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New Law Could Expand the Horizons of Arizona’s Winemakers

Photo by Aaron Granillo

Arizona winemakers could soon be serving up something much stronger than merlots and chardonnays. New legislation would allow them to produce spirits, like cognac and grappa. As Arizona Public Radio’s Aaron Granillo reports, 2014 could turn out to be a good year for Arizona’s wine country.

Arizona Stronghold Vineyards is one of the state’s largest wineries. It set up shop in an old furniture warehouse in Cottonwood in 2007. This time of year, winemakers Niles Johnson and Joseph Ranallo are focused on racking.

“So this is a racking wand,” Ranallo said, as he dipped the device inside an oak barrel full of white wine. “This is a valve with a 2-inch hose that goes to our pump.”

Racking is the process wineries use to separate the good wine from all the leftover yeasts that settle at the bottom of the barrel.

“So what we’ll do is we’ll collect (it) we’ll put it into a container and then let it resettle,” Ranallo said.

A few of those containers are lined along the winery’s walls.

“You can see where it’s separated,” Johnson said. “That little bit at the bottom there, as of right now, that will be thrown out.”

Johnson said about 50 tons of his grape skins will also be thrown away. But, all of these leftovers, which are called pomace, could be very valuable for Arizona Stronghold.

“We can distill that,” Johnson said. “The pomace and stems and things like that would make grappa.”

Grappa is an Italian brandy that right now Arizona winemakers cannot legally produce or sell. That’s because current state law says wineries are not allowed to distill alcohol. But, new legislation would change that. Supporters of the bill say the state’s wine industry has outgrown current laws, many of which were established after the prohibition era ended in the 1930s. They also want to give winemakers the opportunity to expand their business and save money.

Eric Glomski has worked closely with lawmakers to help craft the bill. He’s a major player in Arizona’s wine country. He’s the co-owner of Arizona Stronghold and also runs the operation at Page Springs Cellars in Cornville.

Like all of the big winemakers in Arizona, Glomski paid the state $200 to open up his business.  He spends another $170 a year to renew his license. Those costs will likely rise if he gets a distiller’s permit and starts making spirits, like grappa and brandy. But, Glomski said the extra money would be well worth it.

“Brandies and grappas are amazing,” Glomski said. “So that to me is exciting because I love the idea of being able to reclaim something from a waste stream that has value.”

Glomski knows what it’s like turning waste into something of value. He learned that lesson in 2011, when a fire broke out on one of his vineyards and burned a big chunk of his grapes.

“We made wine out of it, and all the wines tasted like barbecue and smelled like barbecue,” Glomski said.

Instead of throwing it away, Glomski sold the wine to a distillery in Flagstaff, which helped him create brandy. He’s been sitting on it for three years.

“Now we have these brandies aging in barrels here,” Glomski said. “I can legally have this stuff here but I can’t legally sell it.”

Glomski said he plans on aging his brandies for another couple of years. By that time, he hopes laws will have changed and he’ll be able to sell it.

That opportunity could come sooner than later. If the bill passes, Page Springs Cellars and the state’s other 80 wineries could start making and selling spirits by late summer.

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