Megan Haller (left) and Shannon Zouzoulas
Shannon Zouzoulas and Megan Haller aren't stereotypical winemakers. The two sisters from California are feisty and irreverent, and they pair potato chips with their wine. But that's not all. They're also growing hops to make beer. It all adds up to one big get-together down in Sonoita.
© Paul Markow
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By Kathy Ritchie
Their story begins with a quote from Jack Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
In 2007, life had become uninspiring for sisters Shannon Zouzoulas and Megan Haller. Zouzoulas was living in Washington, D.C., with her husband and three children, contemplating divorce. Haller, meanwhile, was in Vail, Arizona, with her own family. She dreamed of opening a winery with Zouzoulas, and she spent the next several years honing her skills and refining her craft at various Southern Arizona vineyards, including Callaghan and Sonoita.
“My husband said, ‘That’s never going to happen,’ ” Haller says. “But I thought, ‘I need to make this happen.’ ”
“We always talked about it,” Zouzoulas says. “And we had been trying to figure it out for years, never thinking it would be in Arizona, because we’re from California. But this place is gorgeous, and my sister said, ‘This is it; I feel it in my soul.’ ”
“This place” is Arizona Hops & Vines. Situated atop one of Sonoita’s many rolling hills, it’s the mad brainchild of two fearless sisters, the representation of years of uncertainty, heartbreak, blind ambition and perseverance. But burn-burn-burning like fabulous yellow Roman candles didn’t come naturally at first.
Despite the sisters’ shared enthusiasm for winemaking, Zouzoulas remained uncertain about uprooting her life. A trip to the St. Louis City Museum, where she stumbled upon Kerouac’s quote etched onto a wall, changed her tune.
“I was ending my marriage, and I was scared to pull my kids out of school and move to Arizona,” she says. “But then I saw that quote. I took a picture of it and sent it to my sister and said, ‘I’ll do it. Let’s make this happen.’ ”
Haller jumped into action and, with the permission of the vineyards where she worked, began collecting grapevine cuttings and planting them in her backyard — a risky move, since the fragile plants might not take hold, but ultimately a necessary one.
The Sonoita winemaking region is Arizona’s only American Viticultural Area — a federal designation for areas with special geological qualities conducive to winemaking (Haller says the Sonoita terroir is similar to Burgundy, in France). But there was another, more practical reason for the sisters to put down roots in the heart of Sonoita.
“This was the only place I knew how to farm,” Haller says. “And with the money we had, it was the only place we could do it.”
With a budget of $70,000, the sisters purchased an old adobe home and 10 acres of land. Over the next couple of years, they toiled: planting each vine clipping by hand, spreading rock and placing flagstone throughout the property, building animal pens and even planting an acre of hops on 15-foot wooden poles.
“It was an idea. A brainstorm. We were like, ‘Let’s do it and see what happens,’ ” Zouzoulas says. The hops flourished. So did the vines, and eventually, the sisters transformed the once-crumbling homestead into a decidedly irreverent tasting room where they pair potato chips and Cheetos with wine.
It’s a warm Saturday afternoon, and Zouzoulas and Haller are standing behind the bar of the tasting room. Green Day plays in the background as customers stream through the front door. Haller describes her sister as the “people person.” “I’m the winemaker and farmer,” she says.
Today, however, they’re both playing the role of “people person,” chatting with customers, laughing and pouring taste after taste — with a side of barbecue-flavored potato chips.
The Kerouac quote is painted on a wall, along with words from Frida Kahlo: “Feet: What do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Crosses, Day of the Dead art, prayer candles and other religious and spiritual symbols are everywhere — including the bathroom — to “cover our karmic bases,” as Haller puts it. A wishing wine barrel sits in the middle of the room; Haller says two couples struggling to conceive became pregnant after tossing their wishes into the barrel. The space matches the personalities of the two sisters: feisty, irreverent and wonderfully carefree.
“This place is our dream. It’s our vision,” Zouzoulas says. “We don’t have to compromise for anybody else.”
When Hops & Vines opened in 2012, the sisters planned to serve wine and beer — desirous of everything, it seemed. According to Zouzoulas, Haller was intrigued by the similarities between the two processes, and the prospect became even more attractive when the sisters learned that no one else in Arizona was growing commercial hops. What they didn’t know was that it was illegal to operate a domestic farm winery and a microbrewery under the same roof. They could, however, grow hops.
Though hops take work to grow, they’re much less demanding than vines. They’re much more tolerant of sudden climate swings, and they’re less likely to be devoured by vermin. Another unexpected bonus was the state’s booming “locavore” movement. “People are seeking locally grown hops,” Zouzoulas says. “There’s a huge demand for them, and [the craft breweries in the state] are asking if we’ll sell it to them.”
The sisters had stumbled onto a modern-day gold mine.
Determined to press on, their only options were to open a second tasting room on a separate piece of property or attempt to change the law. They opted for the latter.
“When you go to their winery, it’s clear they have something special that they’ve created,” says Mark Barnes of the Phoenix-based lobbying group Barnes & Associates, which worked with the sisters to change the law. “The community is involved and supportive, their kids are involved, and in talking to them, you see the passion that they have — they have created an innovative concept.”
With Barnes’ help, Senate Bill 1301 was unanimously passed and signed into law in April 2013. Ninety days later, the sisters were finally able to apply for their microbrewery license, which, per the revised statute, will allow them to sell their own Hops & Vines brew.
Just over a year has passed since SB 1301 became law, and Zouzoulas and Haller continue to burn, burn, burn. As of the new year, they were beginning negotiations on a lease-to-own deal on the property next door, where they plan to grow 10 more acres of hops.
Had Zouzoulas and Haller been just a few decades earlier, Kerouac might have fallen in love with their place. And he might have even penned a line or two about the mad ones running around Sonoita.
Arizona Hops & Vines is located at 3450 State Route 82 in Sonoita. For more information, call 888-569-1642 or visit www.azhopsandvines.com.
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