By Allison Brown
The Willcox Wine Country Partnership is traveling north to Downtown Phoenix to celebrate the Grand Canyon State’s vino with the Arizona Wine Festival on Saturday, January 29, and Sunday, January 30.
The event with the party atmosphere will feature 20 Arizona wineries and more than 150 wines.
“This is the biggest celebration of Arizona wine in the state,” says Rod Keeling, president of the Willcox Wine Country Partnership and owner of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards.
“Two years ago, we had a record number of wine tasters attend the festival. We are excited that festivals are once again being produced and we will have a chance to share our wines with everyone. This is our biggest event of the year and it’s wonderful to be able to share the story and evolution of the Willcox, Arizona, wine industry with so many people.”
Although it may seem rare, Arizona wine is plentiful. Experience Arizona Wine owner Mike Barnacastle says the state has 122 wineries and more than 65 vineyards that produce 1 million bottles annually.
In 2020, the festival had over 4,000 people, and Barnacastle says he expects to meet or succeed that again this year. Tickets are $30 to $45 and include admission, 10 tasting tickets and a commemorative wine glass. The tasting tickets can be used for a 1-ounce sample at any of the participating wineries. Additional tickets can be purchased onsite and bottles will be for sale.
Winery representatives will educate Arizona Wine Festival attendees and provide samples, Barnacastle says.
“Each winery will have its own booth that they will be serving from,” Barnacastle says.
“In many cases, this is the premier Arizona wine festival of the year and the winemakers make it a point to be here for this weekend. So, you’ll get to meet the winemakers and wine ambassadors and learn about each of the wineries’ operations, what their philosophy is for making wine and what they’re trying to do with their brands.”
Attendees do not necessarily have to be oenophiles. They can serve as a designated driver, watch the NFL playoffs leading up to the February 13 Super Bowl, or listen to music.
Barnacastle says there will be four or five food trucks, 10 to 15 artisan craft vendors and dozens of artists. Vendors will include cheesemakers, chocolatiers and artisan crafters with soaps and candles.
“I’ve got somebody who takes wine bottles, smashes them, melts them and makes things out of them,” Barnacastle says. “I’ve got a guy from Double Barrel AZ who creates furniture and things out of old wine barrels. I’ve got a gentleman from Blue Steel Builds who does metal artwork.”
Barnacastle has been involved in the Arizona wine industry for the last 20 years. He recalls when the state had about six wineries.
While there might be tasting rooms in Phoenix or Tucson, Barnacastle says Arizona’s wine grapes are grown at high elevation that ranges from 3,500 to 5,000 feet. He says there are only three American viticultural areas (AVAs) in Arizona, which are designated wine-growing regions defined by a variety of factors like the proper soil, temperature and weather conditions.
The largest of those areas is Willcox, where 75% of Arizona’s wine grapes are grown, Barnacastle says. Willcox’s Carlson Creek Vineyard will appear at the festival. Owner Robert Carlson says his winery was established in 2009 and is now the third-largest vineyard in Arizona at 320 acres.
Carlson Creek also has tasting rooms in Willcox, Scottsdale and Cottonwood. Carlson says the winery benefits from the festival.
“It attracts a lot of attention and a lot of traffic,” Carlson explains. “We have a tasting room in Old Town Scottsdale, so we usually consider it — other than a good sales day —good marketing year-round. People who weren’t aware that we have a tasting room usually follow up and go check it out. You really can’t try everyone’s wine at the festival. You wouldn’t be walking out afterward.”
Carlson suggested tasting his Rule of Three blend and their first sweet rose.
Sonoita Vineyards is the oldest commercial winery in Arizona, having opened in 1983. In the Sonoita Appellation AVA region, the vineyard will have a booth at the festival. According to Lori Reynolds, the third-generation winemaker for Sonoita Vineyards and granddaughter of the company’s founder. She is “so excited” to return to the wine festival.
Cella Winery will make its wine festival debut, according to owner Micah Spencer. Founded in 2007, the winery changed ownership near the end of 2020. Cella Winery stands out because, for one reason, it’s in Kingman.
“We’re at around 3,200 feet elevation and a little bit warmer,” Spencer says. “So, you know, it gets over 100 degrees in the summertime, so it’s good for growing red varietals in this area.”
He suggests trying Cella Winery’s zinfandel and malbec.
Whether a wine connoisseur or just trying it out, Barnacastle says there’s something for everyone.
“Come out and have fun,” he says. “We have a whole world of wines to expose people to and teach people about. The wineries are excited to get back out and share what they’ve been working on. So, we have a lot of new vintages, blends and wineries that are going to be there that are excited to get to meet the residents of Phoenix.”
What: The Arizona Wine Festival
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, January 29, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, January 30
Where: Rosson House at Historic Heritage Square, 113 N. Sixth Street Phoenix
Cost: $30 to $45