Winemaker Rod Keeling tasting a very young 2009 Viognier ultimately rated 89 by Wine Spectator!
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How do I schedule a tasting? All of our public tastings are now done at the Willcox Tasting Room. Located in downtown Willcox on historic Railroad Avenue, we are open for tastings from 11-5, Thursday-Sunday. If you would like to visit the vineyard, we hold at least 3 events each year for our wine club and we accept larger private groups for tours and tastings. Contact us at 520-824-2500 for scheduling.
Where can I find your wines? We're in about 180 locations in Arizona. To see a current list, visit our Purchase Page.
Where are you located? We are located in the far southeast corner of Arizona. Our address is Pearce, but we’re about 25 miles east of the town, 12 miles south of the Chiricahua Monument and 41 miles southeast of Willcox. Our Willcox Tasting Room is located at 154 N Railroad Avenue in historic downtown Willcox. . For a map click here.
How long have you been making wine? 2012 is my 14th year of making wine and Keeling Schaefer's 8th commercial year.
Do you have any home winemaking experiences you’d like to share? We made wine at home for 6 years before we started making wine commercially. We found though that making wine from the kits you buy at the hobby store doesn't work very well. The wine is really pretty mediocre at best. If you want to make a good wine at home you need fresh fruit. You can buy fruit from California, but we really wanted fruit from Arizona. We would come down to Willcox early in the morning - and sometimes I’d pick the fruit myself - one day I decided I wanted 400 pounds of Sauvignon Blanc and I couldn't quite get it done and it rained on us about two inches. I got some of the guys who were working out there at the vineyard to help me and we packed it up and put ice on it and I drove all the way back to Tempe. I had two or three of my friends show up at about 7:00 at night and we crushed the wine and pressed it in the garage until about 1:00 in the morning and got it ready for fermentation. It was a long day.
Can I come and pick grapes for my home winemaking? Yes, depending on availability. Since we started out as home winemakers & were lucky enough to have somebody as gracious as Al Buhl who used to own Dos Cabezas Wineworks - he provided fruit for us - we feel we too should pass that on. So we want to pass that privilege on to those home winemakers who want to put forth the effort to come out and pick their own fruit. And I have about 6 home winemakers who come and either acquire or buy grapes from us.
How do you know when your grapes are ready for harvest?
What is "punching down"?
Besides your own, what are your favorite Arizona wines? We’ll start with Callaghan Vineyards. Kent makes some great wines and I like a lot of his stuff. I like his Padres - his Tempranillo blend, and I think his Buena Suarte Cuvee as a body of work - since he’s made about 12 or 14 vintages - is pretty impressive. Doing a vertical tasting of 5 years of Buena Suarte Cuvee back at Kent Callaghan’s place in 2001 convinced me that Arizona was a good place for wine.
I like Dos Cabezas Wineworks. I like Todd Bostock’s work. He’s got some really nice white wines. His new Picpoul Blanc / Viognier Blend - 2008 Meskeoli - is very good. I think Wine Spectator rated it 88.
I like Page Springs Cellars. I think Eric Glomski is a good winemaker and a good farmer.
There are several others, but those three really stand out.
There are 12 wineries in Arizona now that are consistently submitting to Wine Spectator. There are 101 wines from these wineries that have been ranked at- just in the past couple years - 86 plus. That’s pretty impressive. I don’t think there’s any other non-California, Oregon, Washington State, New York state out there that’s doing that well right now.
What are your favorite wines from other regions?
How would you describe your terroir? While that word has been overused the past few years, I do know that this is a place with a unique confluence of clones of the varietals we’ve selected, the rootstock, the soil and the climate along with the winemaking style all come together and make it different. I like Paso Robles wines but they’re just different other than the fact that they have big flavors and high alcohol. They’re different. I think the wines here can be very complex, and that’s just part of the terroir.
Do you let your grapes spontaneously ferment or add yeast? We ferment in 1.5 ton fermenters, so we have many small batches. If some of those display a fairly active fermentation early on I’ll add nutrients and let the native yeasts go to work. The only thing we let the native yeasts work on is the Syrah, and it has fermented with as much efficiency as the commercial yeasts. So we let some spontaneously ferment but not all. We want to add layers of flavor to the wine and I think different yeasts add to that approach.
What qualities are you trying to get from your yeasts? Some yeasts are better at extracting tannins, some are more floral. Our native yeast is more fruit forward. The GRE yeast we use on the Grenache is very fruit forward, and we get a tremendous nose because of that. So we use different kinds of yeast, and we’ve experimented since day one. And we’ve rejected some yeasts. They didn't’t do what we wanted so we just don’t use them anymore.
Do you culture your own yeast? No. We buy our yeast from the laboratory. They are isolates of yeasts from different regions.
Is your wine natural or organic?
How would you describe your winemaking style? It’s still evolving, but what we’re trying to shoot for is multiple styles. We have 9 acres of Syrah and I think that's our focus for making different styles. We have our Home Place Reserve series since 2006 that’s more of a French style - Northern Rhone. We are also making some toward an Australian style with American oak in our "Keeling Brothers" Shiraz series since 2007. We have discovered that our best Grenache is a more delicate style without all the overripe flavors, so we have started picking it earlier to capture those lighter fruit characteristics. But if I was going to say it in one sentence, in all our wines, I want the fruit to dominate.
Where do you get your grape vines?
Do you graft your vines or are they on their own rootstock? They are grafted by the nursery in California and grown for one year before they are sent here. For all the wine wonks, most of our rootstock is 1103P, with some of the Viognier on RU140.
Has your wine won any awards? Well, our 06 Syrah was favorably reviewed by Wall Street Journal in the Quadrennial Presidential Taste-Off in 2008. And 22 of our wines have been rated by Wine Spectator, 9 at 87+, 3 at 89, the highest rating for Arizona wine by the magazine..
Do you come from a winemaking family? No I don’t, but I do come from a farming family. Both my dad’s family and my mom’s family have been farmers in the Casa Grande area since about 1920.
What drew you to winemaking? There was no epiphany per se. There was an afternoon in 1994 when the chairman of the Downtown association in Tempe that I worked for took me to the one of the first wine bars in the area - P.F. Chang’s - they were one of the pioneers of premium wine by the glass before there was this proliferation of wine bars.
We went in - and I had a lot of wine before that - but I had never really had any good wine. He bought me a glass of Grgich Hills Zinfandel and it was about 8 or 9 bucks a glass, which of course I would have never bought for myself at the time. And I was just shocked at how good it was. Of course it may not have been the best wine in the world, but it was far superior to anything I had ever had before. We talked about it a little bit and he told me the story of how he had restaurants over in California - this is Roger Egan - who is now our partner in the Rock Creek vineyard. We had this wine and I thought, “maybe I could make this stuff” so I started with kits.
I bought some kits - the type you can buy at the hobby store - and of course the wine was horrible. And we graduated from there. The next year I decided I needed fresh fruit, so we hooked up with some of the farmers in Willcox, Al Buhl specifically. I went down and bought maybe 100 pounds of fruit and we made a Sauvignon Blanc and that was my first real step around 1999.
What's your business background? I started out as a professional pilot. That was my first career. I flew for almost every job except airlines. I was also a traffic reporter for KTAR radio in the 70’s. I was a flight instructor, charter pilot, corporate pilot at the end. The company I flew for decided that - since I was the only one on the staff that had been to college - I should be the Vice President of Marketing. I started to work on that and learned enough to know that I was interested in business. Then I started to work for the downtown management business - mostly for non-profits, but I worked for the Arizona Department of Commerce for 6 years. I became a downtown manager and I worked for downtown business associations, primarily the one in Tempe that manages Mill Avenue. It was a $4 million non-profit business association with 45 employees.
What advice would you give to anyone planning to start a winery in Arizona? Just bring lots of money.
Why did you pick the Chiricahua foothills for your vineyard location? We picked it as a retirement home location and the vineyard idea started after we acquired the property. We picked the spot because it’s a pretty spot, but as time passes I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is a very special place to grow wine and very possibly the best place in Arizona.
What inspired your home and winery buildings? Henry Trost and Mary Jane Colter, two early 20th century Southwestern architects, have inspired our winery building and home, both designed by Chandler architect, Mark Vinson, AIA College of Fellows, AICP. Renowned for buildings like the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon and the Owls Club in Tucson, Colter and Trost defined Southwestern regional style. Learn more about Arizona architecture in Landmark Buildings: Arizona's Architectural Heritage, co-authored and illustrated by our architect and good friend, Mark Vinson.
Construction on the winery was completed in October 2003 by Arizona Building Systems of Phoenix. Our home on the vineyard was built primarily by Stephen Klump of Mascot Homes of Willcox. Jan and I moved in to our home December 2008.