Surrounded by acres of land as far as the eye can see with no buildings in sight, it’s a welcome change to the bustling heavily-populated environment. In Willcox, Arizona, you may pass only a few cars on the road and buildings are few and far between. Driving to a winery in Willcox is a lengthy, but worthwhile trip. You’ll see at least a few wineries on your way and keep following the signs — they’ll guide you to turn down a seemingly endless road, and assure you’re going the right direction and a winery is ahead.
After following the many signs, three miles down a dirt road surrounded by acres of a thriving vineyard, Pillsbury Wine Company comes into view. It’s isolated — save for the cottage tasting room, equipment and a few outdoor storage structures, one filled with barrels of aging wine, air-conditioned travel trailers filled with fermenting and boxed wine, and reds aging in oak barrels. The quiet atmosphere is part of its appeal — visitors can relax and enjoy the experience.
Sam Pillsbury, the owner of Pillsbury Wine Company, is a well-known winemaker and filmmaker. He is a character with enthusiasm for his craft and business. Since Pillsbury opened the winery in 2006, it has garnered critical acclaim, winning numerous awards and medals for his 20-plus wines.
“By far the biggest factor to making a great wine is where you plant your grapes,” says Pillsbury, who produces 22 wines under the Pillsbury Wine Company label at his 100-acre Willcox Bench Vineyard and Winery. Pillsbury grew up in New Zealand, where he began his career as a filmmaker. He moved to Arizona after working on films in Los Angeles. He started looking for the right place to open a vineyard and after tasting a Chardonnay from a vineyard in Willcox, he knew it was where he would build his business.
Willcox has become a destination for wine tasting. Residents and visitors can enjoy tasting various reds, whites and rosés at one of nearly a dozen vineyards, some within a few miles of each other. In addition to the tasting rooms and vineyards in Willcox, some wineries have tasting rooms in the Metro Phoenix area and their wines are sold at restaurants and stores throughout the Valley. Pillsbury says each of the wineries is unique because each has their own farming techniques that work best for the wine they want to create.
“I know what kind of wine I want to make,” Pillsbury says. “I think what I’ve learned both in filmmaking and winemaking is the most important thing is to be clear on what you’re trying to achieve and you can always figure out how to get there. I make food wines. I want them to enhance and pair with food. We make wine from grapes we grow, and ferment most of the wines with wild yeast that comes from here. We barrel-age our reds, and ferment our whites in stainless steel and neutral oak. I want to make wines that are complex and nuanced rather than just big.”
To gain a full appreciation of the vineyard and Willcox, taking a day drive to taste local, freshly-made wine is worth the trip.
“The perceived negative is that it’s a long way away,” Pillsbury says. “It’s actually no further than Sonoita, which has for many years been the wine destination in Arizona. There’s a whole cluster of vineyards and wineries here and some of them are making really fine wines and it’s a really great place to grow wine grapes.”
The Willcox wine growing region of Southeast Arizona grows 74 percent of Arizona’s wine grapes. It was also recently granted AVA (American Viticultural Area) status, which means the area is now recognized as a unique and distinctive wine growing region in the United States.
More than just wine
Although it’s a little more than a three-hour drive and 192 miles from Phoenix and 81 miles from Tucson, there’s plenty to keep you occupied once you’ve visited the vineyards. Willcox brings to life its rich western history as it’s the hometown of television, movie and radio star Rex Allen. Willcox celebrates “Rex Allen Days” in October with a parade, country fair and rodeo. Willcox also hosts the Wings over Willcox nature festival that celebrates the great outdoors, The Willcox West Fest Chuckwagon Cook-off and Ranch Rodeo in May, and the annual Willcox Western Christmas Festival in December.
In addition to celebrating its western roots, other things to do and see that can only be found in Willcox include the Chiricahua National Monument, Apple Annie’s Orchard, and the Rex Allen Cowboy Museum.
You can also try local dining — the Mexican gem is La Unica Restaurant & Tortilleria or try a visit to Tapas Lounge at Coronado Vineyards.
“Coming to Willcox is an amazing experience with its legendary history — from Cochise and Geronimo to Wyatt Earp and more,” says Alan Baker, executive director of the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. “The area is an American Viticulture Area. Not only are most of Arizona’s grapes grown here, but there is incredible agriculture all around. Willcox is the world’s second-largest producer of pistachios.”
In addition, specialty crops such as apples, peaches and pecans thrive in the Willcox basin.
“Combine all of this with scenic beauty and a temperate climate to explore the wineries and tasting rooms and Cochise County is an amazing adventure to experience,” Baker adds.
Visitors love Willcox
Willcox wineries have increased tourism in the area and draw people to the city to visit.
Willcox Wine Country, a committee of the Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture that was created in 2012, is a resource and directory for wineries and festivals. The proceeds from the wine festivals go into marketing for Willcox Wine Country, says Baker.
“Having Willcox Wine Country has increased tourism by hundreds of fold,” Baker says. “The change is absolutely stunning. One cannot overstate the economic impact the wine country has brought to us. This industry has brought enthusiasm and new energy to the area. Willcox Wine Country is a major tourism driver and it is growing, bringing excitement about this Southeastern corner of Arizona.”
According to a 2017 Arizona Wine Tourism Industry study, the wine industry in Arizona creates an estimated $56,178,643 in total economic output, creates an estimated 640 full-time equivalent jobs, and approximately $3.6 million in local and state taxes are generated from Arizona wine tourism expenditures, indirect effects and induced effects.
The study also found Arizona wine tourism is largely driven by in-state visitors, with approximately 58 percent of all Arizona wine tourists traveling from somewhere within the state. Wine visitors from the greater Phoenix and Tucson Metro areas comprise more than 77 percent of wine tourists originating from Arizona. Per the study, the Arizona wine visitor population is 600,000 visitors at Arizona wine establishments per year.
The wine experience
Visiting a tasting room can be intimidating if people aren’t familiar with wines or the wine industry, but Pillsbury says not to worry.
“When people walk into our tasting rooms, I want them to feel comfortable and relaxed,” Pillsbury says. “Wine has tended to become a refuge for people who make you feel inferior and make you feel like you don’t know enough about wine and they’re the experts. We won’t let that happen. I want wine to be something to drink and get pleasure from and have with food, share with your friends. It’s to be enjoyed. It’s a magical potion that tastes great and makes you feel good.”
Pillsbury says Willcox’s tasting rooms are inclusive and informative. Those who work in the tasting rooms pouring and selling the wines are involved in every aspect of the winemaking process: from picking the grapes, pruning and harvesting, to blending and winemaking.
“They know what we’re trying to achieve and why we’re doing it, and they can talk to people about that,” Pillsbury says. “I think it’s a way of educating about wine, which shouldn’t be a mystical refuge of a few experts. So I think you’ll find us friendly and open.”
“All of us at Pillsbury enjoy pouring wine for people and watching their face light up when they taste and sniff it. Watching them get great pleasure from it makes you feel good that you’ve made something people like. It’s a nice feeling making people happy.”
Baker hopes Willcox Wine Country will continue to boost Cochise County in the future through its ongoing development of tourism and economic strength. Willcox Wine Country has brought investment and some of the supporting infrastructure will come in time and people will follow, Baker says.
“I have seen an exponential growth in the wine industry in the last 10 years,” he says. “One of the great things about this ongoing benefit is that it preserves the hometown and rural lifestyle that Cochise County is. One can still get in on this industry here because it is so new and has reasonable investment costs. It is not very often that rural America gets an opportunity like this and I hope we embrace it for all that it can be for the generations to come. One of the vineyard owners said to me, ‘Having a vineyard takes old money and young enthusiasm.’ That is the hope it brings now and in the future.”
Where to eat in wine country
• Apple Annie’s Country Store, 1510 N. Circle I Rd., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-2084 or appleannies.com
• Big Tex BBQ, 130 E. Maley St., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-4423
• Ché, 1040 E Eastland Rd., Cochise, AZ 85606. 520-678-0241
• Isabel’s South of the Border, 135 E. Maley St., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-766-0859
• Tavern, 176 S. Haskell Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-3430
• The Rock Saloon and Grill at Triangle T, 4190 W. Dragoon Rd., Dragoon, AZ 85609. 520-586-7533 or azretreatcenter.com
• Tapas at Coronado Vineyards, 2909 E. Country Club Dr., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-2993 or coronadovineyards.com
• Tortilleria Taqueria La Unica, 142 N. Haskell Ave., Willcox, AZ 85623. 520-384-0010
Where to stay in wine country
• Arizona Sunset Inn, 340 S. Haskell Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-766-3400
• Beyond the Sunset B&B Inn, 457 N. Ironwood Court, Pearce/Sunsites, AZ 85625. 575-956-3345 or beyondthesunsetbedandbreakfast.com
• Cochise Stronghold Retreat, 2126 Windancer Trail, Pearce, AZ 85625. 520-826-4141
• Days Inn, 724 N. Bisbee Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-4222
• Dos Cabezas Retreat, 7101 E. White Pacheco St., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-507-1244
• Dream Catcher B&B, 13097 S. Highway 181, Pearce, AZ 85625. 520-824-3127
• Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 1251 Virginia Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-3333
• Hummingbird Ranch Vacation House, Rt 191 & Kansas Settlement Rd., Pearce, AZ 85625. 520-265-3079
• Quality Inn, 1100 W. Rex Allen Dr., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-6302
• Triangle T Guest Ranch, 4190 W. Dragoon Rd., Dragoon, AZ 85609. 520-586-7533
What else to see in wine country
• Amerind Museum, 2100 N. Amerind Rd., Dragoon, AZ 85609. 520-586-3666 or amerind.org
• Apple Annie’s Orchard, 2081 W Hardy Rd, Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-2084 or appleannies.com
• Chiricahua National Monument, Highway 181, Southeast of Willcox. 520-824-3560 or nps.gov/chir
• Chiricahua Regional Museum, 127 E. Maley St., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-3971
• Cochise Stronghold, Ironwood Road, Cochise, AZ.
• Fort Bowie/Apache Pass, Apache Pass Road, Southeast of Willcox. 520-847-2500
• Friends of Marty Robbins Museum, 156 N. Railroad Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-766-1404
• Historic Railroad Park-Willcox, 155 N. Railroad Ave., Willcox, AZ.
• Kartchner Caverns State Park, 2980 S. Highway 90, Benson, AZ.
• Muleshoe Ranch, 6502 N. Muleshoe Ranch Rd., Willcox, AZ. 520-212-4295
• Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum, 150 N. Railroad Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-4583
• Southern Pacific Willcox Train Depot, 101 S. Railroad Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-384-6034
• Willcox Historic Theater, 134 N. Railroad Ave., Willcox, AZ 85643. 520-766-3333
• Willcox Playa Wildlife Area, Kansas Settlement Road (about 3.5 miles south of Highway 186 intersection), South of Willcox.