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An Arizona Grape Harvest Festival

My wife and I have been attending various festivals at the Sonoita Vineyards for over 5 years.

Sign at entrance to Sonoita Vineyards Winery in Elgin, Arizona

Sign at entrance to Sonoita Vineyards Winery in Elgin, Arizona

Sonoita Vineyards Is the Oldest Winery in Arizona

Sonoita Vineyards is Arizona’s first winery in modern times. Starting in the early 1700s, Father Eusebio Kino, the Spanish missionary and explorer, planted a small vineyard at his mission in what is now the northern Mexican state of Sonora to produce altar wine for Mass; some of that wine was carried to the missions he established in Arizona.

By the end of the 18th century, both the missionaries and Spanish settlers had brought grapevines (and wine!) to Arizona with the grapes from the vines being used to make wine both for mass and for drinking.

As control of Arizona changed from Spain to Mexico to the United States, winemaking and drinking continued to be popular among those living in the territory. Even 19th-century American cowboys drank wine along with beer and whiskey in the Arizona Territory’s saloons.

A quarter mile drive up a muddy driveway to parking lot.  But it was worth it.

A quarter mile drive up a muddy driveway to parking lot. But it was worth it.

Attending Sonoita Vineyards’ Festivals Is Tradition

We have been attending various festivals at the Sonoita Vineyards for the past five years or more. Some years they have as many as three festivals—a Blessing of the vines in March or April, the summer grape harvest festival and an Autumn new-wine celebration.

These events were small with low turnouts at first, but as word spread, the number of attendees began increasing steadily. The admission price also increased from free to this year’s $30 per person general admission and $90 per person for VIP tickets.

While the Sonoita Vineyards are the oldest—and one of the largest—wineries we have visited in Arizona, they are not that large compared with other wineries on the west coast or in Europe. And while my wife and I enjoy wine, neither of us is a wine connoisseur. Still, we both enjoy a glass of wine now and then as well as visiting wineries.

My wife next to stainless steel tanks where juice of grapes is fermented into wine.

My wife next to stainless steel tanks where juice of grapes is fermented into wine.

The Temperance Movement

While viniculture (grape growing) and winemaking were growing industries in Arizona in the early 20th century, so was the growing Temperance Movement. The new and growing Political Progressive Movement, of which the Temperance Movement was a part, was politically popular in Arizona as well as in much of the rest of the nation.

The idea of solving social problems and improving society by passing laws appealed to many, and an early target supported by many across the political spectrum was the belief that making alcohol illegal would solve the problem of alcoholism, which was destroying families and creating a drag on the economy due to its ill effects on the workforce.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

In 1915, Arizona supporters of banning the production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages succeeded in having the state outlaw the production and consumption of alcohol within the state of Arizona. This was five years before the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which took effect on January 17, 1920, making the production, sale and consumption of alcohol illegal nationwide.

In 1979 a University of Arizona scientist, Dr. Gordon Dutt, started Vina Sonoita, in the Santa Cruz County town of Elgin. This was Arizona’s first commercial vineyard since the passage of the state's 1915 law banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in Arizona. The successful planting and growing of the grapes soon led to the start of the Sonoita Vineyards on the same site. Grape cultivation and wine making soon added to the state’s economic growth.

Local clergy in the vineyard in April 2017 to bless the vines at the start of the growing season. Woman in blue is Dr Dutt's granddaughter who now runs the winery. Dr. Dutt is to the right of her and wearing the garb of an ancient order of winemaker.

Local clergy in the vineyard in April 2017 to bless the vines at the start of the growing season. Woman in blue is Dr Dutt's granddaughter who now runs the winery. Dr. Dutt is to the right of her and wearing the garb of an ancient order of winemaker.

I Ordered Tickets Online As Soon As My Wife Learned About the Festival

In the past, we have simply driven down to the Sonoita Vineyard and brought tickets at the door. However this year (in addition to the fact that tickets cost $30 online and $35 at the door which resulted in a $5 savings) there was also the lingering COVID problem.

Concerned that there might be a limit on sales due to COVID concerns, I went to the computer and purchased them as soon as my wife suggested we attend. This despite the fact that the tickets were non-refundable and with the event taking place rain or shine.

Unlike last summer, during which we didn’t have any of the usual monsoon storms and only a few days of short, light rains, this year has been different, with both monsoons and days when it rains most of the day.

Of course it rained all day on Saturday—the day of the event. However, it was mostly a steady, light rain, so we decided to go anyway. The winery is in the small village of Elgin which is about 70 miles southeast of Tucson.

The rain itself wasn’t a problem for us, but I was concerned about having to turn around and return home if we encountered a flooded wash.

Antique Wine Press used to squeeze the juice out of grapes. This was more efficient and replaced the need for grape stomping.

Antique Wine Press used to squeeze the juice out of grapes. This was more efficient and replaced the need for grape stomping.

A wash is a dry stream or river. Much of the land in Arizona is hard and not very porous, which results in most rainwater simply flowing over the land until the water reaches a low spot where it collects. We also have numerous rocky mountains on which rainwater mostly flows down rather than being absorbed. Being somewhat lower than the surrounding land, the normally dry washes and rivers immediately turn into raging rivers during a storm.

Many washes cross roads as road builders have simply paved over these washes, which makes sense due to the few occasions when water is flooding across the road. Attempting to drive across a flooded wash is both dangerous and illegal, as people have lost their lives or have been stranded and had to be rescued from the rushing water. Despite this, we decided to take a chance that we might have to turn around and return home if we encountered a road blocked by a wash.

Festival registration where we picked up our wine glass and 10 wine tasting tickets

Festival registration where we picked up our wine glass and 10 wine tasting tickets

We Arrive at the Sonoita Winery Without Problem

Sonoita Vineyards Winery sits atop a hill above the Elgin Canelo Road. A sign announced the Winery with an arrow pointing toward the narrow dirt driveway that led to the parking lot and winery at the top of the hill. It was puddles and mud all the way up to the large dirt parking lot that was a sea of mud as well.

The parking area was nearly full, with more cars coming behind us, indicating that we were not the only ones seeking a normal post-COVID life despite bad weather and mud.

There was still a light, drizzling rain, so most congregated inside the winery sampling the different wines while surrounded by the giant, floor to ceiling, stainless steel fermenting vats which were more than likely filled with the juice of this year's grape harvest.

No one wore masks and social distance was more like inches rather than feet apart but the distance between people was sufficient for one to navigate easily through the crowd. Most were probably like me and vaccinated. Everyone was having a good time sampling wines and visiting with others.

Unlike previous years in which this was simply a Sonoita Vineyards event, this year had representatives and wines from the area’s many wineries. This is not surprising as Dr. Gordon Dutt’s research and work at the University of Arizona studying and experimenting with soil resulted not just in him becoming a successful winemaker but also the catalyst behind the creation of the modern Arizona Wine industry.

Thanks to Dr. Dutt’s efforts he not only created a successful family business (Sonoita Vineyards Winery is now run by Dr. Dutt’s granddaughter and her husband) but his research is credited with the creation of Arizona’s modern wine industry and these other wineries at the event were not only fellow winemakers but his neighbors.

Here I am stomping grapes while keeping an eye on the bottom of the barrel to make sure drainage hole is clear of grape skins so the juice glass will fill quicker

Here I am stomping grapes while keeping an eye on the bottom of the barrel to make sure drainage hole is clear of grape skins so the juice glass will fill quicker

Grape Stomping

Wine is fermented grape juice. To get juice from any watery type of fruit one has to apply pressure to squeeze the juice out of the fruit. Since grapes are small, squeezing juice out of individual grapes is a time-consuming task. Until the invention of the wine press, a mechanical device used to squeeze juice out of grapes, the most common way to get the juice needed to make wine was to put the grapes in a large barrel and stomp on them with bare feet.

Grape stomping is an attraction at some larger wineries and has been a favorite at Sonoita Winery events. Of course they are quick to point out that the grape stomping is just for fun and assure everyone that the juice produced will not be used to make wine. However, the alcohol, sugar and natural acids in the fermenting mixture quickly kill germs and pathogens from the stompers’ feet, making the resulting wine perfectly safe to drink. That said, like most people, I prefer that the grapes used in the wine I drink be crushed by a machine. But it is fun to get into a barrel and stomp some grapes.

When we first started going to events at the Sonoita Vineyards Winery, they had a stand with three or four oak half barrels and had a grape-stomping contest. Those wanting to compete lined up, rolled up their pants and stomped grapes for about five minutes while an employee at each barrel held a wine glass next to a hole in the bottom of the barrel. When the time was up, the person whose glass had the most juice was the winner of the round and got to compete some more until one final winner emerged. There were fewer people in those days and even fewer with the urge to compete.

My wife and another visitor stomping grapes at July 2021 Festival

My wife and another visitor stomping grapes at July 2021 Festival

The first time I entered the contest I won a round or two but ended up being eliminated. However, the experience taught me that the key to winning was keeping the hole in the barrel clear of grape skins, which tended to clog and slow the flow of juice through the hole and into the glass. The next year I made a point of using one of my feet to not only clear the skins away from the hole every few seconds but to also use my foot to bring grapes closer to the hole to keep a steady supply of juice. I won that year and was awarded a $20 gift certificate which I exchanged in the gift shop for a bottle of Sonoita Vineyards wine.

A couple of years after I won the contest, the number of visitors had grown and with many more joining the grape stomping it became too time-consuming for the contest. Grape stomping continued, but just as an activity for fun and pictures.

My wife has participated in grape stomping on each visit and was looking forward to it this year but due to the rain, nothing was set up for grape stomping. However, as the afternoon wore on the rain diminished to a slight drizzle and two small white tubs were brought out for grape stomping. When I noticed this I went inside and got my wife and she and a few others started stomping grapes. It was mostly women stomping with husbands and boyfriends taking pictures.

Dr. Dutt walking among the grape vines in his ceremonial outfit.

Dr. Dutt walking among the grape vines in his ceremonial outfit.

A Good Day Overall

Despite the rain, it turned out to be an enjoyable day overall, with everyone seeming to have enjoyed themselves. Depending upon what else is going on this fall, we may head back to the Sonoita Winery for the presentation of this year’s newly produced wine.

After some experimenting, my wife figured out how to capture the mood of relaxing with a glass of fine wine while enjoying the area's wide-open spaces, and big, big sky.

After some experimenting, my wife figured out how to capture the mood of relaxing with a glass of fine wine while enjoying the area's wide-open spaces, and big, big sky.

How to Get to Sonoita Vineyards

Sonoita Vineyards are located at 290 Elgin-Canelo Road, Elgin, AZ 85611. While we know the way there by now, it was somewhat difficult to find the first time as Elgin seems to be more of a mail delivery area than a town. However, their address and location can now be found on Google Maps and if your phone or GPS device can’t find them they also include their GPS coordinates (Latitude: 31.623129 Longitude: -110.54175) along with a Google Map on their website.

Their website has their address as well as contact information and other information, including the days and times they are open as well as notices of upcoming festivals and events at the winery. There is also a link to schedule weddings and other private parties at the winery.

A glass of wine in Arizona's wine country.

A glass of wine in Arizona's wine country.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Chuck Nugent

Comments

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on July 29, 2021:

Hi Bill. We did have a fun day. I remember years ago, when California wins started competing well against French wines, hearing that the key to great wines was sun and the right amount of water. California had an edge over France because they had both plenty of sun and irrigation enabled growers to control the water. Thus, the quality of the California vintages didn't vary by year like French wines. Arizona also has plenty of sun plus irrigation so we are like California in that respect. Also, Arizona soils are similar to those in France and that also affects the quality of our wines. I have learned a lot from our trips to the Sonoita Vineyards Winery and I am thinking about doing a Hub on Dr Dutt as his story is a fascinating one. Grad you enjoyed the Hub.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on July 29, 2021:

Peggy thanks for your comments. Yes, we did have a great time despite the rain which, fortunately, didn't cause any real problems.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on July 29, 2021:

Looks like a fun day, Chuck. I was not aware that there are vineyards in Arizona. I thought the heat would make growing grapes difficult but that is obviously not the case. We have a handful of vineyards here in western Massachusetts, which we have visited and it makes for an enjoyable day. The grape stomping looks like fun.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 28, 2021:

It sounds like you had a lot of fun! I am glad that you did not encounter too many problems with the rain. We have not visited a winery in quite some time.

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