It’s always been about the land. A cool October wind comes over the rolling hills of Sonoita’s desert landscape as rain clouds swell on the horizon. Dressed for a day’s work, Kylie Daniels ’19 looks west toward Tucson, with a distant memory calling her back.
“I used to ride the land behind our property,” she says, remembering riding horses and her small-town childhood, attending grade school with only eight other children in her class. Now the home where she chooses to raise her daughter is in the heart of Arizona’s wine country.
Daniels didn’t set out with a vision to create The Meading Room, the farm winery she owns with her mother, Barbara Christianson. Their space is bounded by a stage for live music and fields where baby trees they’ve planted are yet to yield fruit. Future brews await.
“My mom and I are very independent women who like to figure stuff out,” she says. “We bought this land with the intention of farming it, and it was about owning land for my mom, for me and for my daughter. I didn’t have expectations. I just knew we would have this land forever.”
From that intention has grown a farm-to-tap business making specialty mead with raw honey sourced from small, organic apiaries.
“We always use fresh ingredients and process everything here. We want to share cool flavors that reflect where we’re living,” she says as she shows our visiting group The Meading Room’s on-site winery. The space features large fermenting tanks and shelves of honey, and her crew is getting ready to batch test pumpkin cider from a recent harvest. After years of trial and error, they can now distribute their products as a domestic farm winery producer, retailer and distributor.
“If we don’t grow it, then we try to source it locally,” Daniels says. “We’re just kind of down to ferment whatever we can get our hands on.”
Daniels has learned to forage and returns to the land for inspiration and creativity. The results are drink combinations such as a mead made of desert wildflower honey, lavender and pear or a cider made of apples, chiltepin pepper and mango. Other local ingredients that appear on the drink menu include chili, prickly pear, juniper berries and sunflower petals.
In early days, Daniels was still commuting to the University of Arizona as a full-time student in photography and taking care of a young child. The family lived in a trailer as the vision for the business slowly came to life. She and her mom had tossed around the idea of having a farmers market, and while their small-business ideas changed directions often, her mom also made wine and mead at home.
“My mom and I were both really into fermentation, so it just kind of grew out of that idea,” Daniels says. “And then, next thing I know, we’re putting in this massive production facility and people were showing up.”
They also liked the idea of using something other than grapes. “And with me being able to buy honey from small apiaries, it’s a good way to support an industry that really needs it,” Daniels says.
Daniels says mead is versatile and gives her a lot of room to be “super creative.” And while people may assume that mead is always sweet, because it’s made from honey, the sugars in the honey turn into alcohol during fermentation, just like the sugars in grapes for wine.
“You can make it dry, or if you want to do a sweeter variety, you can add fruit. Or you can add hops, you could add grapes, you can do just about anything. And it’s just probably, like, one of the more creative alcohol options out there,” Daniels says.
She is part of the maker process from beginning to end, and she’s always been, as she says, “into process.” “Even when I was studying photography, I did a lot of analog stuff. And I was always doing alternative processes and darkroom things. I just like getting my hands in there.”
Daniels greets her customers with a gracious smile and a sparkle in her eyes. Above the bar are some of her photographs: moody black and white imagery of horses grazing, graceful willows and vistas where, she says, monsoon storms light up the sky in the summertime. “It’s a shame that no one visits Arizona in the summer, because it’s the most beautiful time of year here,” she says.
Another photo depicts a young girl peeking around the corner of a black door with the same curiosity Daniels displays. It’s Daniels’ daughter, Zannah, and the image captures the sense of family and joy infused in The Meading Room’s intergenerational creation.