Vintage Cochise County: Arizona wines come into their own

By NATALIA V. NAVARRO

Arizona Sonora News

Small groups of families and friends wandered among the dozens of local wine, art, and food tents at the Willcox Wine Country Festival on a Sunday in October. A blues band jammed amid lively conversations and clinking glasses.

Vicki Treiber and Gary Bennett sip wine at the Fall 2016 Willcox Wine Country Festival in Willcox, Arizona on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. The couple was enjoying a musical performance at Railroad Avenue Park. (Photo by Natalia Navarro / Arizona Sonora News)
Vicki Treiber and Gary Bennett sip wine at the Fall 2016 Willcox Wine Country Festival in Willcox, Arizona on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. The couple was enjoying a musical performance at Railroad Avenue Park. (Photo by Natalia Navarro / Arizona Sonora News)

The annual fall festival was notable this year because of the city’s new federal designation as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, which officially recognizes the small Cochise County town as “wine country.”

“Basically, the federal government has recognized that there is something very unique about this area that is different than anyplace else,” said John McLoughlin, owner of Willcox-based Cellar 433 and driving force behind the AVA application.

Though Arizona is far from being known as a major wine producing state, the wine industry is booming. In the last 11 years, the number of Cochise County wineries jumped from nine to 99, according to Rod Keeling, co-owner of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards and President of the Arizona Wine Growers Association.

This is the second AVA designation the state has earned, Keeling said. The first was awarded to Sonoita in 1984.

Despite the region’s previous lack of recognition, 74 percent of the wine grapes grown in the state of Arizona are grown in the Willcox area, Keeling said.

“In the bigger scheme of the wine industry and the wine world, place is important,” Keeling said. “It comes down to credibility.”

Cecilia Knaggs pours a glass of Cochise County wine in the Keeling Schaefer Vineyards booth at the Fall 2016 Willcox Wine Country Festival in Willcox, Arizona on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. Knaggs is the daughter of Rod Keeling, founder of the Willcox Wine Country Festival. (Photo by Natalia Navarro / Arizona Sonora News)
Cecilia Knaggs pours a glass of Cochise County wine in the Keeling Schaefer Vineyards booth at the Fall 2016 Willcox Wine Country Festival on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. Knaggs is the daughter of Rod Keeling, founder of the Willcox Wine Country Festival. (Photo by Natalia Navarro / Arizona Sonora News)

In total, the research and application process for the AVA designation took three and a half years, according to McLoughlin, but his work is well worth the reward.

Until now, legal restrictions have disqualified Willcox vineyards from using the industry term “estate” to describe their products. An “estate wine” is a wine that is produced and bottled on the same farm where the grapes were grown.

While this word choice may seem trivial to the layman, it is a point of pride for local winemakers.

“It clearly communicates to the consumer where the wine is from,” Keeling said. “It’s not from New Mexico; it’s not from California; it’s from Willcox, Arizona. And that’s a big deal.”

The climate in Willcox lends itself well to Rhone style wines produced in the southern part of France.

“But you can take two grape plants that are exactly the same and plant one in one area and the other somewhere else. They’re going to be totally different in flavor,” McLoughlin said.

For example, Willcox wines typically have notes of spice, tobacco and cocoa whereas California will naturally have a fruitier flavor, according to McLoughlin.

Bottles of Willcox Arizona wine sit on display at the Cellar 433 booth at the Fall 2016 Willcox Wine Country Festival in Willcox, Arizona on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. John McLoughlin is the owner of Cellar 433 and was the driving force behind the Willcox application for American Viticultural Area designation. (Photo by Natalia Navarro / Arizona Sonora News)
Bottles of Willcox Arizona wine sit on display at the Cellar 433 booth at the Fall 2016 Willcox Wine Country Festival in Willcox, Arizona on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. John McLoughlin is the owner of Cellar 433 and was the driving force behind the Willcox application for American Viticultural Area designation. (Photo by Natalia Navarro / Arizona Sonora News)

“I think our nuances are a little more subtle,” McLoughlin said.

The United States is the world’s largest market for wine consumption, just ahead of France, Italy, Germany and China, according to the Wine Institute, a trade group for California wineries, which shipped a record 229 million cases in 2015. In terms of total acreage devoted to wine production, the U.S. ranks sixth, behind Spain, China, France, Italy and Turkey.

California produces 90 percent of American wine, according to Wine America, a trade group representing the more than 7,900 licensed wineries in  the U.S.  After California, the top wine-producing states are Washington, New York, Pennsylvania and Oregon. Arizona isn’t even in the top ten, but Arizona wine production is increasing, driven especially by the growing reputation of wine from Cochise County. 

The wine trade has deep roots in southern Arizona, dating back to the time of Jesuit missionaries who began growing grapes for use in sacramental wine.  Vineyards continued to be successful well into the early 1900s, Keeling said.

“Of course, then Prohibition came along and that was the end of all that,” Keeling said.

After a long period of stagnation, the wine industry returned to Arizona in 1982 with the passage of the Arizona Farm Winery Act. Among other helpful changes in regulation, the legislation enabled vineyards to distribute and sell their wines themselves instead of requiring sales to go through a third party distributor, according to Keeling.

Since then, Arizona wine production has grown and matured, mostly in obscurity. However, recent years have seen a rise in both the quality and size of Cochise County wineries, Keeling said.

“I think Arizona wine is one of the best-kept secrets in Arizona,” said Don Tondreau, Director of the Tucson chapter of the Tasters Guild International. “A lot of people are kind of snobby about it and they’ll go buy the California wines but they have never really tried an Arizona wine.”

The popular wine magazine Wine Spectator has given high ratings to over 250 wines from Cochise County alone, Keeling said.

“We are one of the top consuming wine states in the country per capita and yet the Arizona wine industry is just a teeny sliver of the wine market here,” Keeling said. “People here drink a lot of California, French and Italian wines and they would probably love Arizona wine, we just need to communicate that to them. The bad news is, it takes a lot of work to get that done but the good news is, it only takes one taste and they’re sold.”

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proof-8008-copyNatalia V. Navarro is a journalism accelerated master’s student at the University of Arizona. She was born and raised in Tucson and loves this city with a passion. Navarro is currently writing for a couple Tucson newspapers and hopes to continue learning from Tucson’s news media giants as she finishes her degree. She loves reporting, traveling and drinking coffee. She hopes to one day work as a foreign correspondent.

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