Local Willcox-Area Winemakers Smile from Inside Their Shared Tasting Room

Desiree Gerth, left, co-owner of Strive Vineyards in Willcox and Mark Phillips, right, winemaker for Golden Rule Vineyards of Cochise Arizona, smile from behind the bar at their shared tasting room inside the Willcox Commercial building.  

WILLCOX— The Herald/Review recently had the opportunity to get a taste of what a shared wine tasting room located in the historic 140-year old adobe Willcox Commercial building had to offer.

During that tasting, Golden Rule Vineyard of Cochise Arizona winemaker Mark Phillips was on hand to talk about his background in wine and his personal winemaking process.

“I went to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, down in Central California, and I studied wine and viticulture there,” Phillips said. “I didn’t have to work very hard, honestly, but I learned a lot more by actually working then I did actually going to school for all of it. I just think that kind of background knowledge, like chemistry and what not, really helps with all of that stuff.

“Then I worked on the central coast for a couple years. I was working over at Justin (winery) out in Paso Robles. A friend of mine who I worked with at Justin started working for Aridus, which is another winery out here.

“He was a dentist, actually, who wanted to get into wine. He started working in Scottsdale. He started doing the sales for Aridus. Then he asked me if I wanted to come out for an interview and then I did.

“I did not think that I was going to take the job. Then I just started tasting the wines and I was like, wow, there’s so much potential here, I should get on his bandwagon right now. I moved out here in January 2016 and I started working for Aridus.”

His Aridus tenure was shortlived, and Phillips moved to Willcox and began working for Golden Rule as the winemaker. His first vintage was 2016.

“I never thought I’d be here making wine in Arizona, but life takes you down these paths,” Phillips said.

He bought the Willcox Commercial building on behalf of Golden Rule around 2018 and has been working on growing the popularity of the taproom inside the building.

“It’s been nice,” Phillips said, “just to be part of a town that’s small and you can have more of an impact on what actually happens, too.”

To Phillips, winemaking is a lot like cooking.

“I’m actually a really good cook and that’s part of the reason why I got into wine,” he said. “I worked at a nice restaurant when I was 16 and 17, but it’s just a terrible lifestyle. The way I make a wine is kind of like the way I cook. I think of a wine as not just Zinfandel. I think about it as, OK, I have to make all of these different components. So I’ll make Zinfandel several different ways and then blend them all together. That’s how I make food.

“I think about all the different components. About textures and acid and salt and savory and sweet and spice. How all of those things compliment each other to give you something that’s really well balanced.”

The company has weathered the pandemic well. Other than being closed for a period in March, the business has been on track and done well with online sales.

Golden Rule has an email list of 1,500 people. About 250-300 are in the wine club and receive shipments from the vineyard twice a year.

“I honestly went into crisis mode,” Phillips said about the pandemic. “Started in March, I didn’t know any of this was going to happen, but we’ve already beat our sales for 2019, already at this point by a pretty wide margin.”

Phillips had to deal with a hike in the price of glass for bottles besides the pandemic, but kept on working.

“There’s no choice,” he said. “We can’t not make wine. The grapes are there. So we have to push through. The thing is the 2020 vintage is not going to be drunk until 2022, 2023, something like that. So I’m always thinking years in the future. I’m just thinking that by the time this wine comes out everything is going to be different, but more normalized.”

A partnership grew at the tasting room. Strive Vineyards recently got its liquor license approved by Willcox’s city council and moved into the facility with Phillips. Strive is a vineyard in Willcox, owned by husband and wife Ryan and Desiree Gerth.

The Gerths are Wisconsin natives and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates. Ryan is a full-time pharmacist in the Willcox area.

Ryan had a sister who went to college in southeastern Arizona, so he and Desiree used to visit her. They liked Arizona and moved to Scottsdale after Desiree’s graduation.

The Gerths were driving around Willcox wine country and Ryan asked his wife, “why aren’t we doing this?”

The Gerths moved to Willcox two years ago to start growing their vineyard.

”We started developing wine,” Desiree said. “So it’s been a full-time job with getting everything up and running. I’ve just been working over at Golden Rule with Mark, so little by little it’s taking perspective.”

The name Strive comes from “facing lots of challenges,” and Cab Franc is their “flagship grape.”

The Willcox winemaking has led to a collaboration with the University of Arizona Extension Program.

“We actually work a lot with the University of Arizona Extension Program,” Phillips said. “They do a lot of educational seminars here for the wine industry. We also do research projects with them. They don’t have a Wine and Viticulture program there.

“The crop science and soil science and horticulture. Those are the majors that actually do a lot of research for us around here. That’s been a really good relationship for everybody. For them and for us.”

The future holds hopes for more wines and vines.

“We want to grow the downtown tasting room, one at the vineyard at a later time and, of course, our wine,” Desiree Gerth said. “We’re always trying to look for a better way of doing things, interested in innovation. Trying new ways to use less water, add efficiencies.

“It’s a new industry, so we just have to let things grow a little bit at a time.” Phillips added.