Mark Phillips inside future home of second tasting room for Golden Rule Vineyards

Mark Phillips, winemaker for Golden Rules Vineyards of Cochise, stands inside the former location of a Chevrolet dealership dating back to the 1940s.

WILLCOX — Mark Phillips, winemaker for Golden Rule Vineyards in Cochise, provided the Herald/Review with a walking tour of his winery’s newly purchased property along Haskell Avenue.

The property was once the home of a Chevy dealership dating back to the 1940s. The signage is still visible.

Golden Rule plans to turn the property into a second downtown tasting room and production facility.

Phillips explained how his winery had to go through an assessment for the property before any sort of offer could be made to purchase the former Chevy dealership.

“Originally what happened (was) we wanted to buy this building,” he said. “We knew that we needed another place to have a winery. Our accountant said, ‘I’ve seen other properties like this that turned out to be toxic and a huge liability. So you should probably get an assessment.’

“It was like $14,000-$15,000 just to see if we could buy it. Then we started asking around and it turned out the county was more than willing to support us.”

EPA assessment

“When we did determine the application process we had to pitch it, basically,” Phillips said. “I sent it over to Dan Coxworth in Cochise County. He’s the guy who does the environmental programs here for this county.

“So he was one of our advocates. Big picture, though, is that Willcox didn’t have any applicants. So that is why we probably got better priority. My pitch the other day when we were talking at the (Downtown Revitalization Planning town hall) meeting is that Willcox needs to be applying for more things, when we actually got this site assessed.

“There are many different sites that are already identified as already actively on the EPA’s radar or ones that are likely ones. So we have a pretty strong list to start off with within the city’s works. So that’s kind of how it all started.”

Phillips said they got the money needed for the assessment through a Brownfield Grant, which provides money for potentially toxic-site inspections. Phase One of the assessment came back inconclusive.

Golden Rule could not get a mortgage loan without an environmental assessment. After the site was certified as clean after a second inspection, an offer was made to purchase the building.

Phillips said: “Originally when I was part of that Browfield Grant application process it was Dan Coxworth from the county who said that ‘also municipalities can apply for most of these grants.’ He said ‘you should probably encourage to apply for a grant and stuff.’ It was already on (city manager) Caleb (Blaschke)’s radar, too. We were already on the same page.

“It’s not like the idea came from me, but we just happened to be working on the same thing at the same time. It was through Dan that I got a lot of things pushed through.”

Need for expansion

“For me, my winery right now is way too small for any growth,” Phillips said. “We’re already more than maxed out right now. So for us to move to the next level, we’re going to need to have some additional space. So this property for me was part of a two for one.

“We’re doing about a hundred tons a year right now. Which is a pretty good amount, but we can’t really make money until we get to three hundred-four hundred tons.”

Original Plans

Carlson Creek Vineyard owned the property with the intention of turning it into a winery, but plans changed. Phillips convinced Carlson to sign off on the assessment because he knew Golden Rule wanted to buy it.

Why this property

“For me personally, I know I have to be conscious about how things look,” Phillips said. “I think it works for us, because I want to have a good relationship with the city and it’s something that the city wanted. So I just feel like whenever we do something, I want to have (it be) a win-win situation for everybody. No one feels like they’re cheated and everybody feels like they’re getting something out of the partnership.

“So I think that this building is going to work for all of us.

“It’s right on Haskell and it’s really important for me to encourage the development of Haskell Avenue because it helps with the development of tourism. People drive through Willcox and think it’s abandoned and it’s not.

Plans for the Property

“I’m on the Cochise Community fund. It’s part of (the) Arizona community foundation. They do nonprofit funding and stuff like that. Through that I was talking with some people about a few things like we really want to buy this building.

“We’ve had some problems.

“This (old Chevy dealership) building was built in 1948 and I think (it) references the great style, very nice midcentury modern style,” Phillips said. “It’s not on the National Historic Register, however I think it probably could be as new.

“The intention is to put a tasting room in (the front of the building). Our winery (will go) in the back section. We’re going to have our fermentation rooms. They (are) going to be mostly used during the harvest period, August, September, October.”

All becomes quiet in the winery’s off season, but Phillips would like to schedule indoor events in the building, which he believes could accommodate a crowd of 150.

“That would be really nice,” Phillips said. “Again, I want to utilize the property for more than one thing. It functions as a winery for us, but it also is a tasting room that we could use for other events, then engage with the community a little wider, too. The potential is there.”

A potential project is to make the area an outdoor urban district with extra parking and trees. Phillips said people such as Greg Hancock of the Sunset Inn and Dana Suorsa of Source of Coffee are involved in the concept.

“Just to make it more welcoming,” Phillips said. “A little bit more pedestrian friendly. I think the biggest pitch that Willcox has is that it’s a small walkable town in a big rural area. So if we want to do events and stuff like that, we want to encourage people to stay where they can walk and don’t have to drive. I think we can expand the size of the events, because there’s just a lot more hotels here in town.”

Seeking visitors

“For me it’s about the first impression that one gets of Willcox and I remember my first impression six years ago,” Phillips said. “I want to just make sure that other people don’t have exactly that same impression. Many things have changed in the last six years and I think that Willcox has been investing in making the town a lot better. There was just a lot of abandoned buildings.

“That was a big problem, but the city has really gone forward and has been helping clean up the town. I just think that we just need a few more investors to come in here, and really once you start doing one project other people will start feeding back into the area.”

A plus for Phillips is Railroad Avenue, which represents an old history rail district, and Haskell Avenue, part of the former “Devil’s Highway,” that went to Bisbee and up to Tucson.

“Willcox needs to be more than just for wine,” Phillips said. “I think it needs to have more amenities as well, but someone has to start. We’re going to start and we hope that other people will be encouraged by that to invest in the city. I think you need to start with what you have and build upon it.”

While Golden Rule has targeted March for the opening of their new winery and tasting room, Phillips doesn’t expect that it will be functional as a winery by next March.