The Arizona vintners are making their mark thanks to the Wine Growers Association
By Scott Shumaker
In the 1970s and 80s, agricultural scientists and prospective winemakers realized that many parts of Arizona boasted très bien conditions for growing wine grapes—good soil, elevation and dramatic daily temperature swings. However, state laws regulating wineries at the time remained stubbornly restrictive for many more years, stunting the growth of the wine industry. In 2000, the state had just nine licensed wineries.
The situation changed dramatically in 2006 when the laws were finally relaxed. In the relatively short time since, the Arizona wine industry has grown from a novelty into an increasingly sophisticated industry. Arizona is now home to 83 wineries, lively wine trails, and, most importantly, high-quality wines.
The 85085-based Arizona Wine Growers Association, established in 1984, has been along for most of the ride—from ambitious dream to today’s maturing wine scene. The nonprofit AWGA is one of the oldest viticulture organizations in the state and is helping to usher in a new era of Arizona wine. For 35 years, the privately funded group has pooled resources for collective promotion, education, and representation. This year, for example, the AWGA organized the 10th annual Grand Wine Festival in Phoenix, the largest Arizona wine event in the state.
The AWGA was also a co-sponsor of a 2017 study, led by the Arizona Office of Tourism, that estimated a $56 million economic impact on the Arizona economy from wine tourism.
That economic study, says Kris Pothier, president of AWGA and co-owner of Chateau Tumbleweed in Clarkdale, helped get the attention of state lawmakers. There’s a bill in committee that would fund an Arizona Wine Commission to support the industry. Other wine-producing states like Oregon and Washington have state organizations for developing their wine industries, and Pothier says she and many others would like to see Arizona make a similar investment.
Travelers, foodies and wine enthusiasts have also noticed the developments in Arizona’s wine scene. Old town Cottonwood, about 90 minutes north of Phoenix in the Verde Valley, has been transformed into a wine hub, with half a dozen tasting rooms within the town’s stroll-able historic district alongside shops and restaurants. An application is in process to designate the Verde Valley an American Viticulture Area, a formal recognition of a wine-growing area with distinctive characteristics. If approved, the Verde Valley—which includes Cottonwood, Jerome and Page Springs, among other wine stops—would become Arizona’s third AVA, joining Sonoita and Willcox as an officially recognized wine region.
If someone knows nothing about Arizona wine, Pothier believes the best way to experience it is to tour one of the above wine regions. Each of Arizona’s wine destinations is a distinctive adventure with dramatic differences in geography. For Pothier, who says that “finding (a region’s) natural places complements the finding of the wine,” the different experiences offered by Arizona’s wine regions is part of what makes the scene special.
Willcox, about 80 miles east of Tucson, is “by far where most of the state’s fruit supply lives.” However, as the most rural of Arizona’s AVAs, Willcox also has fewer dining and lodging options than the state’s other two wine regions. Sonoita, closer to Tucson, offers a larger number of tasting rooms and amenities for visitors. Pothier says both of the Southern wine regions offer tremendous natural beauty. She recommends that wine explorers heading down there work in side trips to Patagonia Lake, Kartchner Caverns and Parker Canyon Lake while visiting the wineries.
Pothier adds, however, that it’s not necessary to leave your neighborhood to support the Arizona wine industry.
“Any time you purchase a bottle, be it in a restaurant or shop, you show that you are supporting a burgeoning yet emerging culture and becoming a part of it,” she says.
“I always think what trouble we will be in if all of the winos in the state were to find out that Arizona wines are delicious.”