WILLCOX — Pioneers in the Willcox wine industry discussed their origins, while newer wine owners spoke of possibilities.

The Willcox Wine Country Partnership held a roundtable of owners and winemakers Friday.

Winemakers and vineyard owners at the roundtable included: Mark Jorve, Rod Keeling, Dan Pierce, Robert Carlson, Mark Jorve, Mark Phillips and Sam Pillsbury.

Bob Webb, who was the pioneer of Willcox Wine and owner of the first vineyard in Willcox, was also present, as well as Dr. Mike Kilby who is a former professor and extension specialist for the University of Arizona.

Collectively, the roundtable attendees agreed that the richness of Willcox wine was the direct result of the quality of the locally grown grapes. One of the main contributing factors of the rich grape production is that the Cochise County area doesn’t receive a large amount of rainfall. The less water falling naturally on the vines means that the grape production depends on the water regulation of the farmers — in short, there is very little chance for overwatering, and the farmers can create the perfect water conditions for a sweet crop.

An added benefit of the Willcox location is the fact that the area does not suffer from insect pestilence or root rot.

“We not only have the benefit of high desert, which minimizes the predators and the types of disease that can happen, but these winds blow the place clean. We have low humidity, no significant rot issues, a super clean environment. We don’t have to use pesticides, and it makes fabulous wine,” Pillsbury said.

“I started my winery in 1980 — May 15, 1980,” Webb said. “I never thought about what it was going to be in 40 years; I was trying to make my fortune in the next two years. But this area, of all the areas in Arizona, I think, is the primo area for premium wine raising is in Sulfur Springs Valley. Because if a kid from Douglas can win 17 international medals, a really professional guy could win 110 professional medals. It’s the grapes that make it. You cannot make a good wine without a good grape.”

Although the winery owners who were present at the table readily admitted that the Willcox wine business is small in comparison to the wine business in California, they did say Willcox wine was growing. Currently, there are 11 wine-tasting rooms in the Willcox area.

Of all the positive situations that went with the growing local wine business, the one negative was the fact that without the expanding of the Willcox wine marketplace and publicity, it is difficult for the wine business to be sustainable.

“We’ve got to expand our footprint in the marketplace. One of the issues we have is that $1.5 billion worth of wine is sold in Arizona every year. And our percentage is what? It’s less than half of 1 percent,” Keeling said. “So our footprint, our market share, is a big deal, and it’s very, very small. And that’s why each one of us has to keep that in mind. How do we make this work? How do we attract more investment in the region, how do we make more money for ourselves and keep our equipment refreshed?”

“We just have to get it (Willcox wine) on people’s lips,” Pierce said.

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