The Grape Escape

Arizona’s high desert proves to be a terrific place to grow grapes, make wine and start a second career.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Brandon Tigrett

For Jim and Ann Gardner, their dream is becoming a reality. Yet it didn’t happen overnight. After a decade-plus of weekends on the road and digging in the dirt, cultivating a crop in what had been hardscrabble, and asking friends and family to provide some extra muscle, it is all finally coming together.

It wasn’t all work, though. “We’ve had plenty of fun,” says Ann.

“I won’t say we’ve loved every minute of it,” adds Jim with a smile, “but when we stop and look—which you just have to do in a place as great, as beautiful as this—we see the sunsets … the grapes, and I feel the sun on my face. And, then,” he continues, “we see what we, with the help of so many others, have created, and we just can’t help but think it was all worth it.”

The creation to which Jim refers is Hannah’s Hill Vineyard, named after the Gardners’ daughter, who now lives in nearby Tucson. In the works since he and Ann bought 40 acres near Elgin, Arizona, in 2004, they’ve made the three-hour drive just about every weekend from their home in Phoenix, to work the ground, build and plant. Then, finally in 2010, they made the first wine from their own grapes, while supplementing their offerings with the produce of other vineyards. This past year, however, the Gardners reached another major milestone when they used only their grapes for their six different varietals.

Tough Conditions, Great Grapes

Jim and Ann Gardner take a moment with their dog to stand in their Vineyard in Arizona.

Jim and Ann Gardner take a moment in their vineyard. On the 40 acres they own in the high desert south of Tucson, 13 are planted to grapes, while the Gardners’ ever-expanding production facility can process 500 cases per year.

Known for its rugged mountains and lowland desert, gunslingers and cattle rustlers, southern Arizona has typically attracted a hardy strain of human beings and other living creatures. The “toughest and deadliest gunman of his day” Wyatt Earp, his three brothers and Doc Holliday fought outlaw cowboys in Tombstone, just 30-plus miles from Hannah’s Hill; the jaguar, ocelot and black bear roam the region’s remote mountain peaks; while hard-bitten plants like yucca, beargrass and saguaro scratch out a living in the region’s desert conditions.

In the high-elevation prairies, like those around Elgin, agriculture has typically been limited to raising cattle that graze on rangeland. The land is rocky, and the soil poor and alkaline, making it unsuitable for most crops. While corn, cotton and alfalfa need more nurturing than the land can typically provide, the conditions here are just about perfect for warmer-climate wine grapes.

Thought to be planted by Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries in the 1690s, grapes have proved they can thrive in the area, which, in 1984, was designated as the Sonoita American Viticultural Area, the first of three such AVAs in Arizona. Today, 14 wineries, give or take, including Hannah’s Hill, operate in the Sonoita AVA, which encompasses a 325-square-mile area at altitudes roughly between 4,500 and 5,000 feet.

An AVA, says Ann, is a “stamp of approval at a national level that this is a good place to grow grapes.”

“Sonoita works as an American Viticultural Area,” adds Jim, “because of three basic qualities.” As noted, the soils have a high pH and lots of rocks, the latter making for good drainage. (Water is provided by a series of three wells, from which the Gardners water the grapes via drip irrigation.)

“The second one is we have plentiful sun here,” continues Jim. “Grapevines … love the sun, and there’s no shortage of sunshine to support them.”

The third is a mix of altitude and the desert climate. “While it does get warm during the day,” explains Ann, “it always cools off in the evenings, and it’s very important for the vines that they get this rest from the high temperatures.”

It’s a Lifestyle Thing 

“We were amateurs before we became professional,” says Ann, about her and Jim’s winemaking. “Jim made wine for three years, and I entered it into the state fair, and he won best in show all three years. So, at that point, we decided we could start planting.”

While both still have full-time jobs back in Phoenix—Jim works as a project manager for General Dynamics; Ann is a technical expert for Arizona Department of Health Services—most weekends they make the three-plus-hour drive to the winery with their two White German Shepherds in tow in their truck. The first few years, the Gardners slept in a tent trailer when they visited, but now have a nice camper on the property. Early on, they had to have electricity and phone lines brought in from about three-quarters of a mile away, which not only made living here more comfortable, but also made their winemaking facilities possible.

Since 2010, the Gardners have continuously expanded their production capacity, now processing some 500 cases of wine in a typical year. More growth is in the cards, especially now that their vines are all reaching maturity and are expected to produce some 18 tons of grapes annually on the 13 acres on which they are planted.

In the next few years, they also hope to “retire” here and build a house. “One of the things that really appeals to us about this area, the Sonoita AVA, is the space,” says Ann, who notes they’re about 8 miles from the nearest town. “You look out the window and you see nobody else. You see your vines. You see your mountains. It’s beautiful here.”

Even so, the Gardners say running a vineyard and winery is demanding, as the hours can be long. After all, farming is at the heart of the operation. There are no guarantees as to what one can expect on any given day or from each year’s harvest.

“It wasn’t clear to me that I was going to be happy in a classic retirement,” says Jim. “We talked it over: ‘What are we going to do when we grow up one day?’ And we both obviously have a love for wine and a love for the country, and we decided that we should pick up a parcel in wine country and get started, and just plunge in and see how it would go.

“It’s a lifestyle thing for us, really,” continues Jim. “We wanted to be able to live out here. We wanted to be able to make wine, be proud of it, have other people enjoy it and have it be our second career. And as you can see, we’re well on our way.”