Rod Keeling and Jan Schaefer of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards in Pearce, AZ. Keeling Schaefer Vineyards is located on Rock Creek at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains at about 5000 ft. elevation, about a 45-minute drive from downtown Willcox in southeastern Arizona. They are proving to be key players in the Arizona wine industry in their relatively short time on the playing field. Their wines have been received with both national recognition and local praise. Rod has also been an influential factor in the industry through his actions as the President of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, heading into his third term. Having been instrumental in changing the wine laws which allow the smaller boutique wineries to have more control to self distribute and consequentially reach higher profits, Rod has seen the intense growth in the industry that such legislation has helped to provide.
Rod and Jan have harnessed their unique and individual abilities to create really great wine. In talking with the team, it’s clear that the success of their wines is due to the marriage of their strengths. As Rod explains it, he does most of the physical work, while Jan stays integral to the wine-making through her natural palate. “She’s got a palate that’s much better than mine. I can tell certain things about the wine. I can detect the flaws. I can tell whether it’s good or bad. But I can’t [pick up] the details she can.” Rod credits the blending as the step that takes the wine to the next level, making a good wine great. Humbly, he basically says he’s the physical labor and the chemist. His contribution is in growing the grapes, doing the crush and assisting the mechanical operations. He says, “I think a good wine-maker has to be a good wine drinker,” and although he likes wine and accredits basic tasting skills to himself, he doesn’t have the natural innate palate that he adoringly attributes to Jan. Not to say that the lines never cross, both partners are involved throughout the process, but Rod’s passion is the numbers and Jan’s talents are a key factor to the finish of the wine. It’s obvious that they’ve transcended their romantic love to the love of wine-making.
It all began for Rod when he fortuitously tasted a glass of wine with a friend at PF Chang’s in 1994. At that time in Arizona there were few wine bars, no real wine scene and even finding quality wines by the glass was difficult. His friend, Roger Egan, had worked in California through the 1970’s, during the initial boom of the California wine industry, where he had met Mike Grgich. Knowing that Grgich had produced fine wine he recommended that Rod splurge for the $9 glass of the Grgich Hills Zinfandel. Rod was blown away. “Oh my God! I didn’t know wine could taste like that . . . [it was] a big blockbuster Zin!” That’s when he said to himself that he had to figure this out. How could wine taste like that and how could he learn to produce it? Previously, he felt that if he was going to drink wine it would be inexpensive because it was “just OK”. White wine was fine because it was refreshing. But red wine, nothing had ever tasted like that glass of Zinfandel before. “But that got me going because I thought I could make it myself. I’ve got to try making this!” . . . plus he sheepishly admits that he really didn’t want the pay the $9 per glass.