A Vintage Venture

For Renzi, Owning a Winery Stems From Family Tradition

Posted March 9, 2005 at 3:09pm

Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), a married father of 12, may have trouble identifying with the offbeat characters in the Oscar-winning film “Sideways,” which follows a pair of middle-aged, single men during a week-long pre-nuptial trip through California wine country. But he can certainly relate to their love of the vine.

For the past two years, as the owner of a winery in southeastern Arizona, he’s been producing cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and “a hell of a sauvignon blanc,” he said.

“I think there is some truth” to the film, Renzi said. “You can get lost in the ease of the lifestyle. It can carry you away like the warm breezes of the West.”

Renzi, who lives in Flagstaff, acquired what was then known as the Santa Cruz Winery as part of a 107-acre ranch he bought about 50 miles southeast of Tucson. The winery had previously been owned by an Israeli who produced kosher wine. Renzi paid “just under a million dollars” for the ranch and winery in 1998.

Soon after, he set to work transforming the 17-acre vineyard into an all-organic venture.

“We replanted and redid the infrastructure,” Renzi said. That effort entailed adding an above-ground drip system and an old European-style tressel system.

Despite Arizona’s arid reputation, Renzi said the high chaparral desert grasslands of the Sonoita Valley, where the vineyard is nestled, are fast becoming a wine-growing mecca due to their fertile soil and the abundant rainfall from Mexico’s monsoon season. The area, located at an elevation of 4,900 feet, already boasts six wineries with four more under construction, Renzi said.

Renzi, who admits to being something of an oenophile, said his passion for growing grapes was rooted in years of family tradition.

“When I was a little boy, my grandfather made wine like all the good little old Italian men in the neighborhood,” Renzi said. “I was my grandfather’s little helper.”

Indeed, the family hobby predates his paternal grandfather’s arrival in the New World: Renzi’s ancestors were wine and olive oil producers in Italy’s Tuscany region.

Renzi said he has every intention of carrying on that heritage. The endeavor recently became a true family affair when his father, three brothers and brother-in-law also bought into the winery. His youngest brother, Ralphy, is even taking online classes from the University of California at Davis to become a wine master, he said.

“My heart is there,” said Renzi, who called the winery a place “to decompress.”

(In 2002, however, Renzi nearly lost part of the winery when the Santa Cruz County treasurer published a notice that due to unpaid property taxes two parcels of the land would be sold to the highest bidder, according to a report last year by The Associated Press. Renzi blamed the oversight then on a bank error, and the sale was canceled once the back taxes were paid.)

At the moment, the Renzi Vino label is mainly sold to boutique restaurants in southern Arizona, though the two-term Congressman does have plans to sell individual bottles in the future at a range of $17 to $30.

From time to time, Renzi’s vintages have served as a political sweetener, of sorts.

During a Congressional field hearing on Navajo housing held in Arizona last year, Renzi passed out bottles to the Members who attended. Last month, when he was unable to make a speaking engagement at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Graham County, he sent along signed bottles of Renzi wine to local GOP officials in hopes of receiving “forgiveness,” he said.

“Some of the ladies’ clubs in the district really like it,” Renzi added, pointing to his “sweet, light” sauvignon blanc in cobalt blue bottles.

Renzi, a member of the Congressional Wine Caucus, also plans to introduce colleagues to his winery’s “new cabernet sauvignon” at a caucus wine tasting this month.

Renzi is not the only member of Congress with his own label. Congress’ most well-known vintner, Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), sold his winery in Mariposa, Calif., last year, though the Radanovich wine label lives on.

Renzi said he and Radanovich had discussed everything from yields and fertilizers to restrictions on interstate wine sales — an issue that has been heavily lobbied by vintners and wholesalers over the past several years.

“We want to create good wine, but also make sure the laws are something that are reasonable,” Renzi said.

As for Radanovich, the founder and co-chairman of the wine caucus, he’s “still waiting for a sample” of Renzi Vino. Radanovich has already done his part by giving the Arizona Representative a bottle from his old winery.

“The rule in the industry is you always trade bottle for bottle,” chuckled Radanovich. “He may be worried I might be critical.”