Dragoon Mountain Vineyards harvests grapes at night

The Dragoon Mountain Vineyards, home of the Cellar 443 Family of wines, in Willcox, Arizona, harvests their grapes at night.

One southern Arizona winemaker isn't just putting Arizona wines on the map, he's blazing a trail on unchartered territory. 

Welcome to Dragoon Mountain Vineyards, home of the Cellar 443 Family of wines, in Willcox, Arizona.

Winemaker John McLaughlin wears many hats here at his southern Arizona vineyard. 

"I think if your hands aren't in the grapes, if your hands aren't in the vineyard, you're not a winemaker, you're not a vineyarder," McLaughlin said.

He also likes to experiment. 

"The number of grapes I currently have growing as far as varietals is roughly about 100 different varieties," said McLaughlin. "That's traditionally a lot! Most people usually do three, four, or five."

Those grapes produce several lines of wine, including Arizona Angel, Sultry Cellars, Bitter Creek, Jerome Winery and Honesty Cellars.

"The reason why I grow so many different varietals is to see what is going to grow very well here. And, we don't know. Arizona is an unproven, untested ground so those of us that are actually growing and planting right now, we're the trailblazers. We're trying to figure out what's going to put Arizona on the map," McLaughlin said.

Figuring out which grapes will do that for Arizona has turned John into an innovator. 

"So, I decided to start picking at night because I wanted to have cooler grapes, because they're easier to deal with, they're easier to ferment," said McLaughlin.

As the sun sets over the vineyards, the night harvest gets ready to begin.

"Some of the vineyard, we pick by hand," McLaughlin said. "Some of the vineyard we actually pick with a machine. We are the only vineyard in the state that has a mechanical harvester." 

Once picked, the grapes go to the processing center. A machine, called a de-stemmer/crusher, separates the grapes from the stems, leaves and other things. It actually pushes the grapes and pops the skins. 

"The biggest, greatest improvement that's going to take Arizona wine quality from where it was to where it is going now, is basically night harvesting," said McLaughlin.

It's one of the many innovations these interns will take back to their French vineyards. 

"I discovered some new grapes here that I didn't know, that some people, people don't grow in France," said Virginie Morain, a French intern. "And I learned how John makes wine here and I learned some tricks and I'm not going to stay that to you, because they're tricks."

"We're surprising people, a lot of us have taken some pretty heavy-duty, big awards throughout the country, that you would never expect," McLaughlin said. "We are the pioneers, we are the renegades in the wine industry. We're doing things, we're having to experiment with things, we're having to come up with solutions that nobody else has ever had to deal with."

Technically, Arizona began making wines before California. The Spanish Conquistadors and the padres brought sacramental wine and planted grapes at the missions in the state.

Copyright 2016 KPNX


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