The Strategy Aridus’ Scott Dahmer Laid Out to Boost Growth

Years ago, Aridus Winery founder Scott Dahmer lived in Healdsburg within a stone’s throw of numerous Sonoma County wineries. 

The graphic designer and his wife, Joan, an oncologist, lived in the Pinot Noir-laden hamlet located north of Santa Rosa, California for more than a decade and aspired to one day open their own Sonoma winery. But a couple of things stood in their way.

One: Even years ago, doing so was cost prohibitive in California.

Two: Joan had been offered a career opportunity she couldn’t turn down … and it was in Arizona.

“Back then, it was very expensive to start a winery in Sonoma County — we couldn’t afford it,” Dahmer recalled. “My wife got a job offer, we moved to Arizona, and I thought, ‘There goes our dream of having a vineyard.’

“But I found out about a vineyard in Willcox that was growing grapes and wondered how I did not know about this.”

Nearby acreage in Pearce, Arizona provided the canvas for the Dahmers’ winery dream. They bought 40 acres of land on Turkey Creek situated at an elevation of 5,200 feet above sea level, and three years later, in 2012, opened the doors to their new winery in nearby Willcox, choosing to locate their winery and tasting room closer to town at the advice of a consultant. They’d later add a tasting room hours away in Scottsdale, where they’d have the opportunity to easily attract more visitors.

The Scottsdale tasting room opened on Super Bowl Sunday in February 2016 — the day Scottsdale played host to the NFL’s biggest event of the year, and Dahmer’s been pleased with the ROI.

“Most of our sales are in Scottsdale,” he said. “Willcox is an agricultural town. It’s not the Napa experience where there are hotels and spas. It’s very agricultural. I’m hoping those things will start to happen in Willcox, but they’re not there now. Don’t get me wrong. There are all kinds of things to do — like hiking — but it is not your typical winery town.”

Making Wine in Arizona

Aridus has been bottling wine for more than a decade, but this the 2022 harvest marks the first year that the wine being made will be fully estate grown.

The Dahmers made the decision to work backward and get the winery and tasting room rolling before they had vines that were producing usable fruit. They began producing wines by sourcing fruit from other growers, including those in nearby New Mexico.

That decision allowed them to do a couple of things. First, they were able to create a product that they could sell to consumers almost right away, and second, they were able to create the foundation and footprint to give their business space to grow their production and evolve into a winery that offers custom crush services.

“We didn’t have that vision at the beginning of being a huge winery or having a custom crush scenario,” Dahmer said. “We had a dream of having the winery and the land on Turkey Creek. (Our consultant) looked at the specs and told us to think bigger. Take the winery from the vineyard area and put it in a different place. With a bigger winery, we could incorporate a custom crush scenario. We can expand and grow, and also make wine for other people.”

Aridus has one of the largest facilities in the state. It’s a refurbished 28,000-square-foot former apple warehouse that had been built in 1982. The modern rustic facility incorporates reclaimed lumber collected from old barns and homesteads in the area around Willcox.

“We dIdn’t start out like that, with the biggest custom crush in Arizona. But now we can custom crush, and we are large enough that we can increase our capacity to make more. We don’t have to buy more equipment or add more space. We’re set to go.”

Today, the estate is producing about 75 tons and production is between 3,000-5,000 cases per year. They’re still working their way through overstock from previous vintages, but then Aridus plans a shift to using just their fruit.

There have been some advantages to sourcing, Dahmer said. One of those was trying out different grapes to see what varietals they needed to plant on their estate.

“We can make some wine, put it out there, and see how popular it is,” Dahmer said. “We can decide if we are going to plant that variety or not, instead of investing in vines and having to pull them out later.”

Getting to experiment has yielded some wild findings.

“The most surprising one was when we decided to try some Graciano from a New Mexico vineyard — we hadn’t tried doing that before,” he said. “This is the one people are most excited about. 

“So then we knew we needed to have it in our vineyard — we needed to plant it.”

The Dahmers began planting white varietals in 2015 and completed it that year, yielding a first estate harvest in 2017 of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Malvasia Bianca. The first red harvest was their estate Cabernet Sauvignon in 2019.

Developing a Vineyard

The 2022 harvest completes a transition from being a winery that sources its grapes to one that is almost entirely estate grown.

Petite Sirah, Malbec and Malvasia Blanca are the grapes Dahmer said are most likely to thrive at the mile-high estate, which includes a variety of soils including a section that includes a large amount of salt deposits with an unknown origin.

Trying to find someone experienced with designing effective vineyard layout was something Dahmer said was a big challenge but an important task.

“We planted whites on the north end and reds on the south,” he said. “We had to lay it out and redo it three times at the beginning. We did the whites first, and the rows weren’t straight, the angles were off and the irrigation system wasn’t put in properly. Once we got to the reds, we had more experience and an excellent person who got it right the first time.”

There was a big learning curve and Dahmer had a consultant come out to give them some guidance about planting the vines. There was a problem with that, though,

“He was going by the California standard, but that doesn’t work here,” Dahmer said. “We get wind. We get hail. We get no fog. They recommended using water for frost protection, but we’re using well water, and can’t even think about doing stuff like that here.”

Changes to the vineyard design proved necessary.

“We decided to plant rows north and south because of wind,” Dahmer said. “Another direction would make plants fall over. That’s how gusty it is out there.”

As for trellising the vines, Dahmer said Aridus generally maintained a traditional canopy, with some tweaks to further protect the plants.

“Our experience with netting is that it reduces sunlight that gets to the plant so it can hang longer,” Dahmer said. “Otherwise it ripens really quickly. The netting also keeps the birds out.

“We’re trying to be as organic as we can, but I can’t say we’re fully organic.” 

The presence of the creek makes a purely organic approach that completely avoids repellant and pesticides impractical, Dahmer said. The running water attracts birds and insects.

He does steer clear of herbicide.

“I’m very aware that the chemical goes into soil, kills grasses and weeds but does get in the plant and can get into the food,” he said. “We use an automatic weeder machine that is like a lawnmower.”

From Wyoming to California to Arizona

While production has ramped up and the business has evolved since being a daydream of the Dahmers, part of that can be attributed to their head winemaker, who joined the staff in 2016.

Lisa Strid was working as a research winemaker at E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto, California when she was hunting for winemaking jobs in Arizona, hoping to relocate there to be closer to friends.

Strid, a Wyoming native, was bitten by the wine bug while working alongside her uncle at his small vineyard and winery in western Washington, where she pruned, netted, crushed and fermented Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

Prior to joining E & J Gallo’s specialty winemaking team, she studied enology and viticulture at Oregon State and interned at Alexana Winery in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, where she learned more about luxury, small-lot winemaking.

As a research winemaker at Gallo, Strid focused on innovative equipment use, new technology validation trials and the exploration of process-driven changes to target different wine styles.

Strid joined Aridus in June 2016 — just in time to help scale up production to over 100 tons, including fruit sourced from other vineyards.

At Aridus, the erstwhile research winemaker works with 12 different grape varieties, including Syrah. The relatively fledgling state of southeastern Arizona’s wine country is part of what Strid said she most liked about making wine at Aridus.

“It’s fun to be in a situation where everything you’re doing is so new,” she said. “It’s the region where our vineyard is. There are only four other vineyards in our immediate area. Nobody has really nailed down what our best grapes are for this area.”

Strid said it was like being in the Wild West of winemaking. 

“It’s fun for me to be in a state where I’m constantly having to try to learn new things and experimenting year after year. It’s fun to be in an area where you have people planting wild things like Dornfelder and Lemberger and our own varieties. 

“I was never particularly interested in going to a well-established region and making another Cab. I wanted to go to a place that didn’t have a set identity yet.”

Helping Grow Production

Strid said she focused on two things when she took the winemaking reins at Aridus and was tasked with helping grow production: Improving documentation and getting sanitation procedures under control.

“Documentation was lacking,” she said. “If you’re not documenting everything that you’re doing, it’s just faulty human memory you’re working off of. You need to quantitate everything that’s going on.

“Getting sanitation procedures under control was also important — not that anything was bad before I got here. But bringing more attention to those things has really helped us.”

Working at a place like Gallo helped her develop some best practices.

“I do think that working in a large winery like that helped,” she said. “You have to have all of your procedures on point because if you don’t you risk having a 600,000-gallon tank of wine go bad that was crucial to a blend you were making. It’s where I really learned to be diligent about cleaning and inspection.”

Strid said it was important to start with a clear understanding about what is cleaning, what is sanitation and what is sterilization. She achieves this by swabbing and testing for adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which can tell you whether microorganisms are present.

“Something can be sanitary without being clean,” she said. “Steam something without cleaning it first, can get an ATP reading that says it’s sanitized but still have residue of soil. 

“Cleaning is the mechanical or chemical process of removing any soil, and sanitation is killing anything living. Wineries don’t normally get anything too sterile because we don’t need to, and you have to understand none of the things you’re working with are going to be sterile. 

Practicing is important to understand what the difference looks like.

Do manual cleaning and then do your visual inspection, Strid said. 

“Does it look clean in this tank? You then verify that it’s been sanitized by swabbing the inside of the tank and the valves in particular to test that and verify that cleaning and sanitation have been effective,” she said. “If it hasn’t been effective, we re-clean.”

Strid’s employer had nice things to say about what she had brought to the table.

“She’s been phenomenal to work with,” Dahmer said. “I can’t say enough good things about her. She raises everything to the next level and makes our wine consistently year after year, which I think is important.”

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