Arizona Vineyards Winery Torched

Arson destroys 25-year-old landmark; owner hopes to rebuild

by Jane Firstenfeld
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The charred remains of Arizona Vineyards' winery were surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape. Some concrete fermenters remained standing, but others exploded during the fire, and nothing was salvageable.

Nogales, Ariz
. -- A blaze blamed on an arsonist burned one of Arizona's oldest wineries to the ground June 5. Arizona Vineyards, a landmark roadside attraction outside Nogales, had served a quirky selection of wines made from Arizona-grown grapes since 1984, in a high-desert setting where owner Tino Ocheltree also housed a valuable collection of Southwestern art and wine memorabilia.

Several weeks after the inferno, Ocheltree phoned Wines & Vines to describe the experience and reach out to our winemaking readers. On the Friday evening of the fire, Ocheltree explained, he and nine other people were working near the winery setting up for a party when Alfonso Obregon allegedly came onto the property. Ocheltree said that Obregon "took gasoline and poured it all over," set the winery aflame and attempted to flee.

The party planners recognized Obregon and gave chase. He was apprehended and remains in the Santa Cruz County jail, where he was charged with aggravated arson and aggravated criminal damage, according to Ocheltree. "We were so lucky no one was in the winery at the time," he said.

Tino Ocheltree--and a friend holding reinforcements--examine what was left of Ocheltree's cherished collection of vintage winemaking equipment.
According to Ocheltree, Obregon is well known to winery staff. Ocheltree alleged that he had given Obregon a place to stay, but Obregon later threatened to kill the winery manager, Ocheltree's fiancée. Authorities had issued a restraining order against Obregon, Ocheltree said.

The losses

The 8,000-square-foot winery had been built to resist fire with poured concrete walls, but it had a traditional a wooden roof. When firefighters arrived, the structure was fully engulfed, Ocheltree said, and the entire structure was reduced to ashes. All that remained standing were some tall, 25,000-gallon concrete tanks, he said. The heat was so intense -- reaching an estimated 2,700ºF -- that some tanks exploded, Ocheltree said.

Arizona Vineyards' wines are sold only at the tasting room, and Ocheltree had just bottled his 2008 vintage. The entire lot, and then some -- 3,000 cases' worth of 17 wines -- "just melted and exploded," he said. Neither the structure nor its contents were insured, Ocheltree said, because a fire at another of his properties eight years earlier made him too high a risk for insurers. Ocheltree calculated his loss at about $2 million. He brought in front-end loaders and other heavy equipment, and the ruins were cleared out in about 10 days.

But although Ocheltree vowed to rebuild, and he plans to crush this fall with the help of a friendly neighbor, the monetary loss seemed not to weigh upon him as heavily as the destruction of his vintage winemaking equipment. He explained that he learned the winemaking styles of Italy, Spain and Germany while traveling in Europe as a young man, and he brought home to his native Arizona "the whole concept of 19th century rural winemaking."

To that end, he collected outdated and unused equipment from venerable and now defunct California wineries including Brookside, Opici and Christian Brothers. Among his acquisitions were early California redwood tanks; Portuguese and French oak tanks, and some 200 neutral oak barrels; old presses, pumps and filters; and sparkling wine equipment once used by the late Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers. With its ever-growing collection of temple figures, Spanish colonial altars, paintings, ceramics and winemaking gear, Arizona Vineyards (Ocheltree, ironically, grows no grapes himself), had become known as almost a museum to Southwestern and wine industry history.

"We went into the front room, which is some kind of weird shrine to the art of winemaking over the 30 years that they've been there," a recent visitor posted on yelp.com. "I was expecting some of the super-sweet berry wines you often find in places not known for their grape harvest," Kevin M. from Minneapolis, Minn., wrote in February. "What I got was some really decent table wines and unrivaled banter, as Tino hung out with us….It's a great way to spend a lazy Arizona afternoon."

In happier times, Arizona Vineyards welcomed tourists to the high desert. Ocheltree hopes to rebuild the historic site.
In order to provide similar Southwestern hospitality sooner rather than later, Ocheltree is seeking donations of equipment he can use to perpetuate his métier of making wine the old-fashioned way. He's looking for any kind of semi-automatic equipment: presses, pumps, filters; neutral oak barrels, disused wooden tanks and old hoses. He's willing to pick up donations from as far as California. "You might have something sitting out in a field," he said. In the words of a self-proclaimed "compulsive collector," he added, "Your garbage is our treasure. Will accept Brett with pleasure." A computer was also lost, but, Ocheltree said, "The real value of a winery is its customers."

Ocheltree has set up a tax-free foundation to accept donations. To learn more, call him at (520) 313-0226 or e-mail delfinjuly@yahoo.com.
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