Wine from Arizona? Indeed!

The Well-Fed Foodie


Willcox Wine Renaissance 

Thanks to a small group of passionate people, Southern Arizona wine is making its mark

From the moment we pulled off the main road heading toward Coronado Vineyards, we knew there was something special going on.

We first noticed a large building with a sloping, reddish roof, with the sun creating a golden glow on its walls. Then, the lush, well-tended rows of vines came into view. There was also a lone pine tree that looks as though it has been there for decades. We found out later that they call the tree El Pinito. A rendering of it can be found on several of the labels for wine produced at this charming vineyard.

Owners Jacque and Mark Cook opened Coronado Vineyards in November 2006. They've developed a reputation for outstanding hospitality and for producing some excellent wines.

Willcox is about a 90-minute drive east of Tucson on Interstate 10. With a population of just more than 4,000, this once-thriving farming community has seen better days. But now, thanks to people like the Cooks and others, Willcox is making a comeback. About 15 wineries are in various stages of development, and tasting rooms allow visitors to sample a wide range of wines at reasonable prices.

Both of the Cooks were raised in farming families. Mark grew up in the Willcox area, where his family still runs a pistachio ranch, and Jacque grew up in Chandler, where her family grew cotton. Their daughter, 9-year-old Kennedy, whose personality is as bright as her sun-bathed blond hair, is growing up much the way her parents did, only with grapes instead of nuts or cotton.

The Cooks met at the UA, where Jacque earned a degree in agricultural management, and Mark graduated with a degree in agronomy.

It was Mark's expertise with pistachios that got the Cooks started in the wine business. Mark was hired to help with the startup of the pistachio industry in Argentina. There, he befriended a woman whose father was an important player in the Argentine wine industry. He spent three years there, with Jacque visiting as often as possible. "That was our first introduction to the process of owning a winery, making wine, growing grapes, that kind of thing," Jacque said.

They wanted to give winemaking a try, especially because they knew that Willcox, with its long growing season, warm days and cool evenings, would be an ideal spot to grow grapes.

"We have nice long, hot summers, but yet we cool down in the evening, and we knew that that was really good for the grapes. We get these big temperature swings where the skins thicken up and they color, and that's what gives you the nicer quality of wine," Jacque says.

Mark estimates that between 75 percent and 80 percent of wine grapes grown in the state come from Cochise County.

The winery building itself was the clubhouse for a golf course that went bust awhile back. By the time the Cooks stepped in, it was nothing but a shell: no wiring, no plumbing, no walls.

But they've turned it into a lovely space, with a spacious tasting room, a charming gift shop stuffed with wine-related items (including Coronado wines and pistachios from Mark's family's ranch) and a dining room.

The dining room is small, but big picture windows allow for great views of the vineyard, making the room seem larger and more open. A patio holds more seats. Once the sun begins to set, the patio tables fill up with locals enjoying an upscale dinner. The restaurant is open evenings on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday.

The tasting room has a large horseshoe-shaped bar where you can choose from among 12 Coronado wines, including Dolce Veritas, a sparkling sweet wine that won a gold medal in a competition held by the Arizona Wine Growers Association.

Maintaining a vineyard, like other farming, means dealing with the vagaries of Mother Nature. One year, rabbits found their way into the vineyard and decimated the vines. The next year, it was deer. "The vines didn't have a leaf on them until Memorial Day," Mark recalls. Recent dry weather has also created challenges. But that's part of life running a vineyard, and the Cooks understand that.

The grapes grown at Coronado include cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, syrah, riesling, chenin blanc and malbec. The Cooks produce everything from sweet rieslings to a lovely syrah and a deep, rich cabernet sauvignon. According to Jacque, their sweet wines are also quite popular in these parts (a sentiment that was echoed by the people we talked with at other tasting rooms).

"We have such a diverse list of wines on our tasting sheet that you can come in here and, no matter what kind of wine you like, you can generally find something that you like," Jacque says. "That's been our philosophy since we opened: to create a quality product with a wide range of flavors."

Traveling through the area and talking to people in the wine business, it is obvious they all hold a deep respect for one another.

"We have the best relationships," Jacque says. "We all have a similar philosophy. Give your customers a quality experience. Make a quality product to offer and treat each other with respect."

The sun is casting long shadows now as it dips in the western horizon. As promised, the temperature drops, and we take a walk through the vineyard behind the main building. Close up, the vines are nothing short of beautiful. The long, neat rows of vines are shored up with tight wires, which according to Kennedy, collect snow during the occasional winter storm. Lush, bright green and veined, the leaves are nearly as big as my hand. They protect the huge clusters of the still-green grapes, which will turn purple-red come fall.

The Cooks have created something interesting here. A visit to Coronado Vineyards is warm and welcoming, fun and relaxing. The setting is gorgeous; there's great food; and you get to enjoy some truly great wines. Could you ask for more?


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