Home Biz Scoop Arizona Wines: Pillsbury Winery in Willcox is worth the trip

Arizona Wines: Pillsbury Winery in Willcox is worth the trip

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Darla Hoffmann with Sam Pillsbury, a New Zealand native and owner of Pillsbury Winery in Willcox. (Submitted photo)

The movies have a lot in common with a good bottle of wine. For starters they both require a producer that is powerful enough to create an outstanding finished product for our personal enjoyment. This extraordinary finesse is what ultimately allows us to disconnect from reality for a few hours and devour what’s in front of us.

Sam Pillsbury, a New Zealand native and owner of Pillsbury Winery, is a film producer turned winemaker. As I take you through my visit at Pillsbury Winery you will see the similarities and operations of a brilliant mind.

Willcox is home to our state’s second American Viticultural Area and possibly the newest in the country. (Submitted photo)
Willcox is home to our state’s second American Viticultural Area and possibly the newest in the country. (Submitted photo)

Recently, I made the trip to Willcox, home to our state’s second American Viticultural Area (AVA) and possibly the newest in the country. The last stretch before reaching Pillsbury Winery is three miles of dirt road. Every passerby, and person caring for cattle or agriculture along that road waved to me, as if we all shared a common reason for being there.

The first thing I will tell you about Pillsbury is that he is an open book and his story is honest and true. He graciously gave me the tour of his property and shared the wondrous details of how it came to be what it is today. There was nothing growing on this land prior to his procurement. Pillsbury started with the vision and drive to create something really tremendous on this land. He is a colorful personality and knew he needed to generate ideas and clever ways to meet his own expectations.

“People from New Zealand are very resourceful. We will figure out how to make great things happen with the slimmest of resources.” said Pillsbury. His ability to find one-of-a-kind materials that stand up to some of the most premier equipment took me back to an episode of “MacGyver” and his trusty Swiss Army Knife.

Pillsbury didn’t start with the funds to build an elaborate high-dollar facility, but wasn’t going to compromise quality so he had to figure out what sources and elements would give him his desired level of production.

When asked how his filmmaking background relates to wine Pillsbury said: “A lot of filmmakers make wine. We like what’s complicated and challenging and there’s an element of bravery and fearlessness in both.”

It became apparent that Pillsbury is involved in every aspect of his own viniculture and viticulture practices.

“I always set high goals and work toward them. I want to make the best wines in the country” he said. A director will always be willing to do whatever it takes to rise to the top of the industry and produce a great final product.

Pillsbury houses his barrels in renovated shipping containers that were once the property of Stout Cedar Mill and were being used to preserve apples. He upgraded the insulation, installed windows and put a cool box in each unit. Each one stores nearly 60 barrels and plenty of bottles. I believe they are now making apartments out of these containers in downtown Phoenix. I’d be happy to bunker down in one of these.

Like making movies, growing grapes does not come without complications. The best at both have to be able to quickly address problems that arise during production. They must be able to identify problems and figure out the best way to fix them. That is precisely why Pillsbury decided to keep the concrete drainage ditch, that surrounds his property, intact. When you are in the business of growing agriculture of any kind you have to be prepared for challenging weather conditions. Even in the desert, we are exposed to frost and hail. Heaters and fuel can be costly and a danger of environmental contamination. The drainage ditch sits just close/far away enough to serve as the vineyard’s fire pit, and I hear it is quite the sight at night!

It’s harvest time and the team at Pillsbury was busy bringing in bins of grapes, sorting, destemming, crushing, and pressing. I watched as head winemaker James Callahan, also owner of Rune Wines, and crew were making magic on the crush pad. The days are long, the work is hard, and every second is critical at this point of the process. Yet, it seemed as though they were having a great time bringing the next vintage to life. Pillsbury clearly has a lot of respect for his team and is open minded to their opinions of the wines. He readily let us taste from the barrels to test the soon-to-be, and not-so-soon-to-be, released vintages.

In the movies there are always those unknown actors who show up in films and we think wow, who’s that guy? Pillsbury introduced me to an obscure grape called Symphony which is harmonizing beautifully with the desert heat and sandy soils. He also grows a lot of the beautiful, more familiar French and Italian varietals, like those Oscar winning actors we’ve seen in a hundred movies and hope to see in 100 more. Speaking of the Oscars, Pillsbury Winery is no stranger to winning. Pillsbury has won gold medals and has some of the highest scores for any Arizona wines. He was currently named Best Local Winemaker by Phoenix Magazine, voted Best Arizona Winery by Arizona Foothills Magazine, and named “one of the rising stars of the Southwest” by Wine Spectator Magazine. This year in 2016, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition awarded a Double Gold for Pillsbury’s 2013 Shiraz ‘Guns and Kisses’, along with a swag of silvers and bronzes.

Pillsbury is a Harvest Host so people can camp on the vineyard site in Willcox and purchase these delectable wines in the tasting room by appointment. He generously tells visitors to grab some fresh fruits and vegetables straight from his garden before they leave. Pillsbury came to life in 2006 and its wines are available in many restaurants and stores in the Valley. He does winemaker dinners and is open to private parties and events.

Some stories have no ending and this one leaves room for many sequels. There are visions of casitas for lodging, and a restaurant that will serve nothing but fresh food from the property. Not to mention we have those exciting new blends waiting for us in barrels. For now, I welcome the academy to check out the website www.pillsburywine.com and visit the tasting rooms in Cottonwood or Willcox, but be sure to stay tuned, this one’s a cliff hanger.

– East Valley resident Darla S. Hoffmann is a certified specialist of wine and the owner of About Wine. She offers wine education, tastings and classes. Reach her at 480-540-7555 or Aboutwine@mail.com. 

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