COCHISE COUNTY, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The critical contributions made by Willcox's wineries to regional economic development and tourism have caught the attention of Cochise County officials.
Following a work session, where the Board of Supervisors met with a group of local vineyard owners, the county has agreed to explore ways in which it can provide infrastructure support to promote the growth of the industry.
With 75 percent of the state's grapes grown in Willcox, coupled with the increasing popularity of the area's tasting rooms, viticulture has become a key component of rural southeast Arizona's future economic success.
However, to attract more visitors to those tasting rooms located along the Willcox Bench, improvements need to be made to local roads, explained the vintners.
Dirt roads do not always appeal to tourists from urban areas, said Barbara Pierce, who owns Pierce Wines Arizona Inc with her husband Dan and runs a tasting room on E. Robbs Road, Willcox.
"These are not great roads for people coming from Phoenix and we often hear complaints from visitors who are not expecting the roads to be like this," she said. "We all put a lot of effort into making quality wines and into providing a great experience, but we only get one try with those customers."
According to a recent study by the Arizona Office of Tourism, the state's wine industry creates an estimated $56.2m in economic output, provides around 640 jobs, and contributes $3.6m annually in state and local taxes.
Of the visitors who go to tasting rooms, 43 percent stay the night in the region and are likely to have annual incomes of more than $100,000. More than 78 percent rated their tasting room experience as exceeding expectations.
"The wine industry has the potential to be the county's biggest economic driver," said Rod Keeling, of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards. "When I first started there were 100 acres of vineyards, and now there's about 1,200."
Keeling also pointed out that growing grapes requires significantly less water than other forms of agriculture.
"We probably use about a fifth of the water used by traditional crops," he said. "Water's a big deal here and expanding the wine industry will start to mitigate those problems."
After listening to what the wine growers had to say, county representatives, who also included Administrator Ed Gilligan and Highway & Floodplain Director Karen Riggs, talked about the possibility of chip sealing a one-mile stretch of Robbs Road.
However, with the amount the county can spend on road projects capped by state law, a public-private partnership needs to be explored, along with the potential for a road district.
Board chairman Ann English said she was impressed by the wine growers' willingness to come together to face their collective challenges.
"I think it's terrific that you are all participating," she told those attending the meeting at the Pierce-Bodega vineyard on Robbs Road. "It's important to create a community if you want to move forward."
The county will now explore its options regarding the funding of road improvements, along with the cost of installing signs letting visitors know there are tasting rooms in the area.
Added Pierce, "This is a wonderful area to promote and we feel we can bring people to Cochise County who might not have otherwise come down. Let's introduce them to all of the other things we have here."
The Board of Supervisors will hold a second work session on January 22 at 1:30 p.m. at a location to be determined.