by Karl H. Kazaks
As veteran pilots of the U.S. Air Force, Mark Beres, Marc Moeller and Tom Kitchens could aptly be called meticulous and far-seeing. Some might could call them savvy, even lucky. However you choose to look at it, it’s hard to discount the impact they are having on Arizona’s winemaking community.
These three founders of one of southern Arizona’s newest wineries — Flying Leap Vineyards — have hatched a well-crafted strategy to position their winery at the high-end of the market, aiming to sell (for now) exclusively to retail customers at a number of tasting rooms throughout the region.
With the acquisition earlier this year of Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery in Elgin — a 10 acre vineyard and winery on the Sonoita Wine Trail (an easy drive south from Tucson) — Flying Leap Vineyards has been able to move forward its business plan by about five years. Purchasing the winery, said Beres, “was like a slingshot for our business.”
Acquiring the winery allowed Flying Leap to gain an inventory of wine, a customer base, and a tasting room in a location they had previously intended to enter. “We had a goal of putting our winery and tasting room on the wine trail,” Beres said.
Purchasing an extant winery also allowed Flying Leap to have cash flow more quickly than they anticipated. That, in part, has spurred Beres and his partners to open two more tasting rooms this year. This spring they opened a tasting room in downtown Willcox and this fall they are set to open a tasting room in Bisbee.
Willcox is located in Sulphur Springs Valley. Though distant from the larger population centers of Arizona, it is an important and productive viticultural area. “The grapes love it there,” Beres said. “Sulphur Spring Valley and Willcox are really up and coming.”
The new tasting room in Bisbee — which is an old Victorian-era mining town near the Mexican border — is in a historic downtown building. Bisbee is a tourist destination. Putting a tasting room there fits in with Flying Leap’s strategy of bringing their wine to areas with an established demand that also happens to be underserved (and with low operation costs).
At its tasting rooms, Flying Leap not only sells wine, but also fine art in a gallery setting. The Willcox location features local Cochise County artists (including Archie Sutton). The Bisbee location will feature art from Sri Prabha, an acrylic and resin artist based in Miami. Pairing wine with high-end art — the pieces for sale in the galleries go for between $1,000 and $10,000 — is a way for Flying Leap to position its wines at the high-end of Arizona’s wine industry.
Flying Leap is on track to roll out between 15 and 20 different wines — white, red, rosé, sweet, and fortified — within the next few years. They will focus on monovariety wines and also on unique blends.
Flying Leap’s vines are in the high desert. The elevation of the Elgin vineyard is about 4,500 ft, the Sulphur Springs vineyard about 4,300 ft. “We always have an April frost,” Beres said, explaining that they chose late-budding varieties due to this.
The Sulphur Springs vineyard does have a wind machine to temper the risk of frost damage. The machine has an auto-start feature and is powered from a battery charged by a 100w solar panel. The auto-start system measures temperatures and automatically engages the machine when frost conditions appear, then shuts the machine off when the risk of frost passes. The system operates without any direct human input.
The soil in the Sulphur Springs vineyard is basic, thanks to chalk and calcium deposits, with a pH close to 8.
Beres (an engineer) built an acid injection manifold to connect to the vineyard’s irrigation system. It acidifies water to 6.5 pH, bringing soil pH down to about 7.5. They also use the irrigation system to supply the vineyard boron and other needed nutrients.
“A lot of people are amazed that we can grow grapes in Arizona,” Beres said, “but from an environmental aspect, grapes have a very low footprint. Grapes are ideally suited to arid conditions.” He pointed out that the water requirements for vines are much less than Arizona’s major desert crop, cotton.
In terms of disease control, Arizona does have its unique characteristics. It’s too hot too spray sulphur, so growers in the state use Rally®.
The vineyards use a modified VSP, and are planted at a high density — 2,000 vines per acre. “We designed our own implements,” Beres said, to work the densely packed vineyards.
When Flying Leap’s vineyards are fully planted, they should give about 12,000 to 15,000 cases of estate wine. The owners plan on focusing mostly on retail sales — aiming to sell 3,500 cases through tasting rooms and 1,500 through their wine club — until its production exceeds 5,000 cases (at which point they will venture more into the wholesale market.)
Though the three partners do have wine experience (for example, Moeller has studied winemaking at UC Davis), they have contracted with Arizona winemaker Kent Callaghan to help them make wine. The partnership, Beres said, was specifically done as a way to mitigate risk. “We could have done this all ourselves, but we wanted to maximize chances of success.”
For the same reason, Beres and his partners invested over two years to their business planning. “We’re voracious data gatherers,” Beres said. “We looked around the industry to see what works and what doesn’t. We wanted to stay clear of things or mitigate things that can lead to failure.”
One of the pitfalls in the wine industry is a lack of capital. But by the end of their planning process, Flying Leap had lined up 16 investors, from Arizona and beyond. “We’ve got a really good group of investors,” Beres said. “They’re 100 percent committed. We communicate with them all the time.”
As part of their planning, they also visited other wineries and asked if they would share visitor information. That research showed them that a tasting room in Willcox would be profitable. “We built models to tell us how we’re doing,” Beres said. “We have daily sales targets, and the Willcox site has beat our estimates by 40 percent.”
Overall, Beres and his partners think Arizona is a great place for starting a winery.
“Arizona has great growing conditions,” he said. With the available resources and reasonable cost structure (compared to more established winemaking regions like California), “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things in the Arizona wine industry.”
There have been grapevines in Arizona at least since Spanish explorers planted vines in the 1600s.
Today the state has one AVA — the Sonoita AVA about 50 miles south of Tucson.
The building Flying Leap rents in Willcox for its tasting room is the old Headquarters Saloon, where Warren Earp was shot and killed in 1900.
The killer — Johnny Boyett — was never prosecuted, but many believe that Warren’s brothers Wyatt and Virgil Earp avenged their younger brother’s death because Boyett eventually disappeared.
Flying Leap Vineyards jets forward by acquiring winery, opening new tasting rooms
by Karl H. Kazaks