COTTONWOOD – The red rocks of Sedona drew Steph Houser from Bloomsburg, Pa., to the Verde Valley. Then a tip from a friend, a brochure and a little curiosity led her to a winery.
Glass of white wine in hand, she strolled the grounds of Alcantara Vineyards, accompanied by her husband and mother-in-law.
“We were actually surprised to find vines here,” said Houser, sipping from her glass. “I like the wine – not too sweet, not too dry.”
The Verde Valley has for long been a tourist destination, luring visitors like Houser to Sedona, parks featuring ancient American Indian dwellings, the ghost town of Jerome and other attractions. But only recently has wine become a draw in its own right.
The wine industry in the region that includes Cottonwood, Sedona, Camp Verde, Jerome and surrounding towns has burgeoned in the last six years. Alcantara is among several dozen vineyards and wineries in Arizona, most of them in the north.
Winemakers here know the area might never rival Napa Valley, but they intend to establish it as a destination for wine lovers.
With a matching $15,000 grant from the Arizona Office of Tourism, the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce started a Verde Valley Wine Trail campaign in 2009 to promote wineries and vineyards, including a brochure guiding tourists to the locations.
“We use the wine trail as a hook, but through that we market the whole area,” said Lana Tolleson, the chamber’s president and CEO.
The organization also recently launched Painted Barrels, a public art promotion that encourages visitors to seek out 40 painted wine barrels featured at different businesses in region.
These efforts are already paying off.
Wine was one of the few local industries that grew during this recession, with at least 258,000 people visiting Verde Valley wineries last year, according to a Northern Arizona University survey.
Wine tourists, averaging 46 years old and $88,000 in annual income, spent about $70 on wine per party directly from Arizona wineries, the survey found.
“With those two demographics, there’s a lot of strength in the market,” said Thomas Combrink, the survey’s leader and a senior research specialist with NAU’s W.A. Franke College of Business. “They’re young and will continue to have that spending power for some years.”
Of the $23 million spent directly at Arizona wineries last year, $18 million was in the Verde Valley, and with a multiplier effect the industry injected $38 million to Arizona’s economy, the NAU survey found.
The Verde Valley’s success as a wine-growing region is attributed to its terroir, a French term describing favorable characteristics such as the area’s altitude and its soil, which is both volcanic and rich in limestone.
Alcantara Vineyards owner Barbara Predmor spent three years looking for her terroir.
“This is a perfect little micro-climate,” she said. “While it’s hot, the grapes are producing sugar, and then they’re allowed to rest during the night.”
The vines take five to seven years to mature but can stay in production up to 100 years.
Tom Pitts, president of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, said since 2006, when Arizona liberalized its alcohol laws, the area has attracted experienced wine growers who have invested in developing quality wines and distinctive varieties.
“The true wine connoisseur is not just looking for the same thing; they’re looking for something special,” he said.
Pitts, who also owns a restaurant in Jerome, said local wines have improved the quality of dining in the area and helped revitalize Jerome and Old Town Cottonwood with wine stores and tasting rooms.
“It’s become a mecca for food and wine-tasting,” Pitts said. “Without the wine, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Tolleson, with Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce, said the wine industry is an economic driver for the Verde Valley, employing 124 people directly and many more in related businesses.
The Wine Consortium and the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce have partnered with Yavapai College to start Arizona’s first certified viticulture program.
“We see it as not just a tourism component but an economic component,” Tolleson said.
For Arizonans, Tolleson hopes this wine region will be an escape.
“During the summer, Flagstaff is just a natural place for people to go to, so we’re just trying to make people aware that we’re here and we’re not as far away,” she said.
Elvina Nawaguna-Clemente is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.