The Small Town of Willcox and the Future of Southern AZ Wine

Willcox is a small town (about four square blocks of downtown and 4500 people) gradually remaking itself from “Cattle Capital of the World” into something hipper; the artisanal wine capital of southern Arizona.

Wilcox, AZ

This is a big deal for Tucsonians, and anyone relocating from California cities spoiled for choices in local wine. As one of the latter, The Wife and I moved to Tucson from a wine region that is responsible for approximately 90% of all wine distributed in the United States: think Gallo, Delicato and The Wine Group – all owning and shipping dozens of labels to every CVS, Kroger, and Whole Foods in the country. In addition, neighboring Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Calaveras, and Amador county are home to hundreds of small but thriving wineries of spectacular quality. If you visit family or friends in Northern California, I guarantee there are credible wineries for you to check out within twenty miles of any town. In some cases, these wineries are world famous. It’s not that we’re wine snobs, but we have been exposed to the art and craft of wine for decades. It’s hard not to learn something.

By sheer dumb luck, we’d been spoiled. When we considered our move to Tucson, it seemed inevitable that our wine habit would now be relegated to perusing the shelves of big alcohol stores like BevMo and Total Wine, and the occasional special dinner out. Shipping wine via wine clubs in the heat too often encountered by trucks hauling large quantities of materials to Tucson from California is a great way to receive some very damaged wine and/or really expensive vinegar.

Then we discovered that there were wineries in Southern Arizona.

Enjoying the three digit temperatures of Tucson’s summer season, we were a bit skeptical. It’s hard to grow anything in this heat. Grapes seemed like a poor fit. What we didn’t understand was the topography of southern Arizona. There is a lot of land in higher elevations. Higher elevations equals cooler temperatures, with the same endless summer sun. Cooler temperatures also create morning condensation. So dry farming grapes is entirely feasible.

The folks around the small town of Willcox believe its surrounding prairies are uniquely suited to this endeavor. Not only is the elevation higher, but the plains here have been traveled by buffalo, cattle, horses, sheep and even the odd goat herd for a very long time. What all these herbivores have in common is the ability to survive on whatever greenery exists, and the need to move that herbage out the other end… resulting in soil that is more fertile than the passing stranger might expect. In addition, their hooves have dug up that soil, working their nitrogen rich … um, excrement, into the ground.

Does this make for the kind of grapes that can be turned into amazing wines? Well, that was something we had to find out for ourselves.

So we drove an hour and twenty minutes south-east of Tucson to visit Willcox, its 3,551 souls, and 20 plus tasting rooms. If this seems like a disproportionate number of wine tasting locations for such a small town, I would agree. But the folks who live in the town and surrounding areas of Willcox have the kind of optimism, determination, work ethic, and vision necessary to make exquisite lemonade out of the driest of lemons.

We spent about four hours in Willcox, stopped at five tasting rooms, poured out a huge amount of quite credible wines to the surprise of the tasting room staff, and had an excellent plate of carnitas, chile rellenos, cheese enchiladas, rice and beans at Isabella’s South of The Border. Even the mildest salsa was quite spicy, but the beans and rice (food that are the benchmark of any Mexican restaurant worth it’s salt and lime) were tasty all by themselves. Add in chunks of perfectly seasoned beef, roasted poblano chilies with melted cheese, and you have a dish for the gods.

The fact that so many wines were credible wasn’t the real surprise. What surprised us was how many world class wines we ran into. There’s a little French wine maker at Copper Horse Vineyard that makes a Cabernet Sauvignon that will stand by itself against any competition, and would turn an ordinary meal into something you may never forget. The young enologist/owner of Strive turned out a full suite of quality wines, but her Cabernet Franc was exceptional. In fact, it may well be on my Top Five list for that grape. The fact that she has only been at this for a decade, and the wines we tasted were her first full production year tells me that she is one to watch, and invest in.

If you’re in the market for wine to cellar for a while, Birds & Barrels Vineyards puts out a list of high tannin reds that will only improve over time. The layered flavors of the Tempranillo would make an excellent companion to a plate loaded with a ribeye, buttered corn, and German potato salad, or a nice boeuf bourguignon. (a slow simmered red wine beef stew)

But the real winner for us was Keeling Schaefer Vineyards with its sophisticated tasting room, stunning art and huge range of wines. You can find it on Railroad Avenue, tucked in between a number of antique/junk stores (which were all, disappointingly, closed when we visited on a Saturday morning), just down the road from the little train depot. Out of fifteen wines we tasted, we bought six, and signed up for the wine club. For us, that is high praise. It means that we can consistently expect to find wines to make a dinner with other oenophiles special, or to take as a gift. It also means that we are looking forward to returning to taste the next generations of wines put out by their wine maker.

The little town of Willcox, AZ… like so many small enterprises, is just crawling out of the pandemic hole. But the spirit is alive and kicking, and the results will continue to be worth the visit.

The Willcox Train Station

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