This is the land of prickly pear and mesquite, where dust devils scour the hillsides, rain is as rare as a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild '58 and the summer sun can bake brie right on the hood of a BMW.

Yessir, this is wine country.

Doubters have but to stroll across a patch of grazed-out scrub land just north of here, hard by the Sonora Desert and about 1,000 miles from the lush vineyards of California, where the prized vinifera of Europe have taken root.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Chenin Blanc. Row upon row of precisely trellised vines stand sentinel on the arid soil, new green leaves sprouting from their branches like emerald epaulets.

That the grapes are thriving amid cactus and creosote bushes is impressive enough. That they are also producing premium-quality wines comes to the utter astonishment of just about everybody.

Everybody, that is, except Gordon Dutt.

Dutt is a University of Arizona agriculture professor, silver-haired and amiable, with the look of a man accustomed to squinting into the desert sun. These days, the look comes from peering into the future, where he sees vineyards marching across the mountainsides around Tucson and clusters of wineries turning out full-bodied Chiantis, aromatic Sylvaners and clear, crisp Colombards.

"This is the area that will have a Pinot Noir like the Burgundy region of France," Dutt said without a trace of modesty. "We've got a soil that is almost identical to that in Burgundy."

Dutt may well be the father of viticulture in a state better known for whiskey-drinking cowboys than chablis-sipping oenophiles, but he wasn't thinking about wine 15 years ago when he headed for the university's field-testing ranch to plant the first wine grapes in Arizona since Prohibition.

The idea was to test methods of growing fruit and other crops without irrigation. Dutt used basins and trenches to channel the area's annual 12 to 18 inches of rainfall to the grapevines, capturing the excess in small ponds to be pumped back to the vines in dry weather.

The system worked fine, so well in fact that Dutt was faced with a bumper crop of grapes. Being the practical sort, he commandeered a university outbuilding, installed oaken casks, fermenting jugs, wine racks and coolers and taught himself how to make wine.

Blind tastings conducted according to a scoring system developed at the University of California at Davis ranked some of those wines as significantly better than California wines, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dutt is still teaching at the university and conducting dry-land farming experiments -- the wine grapes have been joined by a peach orchard, a few olive trees and a patch of Papago squash. But for the last five years, his spare time has been devoted to the care and feeding of his Sonoita Vineyards and Winery in Elgin, Ariz., an hour's drive southeast of Tucson.

"I decided I'd put my money where my mouth is," he said with a chuckle. "I guess you could say I believe in carrying my research through to the conclusion."

Sonoita Vineyards is one of Arizona's four bonded wineries, all of recent vintage, and the first authorized to produce estate-bottled wine under its own appellation.

The winery produced 6,000 gallons of wine last year, a small operation even by boutique-winery standards, but Dutt has scored a coup of some significance. Sonoita Vineyards is on the wine list at San Francisco's posh Mark Hopkins Hotel, in the very shadow of the Napa Valley.

That's nothing compared to the success that Dutt anticipates when his Pinot Noir grapes are in full production. That's when he expects to demonstrate Arizona's secret, the one he is confident will put the state on the oenological map.

"In California," he said, "it's climate, climate, climate. But soils make the wine."

Specifically, Dutt is talking about a happy accident of geology known as terra rosa, or "red earth." The term refers to soils of the prime wine-growing areas of Burgundy -- loamy and acid on the surface, red clay beneath that and rich in lime at the bottom.

"It's an unusual layering sequence," Dutt said. "California doesn't have true terra rosa, at least not where they're growing grapes."

Therefore, he argues, California is geologically incapable of producing a wine to match the best of Burgundy. "They just can't," he said. "But we can."

Dutt insists that he has nothing against California wines, although he says that he finds Sonoma Valley wines "grassy" and thinks that Monterey wines "smell like asparagus." Squinting hard into the future, he doesn't foresee Arizona supplanting the Golden State as America's wine cellar.

"We'll settle into varieties that don't do well in California," he said.

For the moment, though, Dutt is content to sip a glass of Sonoita Vineyard's Arizona Fume Blanc and savor the fermented fruits of his labor.

"There are apple orchards going in up there," he said, waving vaguely toward the mountains. "Mostly early-market green apples and Granny Smiths. But the real future is in wine grapes."