Our Vineyard History
My grandfather, M.H. “Monty” Montgomery, was a lifelong Arizona farmer. The Montgomery family moved to Gilbert, AZ in 1920 from New Mexico, where Monty worked for the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad. He started farming in Gilbert on leased land where he grew cotton. In 1928, the family moved to Casa Grande, AZ where Monty could purchase farm land and started growing cotton, alfalfa and grapes west of Casa Grande for the next 40 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 5000 acres with his family. The core of this Keeling farm is the 160 acre Montgomery “home place” in Casa Grande. Doug has been fortunate to own and build Montgomery Farms for the last 45 years.
One evening about 25 years ago, our good friend and former partner, Roger Egan, took me over to the new PF Chang’s on Mill Avenue. Roger owned and developed restuarants in Tempe and owned and operated McDuffys Sports Bar and the Bash on Ash Nightclub. 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 me a $9 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 new 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 grapes.
On a weekend hiking 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, so 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 electricity, 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 for our first vintage (2005), 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.
As time passed and our vineyard business began to grow, we made the total commitment. We retired from our jobs, sold our house in Tempe, moved into the small studio apartment in the winery, planted the Rock Creek Vineyard in 2007, and built the house. Our first night in our new house was Christmas Eve, 2008.
While we sold wine to our neighbors and friends in Tempe, we knew we needed a retail tasting room of our own. In 2008, we purchased the 1917 Willcox Bank and Trust building in Willcox from the Klump family, longtime local ranchers. We restored the building ourselves and it is my 8th National Register of Historic Places building I have owned and rehabilitated. The Tasting Room was opened in March of 2010 and after 10 years has become a big success!
In 2009, we started our wine club and hosted our first wine club luncheon and winery/vineyard tour at the vineyard. The first event was a small affair with home-made food and wine from the cellar. The lunch was such a hit, we started hosting the wine club 3 times each season in 2010. Our old friends from Bisbee, Rod Kass and Sally Holcomb of Cafe Roka agreed to cater the food. We now host 100-150 wine club members 3 times a year at the vineyard.
In 2010, we agreed to a relationship with Mike Pigford of AZ Wine Distributors in Chandler to distribute Keeling Schaefer wines throughout Arizona. Mike and his staff have successfully placed our wines in over 100 on and off premise locations in the state. Major retailers like Safeway, Total Wine, Frys, Bashas, AJ’s Fine Foods and many others carry Keeling Schaefer, Coatimundi and Kokopelli Sweet Lucy wines.