The Sawmill Fire came within 8 miles of Sonoita-Elgin earlier this week, but its economic effects were starting to burn a hole in the profits of the wineries and vineyards dotting the vibrant heart of Southern Arizona’s wine country.
The wineries lost more than half their customers early this week after the blaze forced Arizona Department of Transportation officials to close State Route 83 off Interstate 10 on Monday, nearly 24 hours after the blaze sparked on Sunday.
ADOT reopened the road on Thursday afternoon to cheers from vineyard operators who were bracing for a catastrophic drop in business this weekend — one of the final gasps of spring before business drops off for the summer.
“This is really, really good news,” Flying Leap Vineyards founder and President Mark Beres said moments after ADOT reopened the main road into Sonoita off Interstate 10. “Almost two-thirds of our sales come on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. … Getting it reopened for the weekend should do us good. I’m hopeful.”
ADOT spokesman Tom Herrmann said there will be speed restrictions along Route 83 and possible lane changes while crews repair the guardrails burned in the blaze.
On Thursday, Beres said the closure had cost him 70 percent of his customers earlier in the week. The winery at 342 Elgin Road in Elgin usually sees between 40 and 60 people on weekdays, and nearly three times that on weekends. On Wednesday, just six people came into the winery, he said.
With Route 83 closed, visitors from Phoenix and Tucson had to detour nearly an hour out of their way, taking Interstate 19 to Nogales then cutting over on Route 82 through Patagonia. Another alternative: cutting through Benson.
Kelly Bostock made the trek from her Dos Cabezas WineWorks in Sonoita on Wednesday through Patagonia to get her son to Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson. She came back via Benson.
“It took me four hours round trip. It was brutal,” said Bostock, who with her husband Todd owns the winery at 3248 Highway 82.
With the road open, the drive on Friday should take about 45 minutes.
A shorter commute is not the only reason Bostock was breathing a sigh of relief that the road reopened. Like Beres, she worried that the closure would devastate sales on what is usually her busiest day. An average of 100 people a day come into Dos Cabezas on Saturdays and Sundays, she said
The 40,000-acre Sawmill Fire was still active Thursday afternoon, but ADOT’s Herrmann said unless it regains strength and threatens Route 83, the road would remain open.
Even with the road open, Sonoita-Elgin wineries could see business slow down this weekend, said Beres’ neighbor Kent Callaghan.
“Any time this happens … it just shuts everything down for a while,” said Callaghan, the owner/winemaker of Callaghan Vineyard at 336 Elgin Road. “Just the idea that people know there’s a fire down here even when it’s over they tend to shy away. I don’t know if they’re thinking about it or what. It’s just one of those things.”
The fire could not have come at a worse time for the wineries, which depend on spring revenues to get them through the summer slow down. Business usually begins to drop off in mid-May.