Just under 4,000 people — give or take — call Willcox home, but in two weeks, that number could nearly double.
That’s when the town of Willcox will host its seventh Willcox Wine Country spring festival. Three-thousand people turned out for the fall festival in October.
“It’s a wonderful event, and it has a lot of room to grow,” said Alan Baker, executive director of the Willcox Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the event in partnership with the Willcox Wine Country cooperative.
The economic impact to the small town off Interstate 10, about 70 miles southeast of Tucson, is staggering. Baker estimates visitors over the May 16-17 weekend will pump $3 million into the community, filling the 140 or so hotel rooms and packing the handful of restaurants, which experience their busiest time of the year.
“The weekends of the festival are in the top busiest weekends for us,” said Jeff Willey, who owns Big Tex Bar-B-Cue, 130 E. Maley St. “With the smell of the barbecue smoke and everything going on, we can get a crowd. But we can put out food really fast. We are really prepared for it. We put on extra staff for those weekends.”
Big Tex and its sister restaurant, Isabel’s South of the Border across the street at 135 E. Maley St., are ideally located at the corner of Maley and Railroad Avenue — right on the margins of the festival traffic. The avenue is closed to vehicles and wineries put up tents to offer tastings and sell their wine.
A few wineries including Flying Leap Vineyards, Carlson Creek Vineyards, Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards and Aridus Wine Company have converted old buildings, some dating back to early last century, into rustic and refined tasting rooms.
Roughly 60 percent of the people who attend Willcox Wine Country Festival are from the Phoenix area, said Rod Keeling, president of Willcox Wine Country, a marketing co-op comprised of nine Willcox wineries and vineyards that is marketing the region as a wine destination. Keeling also is president of Arizona Winegrowers Association, the organization that supports wineries statewide.
“We have people come from California and you always have the outliers who say they are from Minnesota,” said Keeling. “But the primary group comes from ... the north side of Phoenix all the way down to El Paso.”
The remaining 40 percent come from Tucson, an area that Willcox Wine Country is trying to court through marketing efforts that include advertising on billboards and in print media, Keeling said.
Although not required, the wineries represented in the festival all have ties to Willcox, from operating vineyards and wineries in the region to growing their grapes there, said Keeling, who owns Keeling-Schaefer Vineyards in Willcox. The Passion Cellars winery from Jerome, for example, purchases the bulk of their grapes from Willcox growers. Passion Cellars recently acquired 80 acres on the Willcox Bench — a wine-growing region beneath the Dos Cabezas Mountains.
Roughly 80 percent of the wine grapes grown in the state come from the Willcox area, said Keeling, who said the popularity of the region’s wine business has started to pay off. Five years ago, he was lucky to see a handful of people visit his Willcox tasting room. These days, he sees as many as 100 on weekends.
“It’s been slow, but we are making progress,” he said.
Thomas Ale Johnson and his wife Kim love wine.
They also love art.
The couple, Phoenix transplants to southeastern Arizona, have married both loves in one business: Trust Art & Design.
Thomas does the design — and a bit of the art under the name Xymyl — while his wife manages the art side of the business, representing regional abstract artists and curating shows of their works in wineries including Flying Leap Vineyards tasting rooms in Tucson, Bisbee and Willcox.
“We’ve always done art with wine. So we’ve partnered with wine people because we love wine,” said Thomas Johnson, who has designed wine labels for a number of Willcox wineries including Zarpara, Sand Reckoner and Deep Sky. “We had been drinking Dos Cabezas (from Sonoita) wines since 1997 so we had been telling people abut Arizona wines for years.”
The couple’s business is based in Willcox, but they have no permanent gallery. In addition to shows at Flying Leap, they also exhibit at Coronado Vineyards and at pop up exhibits and art galleries around the region, said Johnson, 45. They also have held shows at wine tasting events with Arizona Hops & Vines in Sonoita and Kief-Joshua Vineyards in Elgin, he said.
The Johnsons have been affiliated with the festival since its beginnings, organizing the first events through their organization Wines of Willcox. The couple lives in Sunizona, halfway between Douglas and Willcox.
Johnson said he and his wife, 43, wanted to live in a rural setting that was worlds removed from the bustle of Phoenix or Tucson.
“We love it. We kinda got too compressed by Phoenix.”
The guy or gal pouring the wine hands you the glass.
This one has chocolate and strawberry notes and a hint of oak beneath a bouquet of roses, they tell you.
You take a sip. It’s good, but how the heck do you distinguish between notes and hints and an earthy finish?
Tali Aflague boils it down to three simple rules:
Fruit. Earth. Wood.
It’s her rule of FEW.
“Fruits should be a pretty obvious thing to look for in wine,” explained Aflague, a Tucsonan who spent nearly two years working the tasting room at Flying Leap and years before that working in the restaurant industry. “Is it like yellow apples like chardonnay or is it strawberries like grenache or blackberries for shiraz?”
Earth might be a little trickier to distinguish.
“Just kind of think of it as inorganic, like a mineral. Or an organic substance like a mushroom or like dust. I think our Southern Arizona wines do have a nice earthy quality to them,” said Aflague, who passed the level one exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers, which certifies sommeliers in the United States. She is debating continuing on with the course work toward her sommelier certification, although she no longer works in the wine industry.
Then there’s wood, and that comes through with the subtle taste of oak that you find in most red wines.
“Pretty much all red wines are going to see some oak, and the degree of oak used is up to the wine maker and is a personal decision,” she said, adding that in addition to red wines, you also will taste oak in chardonnays.
White wines that take on a golden hue also have hints of oak.
“In your red wines, if you smell something like vanilla or bourbon, that’s going to be some oak coming through to you,” she said.
Along with FEW, Aflague suggests you follow these steps to get the most out of tasting wine:
- Make sure you have a deep enough glass that you can swirl the wine at the bottom. “You want to get some oxygen to interact with the wine before you smell it.”
- Stick your nose deep into the glass “and get a nice, big inhale. If you’re outdoors, you maybe put your hand on the top of the glass to trap the aromas. Inhale; stick your nose in it. Don’t be afraid. Get a nice big inhale. Get two or three. Your sense of taste is limited; we can only taste five things on our tongue. But we smell thousands and thousands of smells. So smell is the first thing to pay attention to before you start tasting.”
- Sip, don’t slam. This is not a shot. It’s an experience to be savored. “Definitely savor it. Take a medium, medium-small sip and savor it and see if what you smell comes through to your palate. ... What you first perceived with your nose could change, and that will be an interesting experience.”
In the end, you may not distinguish strawberry notes in your grenache or the oaky undertones of a well-aged red.
Not to worry, Aflague said.
“It’s like developing a vocabulary or learning a language,” she said. “You don’t learn a language by reading a book, then speaking it. You have to practice. It’s a fun practice. It’s a fun thing to study.”