It’s an early Saturday morning, and Main Street in Old Town Cottonwood, Arizona is quiet. We have an appointment with Sam Pillsbury, who has been gracious enough to meet us at his tasting room before the start of a busy day. Sam is a casual sort of guy, full of energy and excitement. You can tell he’s a creative individual just by spending a few minutes in conversation with him. Sam is someone that Paul and I can relate to. We’ve been fortunate to have had a diverse life together from owning America’s Oldest Country Store, to almost buying a country inn in Maine, to being a sous-chef at an exclusive country club, to running several Internet businesses and producing this online wine magazine.
So when Sam told us about his life, from being a New Zealand and a Hollywood film writer and producer (over 25 movies, 12 documentaries and several commercials), to working as a building contractor, to being an art collector and now a wine maker, we felt we were with a kindred spirit! Sam’s passion for Arizona and the wines he is producing resonates from the twinkle in his eyes and in his animated gestures as he talks and walks around the tasting room. He speaks in quick sentences, closing his eyes as if envisioning what he is talking about, moving from one topic to another; all with the same infectious enthusiasm and energy.
He walks around the tasting room, showing us some of the posters on display from his film days. And then there’s the art; a talent that abounds in his family; all diverse in form and subject matter. There are works of art from his sons, his mother-in-law, his father-in-law, and artwork that he has personally collected over the course of his lifetime. Each piece is as different and eclectic as Pillsbury himself. Born in Connecticut, Sam and his family moved to New Zealand where he spent most of his adult life. While in New Zealand, he saw the beginning of the wine industry there, got the wine bug himself, and even purchased acreage with the intention of growing grapes and producing wine sometime in the future. When his film producing career brought him to Los Angeles, the New Zealand wine dream was put on indefinite hold.
Although Los Angeles was where he worked, Sam fell in love with Arizona and purchased a home there. On a camping trip to Montezuma Well, Sam saw the sunset hitting the limestone cliffs and with the light hitting at just the right moment, he noticed grape vines growing along the stream. At that moment, Sam was inspired as he realized that grapes could grow in Arizona. It’s truly about the place that makes the wine, he said, and the place that he wanted to start a vineyard was in Arizona. He told us that people thought he was crazy; but in the year 2000, Sam planted his first 20 acres of Rhone varietals with a hunch that the high altitude, the sandy soil, the sunshine, and the dryness of the desert would make the perfect terrior for growing grapes.
Sam told us that there are many parallels between the film and the wine industries. Both require a lot of planning, a lot of time, favorable weather and lots of money. They both also require a lot of marketing to become successful. Sam seems to manage his wine career as successfully as he did his film producing career. Pillsbury Wines are now sustainably produced on over 100 acres of land near Sam’s original vineyard in the Kansas Settlement. His vision of producing boutique wines made with 100% Arizona grapes has become a reality and has earned Pillsbury several awards and accolades from wine critics. As for marketing, he tirelessly grants interviews, does wine tasting events in even the most rural areas (so that everyone has a chance to experience Arizona wine), pours wines at fairs and festivals, and can be seen chatting away in his tasting room when he’s not overseeing his vineyard and wine making operation.
Sam believes that drinking wine is just a part of the whole experience. He feels that wine should be enjoyed with family, friends and food. The words he uses to describe his philosophy are holistic, art, food, wine; all interconnected to create the whole experience. The wines that Pillsbury produces are reflections of his own diverse character. He makes drinkable, approachable and balanced wines to enjoy with a variety of foods – wines to enjoy every day such as Wild Child Red, a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Zinfandel, with cherry aromas, hints of peach and soft tannins; and wines to just savor and sip such as Symphony, a hybrid cross between Granache Gris and Muscat that is very dry and aromatic.
You would think that all of this would be enough of an accomplishment. But Sam is not ready to stop and has an abundance of plans for the future of his wine company as well as the future of the Arizona wine industry. He believes that the value added crop potential in Arizona is phenomenal and that Arizona has the potential of becoming a notable wine destination. Pillsbury is an industry influencer, working with some of the most respected people in the Arizona wine industry and beyond, to help market this emerging industry well beyond Arizona’s borders. As for his own plans, a second tasting room recently opened on his vineyard estate in Willcox, Arizona off Kansas Settlement Road. It is housed in a rustic home on the property. Sam, utilizing his background in construction, has transformed the building into a tasting room, complete with works of art from his personal collection.
An organic garden is in the works and future plans call for a sustainable wine village with solar-generated guest casitas, winery, spa and restaurant using food organically produced on the land.
Before we knew it, an hour and a half had gone by and we were still talking about the wine, food, the Arizona wine industry and an assortment of other topics. Not wanting to take up any more of his time, we thanked Sam and headed for the door where the first of many wine tasting patrons were heading inside. If it’s the place that makes the wine, we’re certain that Sam Pillsbury has found his place.
Cottonwood Tasting Room
1012 North Main St.
Cottonwood, AZ 86326
Willcox Tasting Room & Vineyard
6540 S Bennett Place
Willcox, AZ 85643
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