Mohave County cultivates a taste of wine country

Cella Wines owner Carlos Cella and his friend and neighbor Dick Heesch  dump grapes into a machine that removes stems. (Courtesy)

Cella Wines owner Carlos Cella and his friend and neighbor Dick Heesch dump grapes into a machine that removes stems. (Courtesy)

KINGMAN - Carlos Cella carefully eyes the precise measurement of sugar content in 25-gallon tubs of grape peelings and juice fermenting at 66 degrees in a temperature-controlled casita, part of his 10-acre property in Valle Vista where he operates Cella Winery.

He mashes and mixes the peelings morning and night because it's the peelings fermenting with the juice that will one day produce Cella's finest cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, zinfandel and soon-to-be-released sangiovese.

To the palate of the wine drinker, cabernet made from grapes grown in Mohave County doesn't taste that much different from California's heralded Napa and Sonoma counties.

"You don't have to be a wine connoisseur to know what you like," said Cella, the first to explore the idea of growing grapes in Mohave County. "Ninety percent of people who come here to taste our wine, they buy our wine. That says something right there."

Arizona is home to more than 60 wineries and growers are planting more vines all the time. They're quite drought-resistant and use about a gallon of water a day for each plant through drip irrigation, said Don Stetson, who opened Stetson Winery in Valle Vista in 2012.

Kingman's "wine country" consists of Cella's and Stetson's wineries and has made a small mark among at least a few regulars at the Cellar Door on Beale Street and Route 66 travelers who can't pass up a wine tasting.

"This winery (Cella) is a bit out of the way, but well worth the drive," Lindsey of Missoula, Mont., wrote in an August Yelp review. "The people were friendly, the wine was delicious and the atmosphere was laid back. I will definitely visit again."

Cellar Door owner Scott Rhoades said he usually gets more requests for Stetson - not necessarily because it's better, but more people have heard of it. He sells a glass of Stetson Chardonnay for $10 and a glass of Cella Cabernet Sauvignon for $7.

Cella Wines won the People's Choice for Best Wine in 2013 and 2014 at Kegs, Corks and Cocktails in Lake Havasu City. A bottle ranges from $18 to $30.

Originally from Argentina, Cella grew up helping his parents cultivate and harvest grapes for wine. They immigrated from Tuscany, Italy, after World War II and knew a thing or two about making wine, cheese, sausage and pizzas.

Cella studied automotive engineering in Argentina but didn't want to work at a factory sweeping floors, the only type of job he could find in his homeland. He wanted to make his father proud for sending him to college, so he left for California where he owned an auto body shop in Huntington Beach, sold it and retired with his wife, Zulma.

It was during a trip to Kingman for investment purposes when Cella saw the land in Valle Vista that looked like it had grape-growing potential. His friend, Stetson, was fixing and selling houses in Valle Vista.

Cella, who owns 25 acres of vineyards in Temecula, Calif., had the soil tested for the right minerals and when it came back good, he bought five acres for $80,000 and planted 4,000 vines in 2008. He added another five acres and has more than $1 million invested in the winery.

The weather here is perfect, he said. It's not too hot, not too cold and humidity stays low. That helps with pest control and mildew, the winemaker noted.

Cella produced his first batch of cabernet sauvignon and merlot in 2010.

"I don't think Kingman never (sic) see anybody picking grapes and making wine in Mohave County," Cella said.

Stetson said Kingman's nascent wine country is growing as more people discover the soil is suited to planting grapes.

"We've only been here two years," he said. "This is how Napa started. This is how Sonoma started."

Stetson started growing grapes in his backyard and expanded to 25 acres after his first harvest produced a good crop. He manages another 10 acres near Kingman Airport and knows a guy on Painted Rock Drive who planted two acres of grapes.

Stetson trucks grapes from California and Arizona to his vintner in Cottonwood.

Good wine comes from good grapes and it takes about four years of cutting back vines so all of the nutrients and water sink into the stock, or trunks, Stetson said.

"That's your foundation for the rest of the time. Grapes will go 25 or 30 years," he said.

Stetson Winery and Events Center hosts weddings and parties and special events such as the first Kingman Bluegrass Festival in October.

It'll take four to five years before he starts to show a profit on his own grapes in Valle Vista. For now, he's just paying the bills.

"There's an investment involved," he said. "The reason we did the events center is because we knew we wouldn't make a profit. The events center is driving the winery. In four or five years, eventually the winery will drive the events center."