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Meet James Callahan – Winemaker at Rune Wines

By August 9, 2019 No Comments

My introduction to this Rune Wines wasn’t by the usual route. We didn’t go tasting here, in fact I’ve never been to Arizona, we didn’t meet the winemaker at a festival, and we didn’t discover them through some subscription. I learned about this winery because of archaeology. 

My academic background is in archaeology, and it was during a professional conference that I met Anna Schneider, an archaeologist who, like me, is now in the wine industry. We’re not the only ones either. Making the jump from archaeology to wine seems to be a trend. Off the top of my head, I know of at least a half dozen colleagues who have made that leap, and now hold jobs that range from sommeliers to distributors to winemakers. 

I was more than excited to learn more about the winemaker and winery that drew Anna into the industry. (And yeah, I was super excited to taste their wine… Wild Syrah? I’m so down with that). 

Meet James Callahan, historian, storyteller, craftsman and winemaker. 

Photo Credit: Jenelle Bonifield

Kate Meyers Emery (KME): I noticed that like me, your academic background doesn’t match your current job. What made you take the leap to this career path?

James Callahan (JC): I graduated from college with a degree in history and was trying to decide what was next. At the time, I was working in restaurants pouring amazing bottles of wine, and the wine industry began to capture my interest. I was aware that my home state of Arizona had a young but growing wine industry and when an opportunity arose to work my first harvest, I took the leap.

KME: You traveled quite a bit gaining experience; what made you come back to Arizona? 

JC: I grew up in Arizona, and making wine in Arizona was always my ultimate goal. While I could have continued my career working in established wineries in California and elsewhere, I knew that I would rather be a pioneer back home. I wanted to help put Arizona on the map for fine wine.

KME: What is your winemaking philosophy or approach?

JC: My winemaking philosophy has changed throughout the years. Currently, I’m really interested in making wines that are balanced, delicate, nuanced, and show their terroir well. I like to let mother nature do the work as much as possible, and prefer a more hands off approach in the winery and in the vineyard.

KME: Which of your wines do you think best embodies this approach?

JC: Our Wild Syrah is our flagship wine. It is the first wine for which we experimented with wild yeast, and the techniques we learned with the Wild Syrah changed how we make all our other wines.  Now, all of our offerings are wild yeast fermented, but our Wild Syrah has kept the name since it was the first.

KME: Wild yeast can be a bold choice, many wineries hedge their bets by only doing it with a few wines, not all- what drew you to making wine this way?

JC: Throughout all of my training and past winery work, we never used wild yeast. I was always aware that it existed, but it was never in my toolbox as a winemaker. When I came back to Arizona in 2012 for my first winemaker position, we had a few lots of grapes that came in during crush with active fermentation already underway. Out of curiosity, I decided to let them go and see what would happen. Needless to say I was pleased with the results. The resulting wines were balanced, complex, and unique, and wild yeast has since become my signature winemaking style. I was thrilled with how they expressed our Arizona terroir. I have been honing my skills with wild yeast fermentation ever since, learning how to increase predictability and attain the desired results.

KME: Your wine labels tell, as you say, a “fantastical” story. Why did you choose to take this approach towards the labels, rather than the traditional list of characteristics or production notes? Where do the characters come from?

JC: Our labels change with every vintage, and each varietal has it’s own characters and story line. Rather than tasting or production notes, the back label of each bottle shares a brief narrative of what is happening on the label.  All of our labels essentially come together into a comic book told through the medium of wine. This idea came to me because grapes from lots of different vineyards go into Rune wines. I wanted a way to synthesize different wines with different characteristics and personalities into a single brand. Wine is also subjective and I don’t want to tell people what they are supposed to be tasting and experiencing when they drink my wines. With these thoughts, I came up with the idea to make each wine analogous to a character in the ever-evolving story of wine. The characters come from a mixture of history, fantasy, and nature. I try to match the personality of the character with that of the wine. Using a one of a kind label for each vintage of each wine (some of which are as small production as 11 cases) also helps create collectability in our wines. Lots of our customers save their bottles long after the wine has been enjoyed!

KME: Any thoughts on what trends are coming next? What interesting new approach are you hoping to take?

JC: I’m always open to trying new things in the winery or vineyard that will make our wines better. Right now, I’m still working on perfecting the way I’m doing things and trying not to add too many variables that will make it more difficult gauge the success of the things I’m experimenting with. That said, we’ve been working with larger format barrels and longer barrel aging. We will also be using terra cotta amphora for the first time this upcoming harvest, so we will see where that takes us.

KME: What advice would you give to others who are thinking about making a career jump to winemaking?

JC: Establish your goals from the beginning so that everything you do in your learning process you do with purpose.  The world of winemaking offers significant reward for hard work, diligence, and sweat equity. It’s not easy or pretty and it is full of risk but, as with anything, the rewards are great if done well.

KME: What’s your guilty pleasure drink of choice after a long day?

JC: A homemade piña colada…preferably on a boat. 

Wine Recommendations

2016 WILD SYRAH

Why this wine? Not only is it James’s pick, it’s the wine I was most interested to try as a cool climate wine drinker. I wanted to see this varietal compared with the Syrah I normally drink.

Varietal: 100% Syrah

Appellation: Wilcox, Arizona

Tasting Note: The nose is deep and inviting with loads of blackberries and black cherries, which then bursts with tobacco smoke and white pepper. On the palate it has a surprising blueberry note that is complemented by the peppery and almost smoked meat flavors. It’s a full-bodied and highly textural wine that leaves you chewing on the flavors for a while.

2017 VIOGNIER

Why this wine? Viogner is a grape I don’t have as much experience with, so I was curious to try it, and it offered a completely different perspective on the winery from the Syrah. 

Varietal: 100% Viogner

Appellation: Wilcox, Arizona

Tasting Note: At first, all I could smell was yellow apple, but as it warmed a little and opened it had a delicious bouquet of pineapple and mango, with hints of slate. On the palate, it was earthier than I expected, with a touch of peach skin both in flavor and texture, and a well-balanced fruity finish.