Wine country becoming an unlikely Arizona tourist attraction

Arizona Wine
Wine enthusiasts peruse the selection while attending the 2012 Festival at the Farm. Photo courtesy of Arizona Wine Growers Association.

Southern Arizona’s wine country is a maze of vineyards set against endless mountain ranges  — a sharp contrast to the desert scenery most people envision when it comes to Arizona. But it is these vineyards in two distinct wine growing regions in Arizona that is fast becoming a tourism mecca for the state.

In the last five to 10 years, the wine industry has begun to spark with an increase of vineyards and wineries in southeastern Arizona and northern Arizona’s Verde Valley, the state’s wine-growing regions. There are vineyards and wineries in Sonoita, Elgin and Willcox in southern Arizona and near Cottonwood, Sedona and Clarksville up north.

The wineries have become popular tourist destinations, said Teri Ruiz, a specialist with the Sedona Chamber of Commerce.

The Verde Valley Wine Trail, for instance, is quickly becoming a huge economic impact in Arizona. This virtual, internet-based trail connects the dots between four Arizona wineries in the Verde Valley: Alcantara Vineyards, Page Springs Cellars, Oak Creek Vineyards and Javelina Leap Vineyards. It also includes four wine tasting rooms — Cellar 433, Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, Pillbusry Wine Company and Burning Tree Cellars.

Casey Rooney, the secretary of the Arizona Wine Grower’s Association and a member of the Cottonwood Economic Development Council, said that the Verde Valley Wine Trail is geared toward visitors and tourists who come to Arizona and want to see what the wine industry is all about.

“It is about promoting the city of Cottonwood, as well. We are re-branding our community of Cottonwood as the heart of Arizona wine country,” Rooney said.

The wine industry was completely illegal in Arizona from Jan. 1, 1915, until a very limited bill allowed the first winery license to be issued in 1981. Tom Pitts, president and founder of the Verde Valley Wine Trail, said that the limits were so severe, the state only issued nine licenses by the end of the millennium. The industry exploded following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that directed states to rewrite their wine-growing laws to conform to the Constitution.

Rooney said there are now 80 bonded wineries in Arizona, with about 1,000 acres of vines. In 2012, wine production topped 180,000 gallons, more than double the total production in 2011, according to the Winegrowers Association’s yearlong study “Emerging Wine Industry: New Economic Engine for Arizona.”

An Arizona Wine Tourism Industry Study shows that statewide, the total economic impact was $38 million as of May 2011.

“The amount of wine produced doubled in just the last year, and I expect it to do the same next year,” said Peggy Fiandaca, the association’s president.

Arizona Wine
Some 70 percent of people purchase wine after visiting an Arizona tasting room. Photo courtesy of Arizona Wine Growers Association.

According to a report produced for the Arizona Office of Tourism by Northern Arizona University’s business school, most people go to wine country to taste the wine. The majority of the people go to a tasting room not attached to a vineyard to try wine, while 37 percent go to an actual vineyard and only 19 percent go to a winery.  

Fiandaca said that the number of wine tasting rooms in Arizona has grown to nearly 40 from 10 since 2005. Nine of them are in the Greater Willcox Region, 12 in Northern Arizona, 12 in the Sonoita/Elgin area and five at urban wineries.

“There hasn’t been a boom quite yet, but we have high hopes,” said the Sedona Chamber’s Ruiz.

She said that people probably do not come to Arizona specifically for the wine yet, but it has the potential to be a huge tourist pull in the future. Almost half of the wine visitors are from Arizona itself, but 17 percent also come from California and Wisconsin.

Aside from Sedona and the rest of the wine country, the main tourist destinations in Arizona are the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Cottonwood and Camp Verde.

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Contact Reporter at leahecresswell@gmail.com

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