WILLCOX — Decades ago, when he was a child growing up in a farming family, Rod Keeling was fascinated by grapes, especially those grown on his grandfather’s farm near Stanfield.
“Every kid loves grapes,” he said. “And I loved spending time in my grandfather’s vineyard. Up until about the 1960s, Arizona was the third top state in the country for table grape production and my grandfather was one of the farmers successfully growing table grapes in the desert in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Now there aren’t any table grapes grown in Arizona.”
Keeling never outgrew his love of grapes. Today, his vineyard and wine-making business, Keeling Schaefer Vineyards, produces six varieties of grapes on about 90 sloping mountain acres near Willcox. The winery’s bustling wine tasting room is housed in a converted historic building in downtown Willcox.
Keeling Schaefer Vineyards produces about 80 tons of grapes annually along with about 3,500 cases of wine, made exclusively from its own fruit.
“That makes us bigger than most vineyards in Arizona but not the biggest,” he said.
Nestled along the western Rock Creek slope of the Chiricahua Mountains, the vineyard grows several varieties of grapes for different types of wines, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier and Picpoul Blanc as well as a University of California Davis Syrah 2 clone and a Rockpile Petite Sirah clone from Sonoma County.
“We produce bottled Rhone-styled wines,” Keeling said.
Some Keeling Schaefer Vineyard products are among the highest scored wines produced in Arizona, rated by Wine Spectator and Tastings.com
Keeling has deep roots in Pinal County farming. His maternal and paternal grandparents both farmed in the area and his brother and nephews maintain thousands of agricultural acres in Eloy and Casa Grande, growing cotton, corn and alfalfa.
“I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farms in Casa Grande when I was younger,” he said.
Although he chose a career as a pilot, and later an economic redevelopment specialist, for years, as an adult, he channeled his love of grapes into hobby wine-making.
“In the 1990s, I started making wine in my garage in Tempe,” he said. “The first few bottles were terrible.”
But after some trial and error and learning more, he was soon developing good, made-at-home wines.
“If you want to make a good wine at home, you need fresh fruit,” he said.
He perfected the quality of his homemade wines by using grapes acquired from a vineyard in Willcox, buying hundreds of pounds at a time and later crushing and pressing the fruit in his garage in Tempe.
But he didn’t think of turning his hobby into a business until one afternoon, when as the chairman of the downtown association in Tempe, he ran across a study that analyzed the benefits promoting the viniculture industry in Arizona.
“I took the study home and read it cover to cover in one night,” he said. “Grapes are a low water, high value crop that grows well in parts of Arizona.”
After he retired, he turned his love of grapes into a business, establishing the Keeling Schaefer Vineyard near Willcox with his wife, Jan Schaefer.
The couple started with 18 acres in the Rock Creek area of Willcox. In 2005, the Keeling Schaefer Vineyard acquired its liquor license.
The winery’s wine tasting room at 154 N. Railroad Ave. in Willcox involved another of Keeling’s passions — downtown redevelopment and historic building restoration.
Opened in 2009, the tasting room is in a historic building in downtown Willcox that served as one of the town’s original banks until 1933.
Fully restored and renovated, the building has indoor seating and a small patio.
Because his passion for wine making started as a hobby, Keeling said he enjoys answering questions from others who enjoy the art of turning fruit into wines.
One section of the Keeling Schaefer Vineyards website is dedicated to answering questions home-based winemakers might have. People often call him or email him with questions as well.
When fruit is available, home wine makers are welcome to pick and purchase their own grapes from the Keeling Schaefer vineyard.
“We enjoy wines and talking about wines,” Keeling said. “And we think we make some pretty good wines. It’s been an interesting retirement and quite an adventure.”