The Southwest Wine Center, owned and operated by Yavapai College in Clarksdale, has in just 10 years grown from a 1-acre field to a 13-acre productive vineyard that offers students hands-on educational experiences in all aspects of the winemaking business.
That growth has positioned the wine center as a premier fully functioning and profitable business within the college. Growth has been so dramatically successful that the college administration has authorized program expansion.
During 2020, the center has produced 2,400 gallons of wine — 1,000 cases of quality and award-winning wine in 13 different varieties and 27 distinct styles.
That resulted in $175,000 in wine sales revenue for the college. Those funds are used to support and expand the program.
Michael Pierce, director of viticulture and enology at the college since 2014, said not only has wine acreage and production facilities grown, so have enrollments. When the Southwest Wine Center first started, just a few students enrolled.
“They had no idea what the future could be in the wine industry in this area. Now, we have more than 100 students enrolled in all phases of viticulture and enology. Some students seek just certificates. Others seek associate degrees, which require at least 63 credit hours.”
The age for those enrolled this fall does not parallel that of more traditional students. Instead, Pierce said the average age is 48.5. Students are involved in all phases of the wine industry. Many have become vineyard managers, winemakers, tasting-room associates, wholesale distributors and marketers. Some have even started their own wine businesses, Pierce said.
Expansion a Natural Consequence
Because enrollment growth and interest in the program has been so intense, Yavapai College President Lisa Rhine, the governing board and the administrative staff have given the go-ahead to add a second fermentation track in brewing technology in the near future.
Rhine said, “The viticulture and enology programs at SWC on the Verde Valley campus are two of our signature programs. To be able to provide such unique programs to our community that has embraced the wine industry is outstanding.”
Presently, 10 part-time and two full-time employees work at the wine center. More likely will be hired.
Before joining the staff at Yavapai College, Pierce and his father earned degrees from the Washington State University viticulture and enology program. Pierce’s family currently operates a vineyard in southern Arizona, and he remains partially involved in that business.
Pierce said the wine industry throughout the Verde Valley is thriving and gaining both national and international recognition. He said the Southwest Wine Center vineyard, positioned as it is on the north foothills of Mingus Mountain, is perfect for the wine industry.
The land altitude — some 3,000 undulating feet — and year-round weather conditions and fertile soil are ideal to grow grapes, he said, and he anticipates major expansion of the industry.
Recently, the college received two major grants to support the program. One was from the National Science Foundation to help buy equipment and the other from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. They will be used for an analytical study of wine grapes and what is required for soil, water, climate, and other agrarian factors.
“I’m especially gratified that Arizona and, in fact, the western region of the nation, has finally discovered us,” Pierce said He emphasized the larger Verde Valley community has cooperated in helping plant vines and pick grapes. He praised financial contributions from residents and the wine industry that supported program growth.
Pierce said the area has become a destination for thousands of people who come to Verde Valley and Red Rock country. They help create visibility and appreciation for the many wineries in the area, he said.
The Southwest Wine Center started with the donation of 1 acre from Merkin Vineyards a bit over a decade ago, Pierce said. He praised The Verde Valley Wine Consortium and Tom Schumacher for initiating the concept from the beginning.
Dr. Tina Redd, Verde Valley YC campus dean, talked about the differences between wine from Arizona and wine from the Willamette Valley area of Oregon. Redd, who lived in the Northwest, described wine from that region as “soft, calm, mellow.” In contrast, she said Verde Valley wine is “bright, crisp, spicier.”
Pierce said the growing season in the Verde Valley is shorter in Arizona than in Oregon and Washington. However, not as much sunlight bastes the Pacific Northwest, he said.
Several wines created at the Southwest Wine Center have won state and regional accolades for excellence. This year, students created a barbera in a tawny port style. Two years earlier, they developed some distinctive port styles such as tempranillo, petite sirah, and a fortified malvasia blanca. A Sept. 2 article in The Arizona Republic cited Pierce and his students for creating a distinctive port.
The center, at 601 Black Hills Drive, Clarkdale, is a fully accredited and licensed facility. The Tasting Room offers options from many of the award-winning crafted wines. It is open Thursdays to Sundays from noon to 6 p.m., reservation only. More information is available at www.southwestwinecenter.com