second location in Willcox, about 90 miles east of Tucson. “The major reason for two locations, besides diversification, was to spread out the weather risk,” explains Kief. “A lot of times if we receive frost or hail in one location, it won’t hit the other, so there have been years like 2010 where we lost our entire crop to hail. That’s when I bought the property in Willcox.”

Kief grows about a dozen different grape varieties including Syrah, Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre and Viognier. He also buys fruit from three other vineyards in southeastern Arizona.

The winery owners in the area are a tight-knit group. “Everybody who is actually growing and producing, the 40 of us until 2011, we have all ‘grown up together’ so to speak,” says Kief. “We do festivals together, we all travel to different locals, and we get to hang out and taste each others’ wines.”

Kief admits that the industry is growing, but he doesn’t ever want it to become like Napa, CA.  “Arizona is set up to cater to more small, boutique producers, and I hope that we continue to stay that way,” he says. “It’s hand-processed, hand-produced, small-batch boutique wines – so you get that variation from year to year. We are not doing huge blends for consistency; we aren’t just making wines – we are trying to make the best wine we can.”

Kief-Joshua Vineyards are located at 370 Elgin Road in Elgin and 4923 E. Arzberger Road in Willcox. Wine tastings are 11 am to 5 pm daily in Elgin, and 11 am to 5 pm Friday through Sunday in Willcox. For more information, contact 520-455-5582 or visit

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