Numerous wineries, tasting rooms and commercial vineyards have been developed in Arizona in recent years, located in or near Cottonwood, Page Springs and the Verde Valley in the north-central part of the state, and in the Sonoita/Elgin and Willcox regions of southeastern Arizona. The great majority of the fruit sourced for all AZ wineries is grown in the Willcox Bench area, 80 miles southeast of Tucson, south of the town of Willcox.
The terroir is mostly sandy loam soils at 4,300 – 4,500 ft. elevation, 30 to 40 degree dinural temperature range and nearly constant sunshine. Irrigation is essential. Bud break is in early spring and harvest in late August, sandwiched between last frosts and summer monsoons. The area has been traditionally planted to apples, nuts and cotton. It is a wide valley below the Dos Cabezas Peaks whose distinctive feature is the Willcox Playa, a dry lakebed which attracts a sandhill crane migration in winter. Acreage planted to wine grapes is increasing almost exponentially as the area’s potential is being discovered.
There are currently 12 wineries in the Willcox area, and several other growers. Petitions for creation of the Willcox and Chiracahua Foothills AVA’s are in process. Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier seem to be especially successful, also Chardonnay, Malvasia, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. Following the “locally sourced” foodie movement, these wines are appearing on restaurant lists and in shops throughout Arizona.
The semi-annual Willcox Wine Festival, which until recently sounded like an oxymoron since Willcox has in no way resembled a wine town such as Rutherford or Healdsburg, is growing and now attended by a few thousand enthusiasts who stand in lines to purchase cases, enjoy the local music, food and of course the wine tastings. There was even a busload of Japanese tourists at the May event.
Two recent Willcox area ventures are different in approach but each demonstrate the enthusiasm for the quality and potential being realized there:
Sam Pillsbury, a New Zealand/Hollywood film producer/director/writer, established Pillsbury Wine Company in 2000 on 100 acres south of Willcox. Neighboring vineyards include Buhl Memorial, owned by Maynard James Keenan of the rock band Tool, and Oregon Pinot Noir pioneer Dick Erath’s property planted to mostly Italian varietals, bottled under his Cimarron label. If recognition of quality is measured in points from wine publications, Sam’s wines are being deservedly recognized by Wine Spectator (89 points 2007 Petite Sirah), Tasting Panel (90 points each for four wines) and Wine Enthusiast Magazines and critics Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. He is currently increasing his plantings and building a winery on the property. He has tasting rooms on site and in Cottonwood and markets statewide. Visit www.pillsburywine.com.
Greg Gonnerman is a Phoenix-area engineer, home winemaker and president of AZ Winemakers, a professional and hobbyist group. He took the leap of purchasing 40 acres in foothills south of Willcox in 2012, planting seven acres so far with 14 varietals. His goal is selling fruit to winemakers for a few years before opening his own commercial winery. Using sweat equity and volunteer help he is investing with full faith in the area’s burgeoning wine growth.
By Brian McCarthy
The author is an architect and home winemaker in Tucson AZ.