Wine in the Desert: Blood Into Wine in Arizona and Patagonia

First, young wine drinkers and sommeliers want the new and obscure. For example, Lagrein red wine grapes from the Italian region of Alto Adige which borders Austria is rare to the point of obscurity and growing in popularity. Patagonia in Argentina however, is both a new wine producing region and obscure. After all, Patagonia is synonymous with Mandalay or Timbuktu, a metaphor for the ultimate or the ends of the Earth. Who doesn’t want a souvenir from the edge of the known world?

Second, turning a desert into a garden is a compelling story, and compelling stories are needed by newbies in the competitive international wine market. But still, why go where the deck is stacked against you? The answer: to create a sustainable, local economy. As Keenan said in an interview:

“This is an important thing we’re doing up here. If we’re successful with what we’re doing, it’s going to set up a future for more families than we can number. … If you plant vines in this valley, they’re going to taste a certain way; they’re going to be very specific to where they’re from. It’s not a business that you can move to Mexico or China. It’s from here. This is the definition of sustainable and local.”

Neuquen, Patagonia, Argentina

Much of the development in Patagonia has come from a plan put into motion by Julio Viola, who turned from developing housing projects to developing vineyards.  According to Viola, “our biggest moneymaker in the area is oil, but we can’t count on that. I wanted to find something more sustainable.” He claims that studying computer models led him to believe that this northern part of Patagonia would be perfect for wine grapes.

But, once again the water required for both the operations in Arizona and Patagonia brings their sustainability into question. In Arizona, the need to buy land with water rights in addition to the land needed to grow the grapes is a huge expense added to an already risky proposition. In Patagonia, vineyard irrigation in the Chanar Valley (i.e. the high valley of San Patricio del Chanar where most of the vineyards are located) could equal the amount of water used annually by a city of 200,000. That’s a lot of water!

Verde Valley, Arizona

In Arizona, the wine industry consists mostly of Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley, and in the south, Arizona Stronghold Vineyard is also co-owned by Keenan. It’s all hand-picked, a wealthy rocker’s hobby really.

Patagonia on the other hand, is a much larger operation. In the Patagonian provinces of Rio Negro and Neuquen, new vineyards are being planted at a rapid clip. Most of the activity is taking place in Neuquen, but Rio Negro is the home of the twin artisanal wineries of Bodega Noemia and Bodega Chacra, critically acclaimed for Malbec and Pinot Noir respectively.

The larger operations in Neuquen are centered around Julio Viola and his Bodega del Fin del Mundo (winery at the end of the world). It has a production of up to 1 million cases and is by far the largest winery in the area. In 1999, he got a $2.5 million loan from the Argentine government, purchased 3,200 hectares of land (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), and dug an irrigation canal from the Rio Neuquen. Mr. Viola installed numerous pumping stations and more than several thousand miles of irrigation pipes, creating a “just add money and pour” startup-vineyard and real-estate venture for investors. NQN Winery bought one in 2001. Neighboring Familias Schroeder (it’s Saurus brand named for the fossilized dinosaur bones they discovered while building the winery) bought another sizable chunk, and created a showplace winery.

Who knew that fossilized bones were the key to good wine (although it certainly makes it more marketable). Maybe the key is the desert itself, the sun, the constant wind, and the large temperature range that according to Marcelo Miras, winemaker at Bodega del Fin del Mundo 

makes grapes thicken their skin, so the wines are naturally rich in phenolic substances, although they retain high natural acidity.

High natural acidity is certainly the key to wines that age well and are perfect for your wine cellar, so maybe there’s something worth investing in after all. Maynard James Keenan and Julio Viola: visionaries, pioneers, entrepreneurs, or just men sending postcards from the edge?