By J.J. Lamb
Charron Vineyards is one of Vail’s very special places. The original owners Leo and Rhea Cox planted the vineyard in 1995. Charron is Rhea’s maiden name. The name is French and brings many visitors with the same last name from Quebec, Canada to enjoy a wine tasting. Twelve years ago Leo and Rhea sold their vineyard to Susan and Milton Craig.
Now, after 12 special years Susan Craig is moving into a new chapter of her life. When asked what is highest on her priority list she replied, “Spending time with my new grandbaby. Next, is having more free time to do some fun stuff, and not having to fill out so much paperwork.”
I have had the good fortune to work with Susan and Milton over the years. Charron Vineyards is the southern end of Vail’s Arizona Main Street Corridor. It will take some getting used to not see her welcoming guests to the vineyard that she and Milton poured their life into over the last 12 years. Milton passed away in 2019. I asked Susan to describe what it was that made her and Milton decide to purchase Charron Vineyards and what their vision was?
“When we first saw the vineyard, we were struck by the stunning 360 degree views of the mountains surrounding the property. At the time, we had no idea there was even a wine industry in southern Arizona, we lived in Phoenix and used to go north to Cottonwood for wine tasting.
Our initial vision was simply to make enough money doing something we loved, wine making, that we could be our own boss, to drink wine and create a welcoming place for guests. We visited all the wineries in the Sonoita area, and we both agreed we liked the wines the area was producing. We wanted to be a part of that. Milton had experience with home winemaking, and had taken viticulture and enology courses from UC Davis. It was a steep learning curve. We discovered a winery is essentially three businesses; grape farming, wine making and retail. With help from other winemakers and grape growers we made it work.
We started with one wine, the Sweet White Merlot, and added a new wine each year. We planted new vines, invited community members to help at harvest time, and over the years have added 16 unique wines to the menu. In Arizona each winery has its own equipment, and its own grapes. We have everything that winemakers in other states have, but on a smaller scale with exponentially more risk if anything goes wrong. In other states there are often subsidies and co-ops that share equipment, share bottling lines and buy grapes in bulk to keep costs down. Considering everything that happens between the grape and the glass, Arizona wines are priced very favorably overall for the high quality of wine produced.”
Susan shared that the Empire Mountains are beautiful, but present some unique challenges. “The weather is always a challenge. Nestled between the mountains we have our own microclimate. We escaped the devastating monsoon hails that hit vineyards south of us, but the winds can be strong enough to blow over the vine trellises and make it difficult to work outside.
Being above 4000’ also means we can get a late freeze which can damage the season’s new growth. The months of April and May are especially beautiful in the vineyard. The vines new leaves are green, the roses are in first bloom, it’s not too hot and there are no bugs!” This is Susan’s favorite time of year.
When asked what she will miss most, Susan shared that, “I will miss the friends we have made over the last 12 years, and our neighbors, they are the best! There are 30 families on our mountain. Many are regulars who come in every week to socialize. Wherever I end up I am sure it won’t have the same sense of community that we have here. “
Charron Vineyards new owners, Sarah Wolff and Colton Noble, plan to keep the Charron name and the current favorites on the wine list. They will add their own wines down the road. Susan will be staying close by for a short while to help with the transition and get them through their first harvest that is coming up in a few weeks. They are looking for harvest help this year if anyone in interested. Really!
Sarah and Colton have many ideas about how to modernize, expand and take Charron Vineyards to the next level with entertainment and promotion of the vineyard’s unique setting as an event venue.
Susan would like to, “thank all of our customers for their support over the past 12 years. Milton and I could never have done it without you. I will miss you all. Please welcome Sarah and Colton. Be sure to come and check out their progress.” When asked about Vail’s future Susan said, “I hope Vail is able to retain a balance between new development and its rustic charm. It is its rustic charm that sets it apart.” We wish you all the best Susan in your life’s next chapter, and lots of special times with your new grandbaby!
J.J. Lamb is President & CEO of Vail Preservation Society. A U of A graduate, her family has lived in Vail since 1971. She was named an Arizona Culturekeeper in 2011 and an Arizona Friend of the Humanities in 2020.