My grandfather, M.H. "Monty" Montgomery, was a lifelong Arizona farmer. He grew cotton, alfalfa and grapes west of Casa Grande for more than 50 years. Monty was very active in the community, serving on the local school board and the Casa Grande City Council. Born in 1885, his lifelong passion was his family and his farm.
Today, my brother, Doug Keeling, farms 4000 acres with his family. The core of this Keeling farm is the 160 acre Montgomery "home place". Doug has been fortunate to own and build Montgomery Farms for the last 35 years.
One evening about 15 years ago, our good friend and partner, Roger Egan, took me over to the new PF Chang’s on Mill Avenue. It seems strange now, but there were no wine bars to speak of in Phoenix back then and PF Chang’s, with only two restaurants, was one of only a handful of places that had an extensive wine-by-the-glass selection. Roger has a long history of successful restaurants in California, Arizona and Idaho, and he was very involved in the emerging wine industry in northern California 30-40 years ago. Roger ordered a glass of Grgich Hills Zinfiandel, and my whole perspective on wine and what it can taste like was changed forever.
Needless to say, some people that have a wine epiphany start to collect wines and build a cellar. Not me, I wanted to start making my own wine at home. After a few less than satisfying tries with hobby kits, I decided I needed real grapes to work with. I struck up a friendship with Al Buhl and his partner, Sam Pillsbury at Dos Cabezas near Willcox. My harvest day was a three hour drive down to Willcox to get grapes from Al, a mad dash home to Tempe and then a late night with the neighbors crushing wine.
On a weekend trip to the Chiricahua Mountains in 2000, Jan and I spotted a small ranch for sale on Rock Creek, 12 miles south of the National Monument. It was all grass, with oak and ash trees along the creek in the back. Could this be a vineyard estate for us? Maybe, we purchased the property and began the journey that has led us to our new home in wine country.
We drilled our well in 2002, did all of our permit work and built the winery building in 2003. Along the way we had to explain to the county and our neighbors what we were doing, prove out the easement for electricty, and suffer through the application process and the public hearings for our winery licensing.
The home place vineyard was planted in 2004 and we harvested our first fruit in 2005. A small harvest from the young vines, but we made wine and after 18 months in the cellar, we began sales operations in 2007. Jan and I were still working in Tempe and we would dash down to the vineyard every Friday night to work on the vines all weekend. Early on Monday, we would get dressed for work and drive 3 hours back to Tempe for Jan’s 8AM Staff Meetings. The first two years, we did everything and we trained every vine and made all the wine ourselves.
Jan and I retired from our long time jobs in Tempe and sold our house in 2007. We moved down to the vineyard in July of 07 and lived in the winery tasting room for the next 18 months! After two years of hard work, we moved in to our new house on the vineyard the day before Christmas, 2008.
The best part is the vineyard is productive, the wine is good and people like it! After all our hard work and investment, we are living the vineyard life in the foothills of the most beautiful “sky island” in America.