Standing in the Southern Arizona boonies, unable to hand-pick grapes due to a pounding monsoon rainstorm, Willcox grape grower Sam Pillsbury smiles.
“I took a lot of ribbing from others in the industry but I went ahead and planted a vineyard in the middle of the (Arizona) high-country desert and we’re making really great wine here on a shoestring budget,” said Pillsbury, owner and winemaker of the Pillsbury Wine Company.
Harvest in Arizona wine country began the first week of August in lower elevation vineyards. Pillsbury began picking in early August at his developed 30-acre vineyard near Willcox.
Hoping to reap up to 65 tons of fruit this year (45 tons last year and 24 tons the year before), he remains cautiously optimistic about rain and hail possibilities, saying, “After all, this is farming.”
Pillsbury comes to the industry in a rather circuitous route - from a boyhood in New Zealand to a career as an independent filmmaker. A Connecticut-born Yankee who grew up Down Under, he witnessed the phenomenon of growing classical wine grapes in unusual places.
While on a camp out in Arizona, Pillsbury figured he could try the same thing here.
In an effort to get away from mass-produced wines and create a distinctive regional boutique beverage, he picked a 4,300-foot elevation in the desert valley in Cochise County to make the magic happen.
Starting with 20 acres in 2000, he gambled that the high-altitude, sandy loam soil, and endless sunshine would make a winning product - 100 percent Arizona and 100 percent original.
Within short order, he earned the sobriquet “Best Local Winemaker” from Phoenix magazine, was lauded by Arizona Foothills Magazine as “Best Arizona Winery,” and Wine Spectator termed him “one of the Rising Stars of the Southwest.”
While Cochise County has more acres of wine grapes than any other county in Arizona, a typical yield is about three tons per acre generating about 150 cases.
Pillsbury now produces between 2,400 and 2,800 cases annually from a grape grow-out that includes Syrah, Petite Sirah, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Grenache, Viognier, Malvasia, Mourvédre, Symphony, and Roussanne.
Until now, Pillsbury has produced his wines through other crush facilities, but took a leap of faith by breaking ground on his own in-house operation. While he describes the prefab metal shed enclosing an existing barn surrounded by jury-rigged refrigerated trailers as looking like something out of the movie “Mad Max,” Pillsbury says the winery allows him to handle all production processes on site.
“Six weeks ago, none of this was here,” he says. “This year, we’ll crush our grapes and those from the Kent Callaghan vineyard nearby and we’ll tackle crushing for others at a future date. I don’t want to load things up too much on our virgin flight.”
At work by first-light as part of a normal 16-to-18-hour harvest day, Pillsbury flitted from job to job as he talked with Western Farm Press.
“One-third of our 100 total acres now houses trellised varietal vines with eleven varieties – six acres of Shiraz; two, four-acre blocks of our own propagated Mourvedre, and some splits of Chardonnay, Symphony, and Malvasia,” the grape grower said.
“There are a couple of three-acre sites with a Grenache clone and Voignier, and a one-acre block of experimental bush-trained Petite Sirah vines.
“I grew up with Shiraz and Cabs and thought at that time that they were the ultimate, until I tasted a white in the south of France and learned differently. I stood on the deck of the winery, sniffed the bouquet, and took a sip. It gave me goose bumps,” said Pillsbury.
“I closed my eyes and could feel the wind blowing and the birds singing. The taste wasn’t the usual robust masculine, but a kind of gentle feminine that spoke to me. I said to myself - I’m going to make this myself one day. And now that dream has come true.”
Pillsbury found his Arizona location in 2000 and initially planted several acres of Rhone varieties and this year expects the two biggest varieties (Shiraz and Voignier) will produce half of the total yield.
“I’m not planning on planting new acreage for a while. Even though land, water, and labor are cheaper here, it costs about $24,000 an acre and 7-10 years to break even, so it saps the pocketbook.”
“That’s one of the reasons many of us grow a lot of different varieties, looking to find what will work best. Despite the expensive infrastructure, growing wine grapes for a good rate of return over a long period of time is a no-brainer.”
Pillsbury’s grapes are grown organically but are not certified.
“It’s better for the soil, better for the grapes, and better for the wine,” he said. “I don’t need an organic stamp on the label. I do it because it’s the right thing to do and the wine tastes better.”
Pillsbury added, “What I passionately care about is making uncompromisingly fine wine - not picking overripe fruit and throwing it in new oak. I’ve been committed from Day One to make product with only Willcox-area fruit for specific regional wines. There’s enough generic in the world and I want to do something with a distinctive profile that I can say is 100 percent original.”
Pillsbury’s vines are grown either on their own roots or the drought-tolerant stock 1103 Paulson (1103 P). The main reason is for its use is the tiny, pale, yellow sap-sucking phylloxera pest, related to aphids, which feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines.
Thankfully, phylloxera is not a major pest in this region as it dislikes sandy soil.
“Frankly, there’s really no need to use rootstock in Arizona. I find my vines are more healthy and robust if they’re on their own roots.”
Leaf-eating leafhoppers were found in a small corner of the vineyard and Pillsbury took care of them.
“We’re clean where we are and are careful to stay that way.”
Turning to water, seasonal rains help Pillsbury’s 14,000 plants. Drip irrigation – one emitter on each side of the plant - promotes even root growth through and delivers one gallon of water per hour.
How does Pillsbury’s wines compare to those of his California brethren? He stays politically neutral.
“In Arizona, there’s been a tendency to slant in the direction of quality, balanced-nuance wines that pair well. I’d rather produce a more subtle, graceful kind of wine than be the biggest bugger in town.”