Rep. Paul Gosar, the two-term lawmaker who represents central and western Arizona, and Maynard James Keenan, the Grammy-winning and platinum-album selling rock star who happens to be the hands-on winemaker/founder of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, can't say enough about the wine coming from the high-desert land here.
“Northern Arizona, particularly the Verde Valley, has the right climate to make some very interesting wines, and when you combine that with the natural beauty of the red rocks, the running creeks and rivers, the western vistas, and Arizona hospitality, it’s a recipe for success! I can’t wait to watch as this industry continues to develop over the next couple years,” said Gosar, whose official website is peppered with imagery of the valley and references to its viticulture efforts. Keenan is counting on such sentiment, as his roots in the Verde Valley grow. His mission statement reads, in part, "My art and music has been described as 'thick, dense, rich, complex, engaging, emotional, and spiritual,' by those who are fans. And an 'acquired taste' for those kind others who are not. Arizona is 'thick, dense, rich, complex, engaging, emotional, and spiritual,' as well as being an 'acquired taste.' We are a match made in heaven and surely these qualities will be reflected in the wine that Arizona will present to us."
In addition to his Caduceus and Merkin labels and their attendant vineyards, he has tasting rooms here, in nearby Jerome and Clarkdale; supports Yavapai College's nascent viticulture program, the Southwest Wine Center in Clarkdale, and founded wine cooperative Four Eight Wineworks and co-founded Arizona Stronghold with fellow area winemaker Eric Glomski.
His efforts with Glomski were chronicled in the documentary movie "Blood Into Wine," which, in addition to oneophiles and chamber of commerce types extolling the power of the vine, got a little star power from the likes of Milla Jovovich and Patton Oswalt, fans of Keenan's music and now his wine.
Among other fans? How about Wine Spectator, which has praised many of his Caduceus efforts, and the 2013 Arizona Republic Wine Awards, which were rotten with Keenan's wines, including gold medals for his 2012 Merkin Vineyards white blend "The Diddler" and his 2011 Caduceus Cellars VSC Cabernet Sauvignon.
Gosar, too, is looking at this corner of his district and sees serious efforts under way. Last year, the Arizona Wine Growers Association, in conjunction with Wine America, arranged for vineyard visits by members of Congress who represent winemaking regions.
The partial government shutdown last fall put the kibosh on most of those efforts.
The visits had been scheduled for the week of Oct. 12, but members were marooned in Washington during a scheduled recess so they could hash out a solution to the shutdown. Gosar, though, made sure his chief of staff, Tom Van Flein, went in his stead, to Alcantara Vineyards, located between Cottonwood and Camp Verde on the banks of the Verde River, the heart of the Verde Valley.
"These vintners are true stewards of the land and are taking land that had marginal economic value for other purposes and turning it into an industry. And in the process they are branding the Verde Valley as a top location to visit when in Arizona," Van Flein said of his visit.
According to the Arizona Wine Growers Association, the state produced 181,328 gallons of wine in 2012, the most recent statistics it has and a doubling of production over the previous year. That's spread out over three distinct regions: the Verde Valley, which is largely in Yavapai County in the middle of the state, Santa Cruz County in southern Arizona, and Cochise County, in the southeastern-most part of the state. The AWGA estimates that wine tourism brings in about $37.6 million in economic activity to the state. Indirect business taxes provide about $5.9 million in taxes.
It's still an industry in its infant stage, though. In 2000, there were only 9 bonded wineries. That number had jumped to 43 in 2011 and now stands at 87.
Here in the Verde Valley, the Wine Growers peg the economic impact at $25 million and estimate the industry employs 124 people. That's not nothing for a region that only a few decades ago was almost entirely dependent on copper mining and cattle ranches. The mines are gone, and many of the ranch lands are now housing developments. Winemaking, though, helps keep the Verde Valley's agricultural heritage intact while helping attract tourism dollars.
"Cottonwood is all about wine," said Patty King, director of the AWGA. "It's such a huge part of what Cottonwood is, an important part of what Cottonwood is today." Ten years ago, Old Town Cottonwood was a mishmash of long-time small store fronts, vacant properties, bars and government buildings.
Now wine tasting rooms for Arizona Stronghold, Burning Cellars, Pillsbury Wine Company, as well as The Wine Cellar and wine-heavy Rendezvous in Old Town anchor the strip of Highway 89A that snakes its way through the Verde Valley. With the wine has come the likes of Bocce, a Neapolitan pizzeria with a bocce court and outdoor fire pits, Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders and Orion Artisan Bread.
Will it all stay relevant, not just to tourists, but the state's congressional delegation? "I think we are on their radar," said King, noting Van Flein's visit. It's a home-grown, small business story that appeals to Republicans and Democrats alike. Rep. Ron Barber, the Democrat who represents Cochise County, told CQ Roll Call, "I spend a lot of time in Cochise County and know well the people who are making this area an increasingly popular destination. As a former small business owner, I am committed to helping the wine industry grow and thrive in Cochise County.”
The Arizona Wine Growers Association is primarily focused on state legislative efforts to grow the industry, including investing in the Southwest Wine Center.
For the business owners like Keenan and Glomski, whose Page Spring Cellars in Cornville is a short distance from one of GOP Sen. John McCain's picturesque old homes, perhaps the business path ahead will be one that develops organically. As Keenan sings in "The Green Valley," a Puscifer song:
Weigh your worth before her majesty, the Verde River. No direction but to follow what you know, No direction but a faith in her decision, No direction but to never fight her flow, No direction but to trust the final destination. You're a stranger til she whispers you can stay. You're a stranger til she whispers that your journey's over. www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpowRlovorU
Clarification: April 7, 2014
This post has been updated to reflect more accurately Gosar's district lines.