The Verde Valley is now officially an elite wine-producing community.

The United States Treasury Department’s Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau made the formal announcement in December, declaring the Verde Valley an American Viticulture Area, or AVA. With those three letters, the Verde Valley – and its 19 wineries and 25 tasting rooms – moves into the rarified air of distinctive and established wine-producing centers.

“It’s the next big step for our region,” said Yavapai College’s Michael Pierce. As director of YC’s Southwest Wine Center, a foundational force in Viticulture studies, and a mentor to many in the local wine industry, Pierce says the AVA designation is a win on many levels. “It’s federal recognition of what’s going on here. Our area is recognized as being geographically distinct for the type of wine grapes it produces. It’s a benchmark in Arizona history.”

Earning the Label

The U.S. Government recognizes only 260 American Viticulture Areas in the country. Most are in California, (though Southern Arizona has another two, in Willcox and Sonoita). AVAs are defined as grape-producing regions where a unique blend of climate, topography and soil composition produce wine with a distinct taste and character. “The conditions are definitely distinct here,” Pierce said. “At 3,800 feet, we’re the lowest elevation of the Arizona AVAs. Because we’re in a temperate zone, we have good photosynthesis for the sugars. And because we’re surrounded by Mingus Mountain and the Mogollon Rim, we have broad temperature swings and cool nights, which make for heartier skins and more color and flavor.”

Though the land and its wine were certainly worthy, earning the AVA designation required years of work; a dense, data-driven proposal and the teamwork of a young wine community that relied heavily on the Southwest Wine Center.

The process began by defining what the Verde Valley was.

“The term ‘Verde Valley’ has been broadly used to describe the area. But it was never strictly defined.” Pierce explained. “We had to map it on USGS maps, study elevation lines, and identify exactly where it is and isn’t. We had to actually carve out a spot, say ‘this is it,’ and have the federal government say, ‘yep.’”

Five years of detailed agricultural and scientific data were also required, to verify distinct climate and soil characteristics. The application process was led by the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, a trade organization promoting and connecting members of the Verde Wine Community, in partnership with the SWC.

“The VVWC submitted the application, and the Southwest Wine Center worked closely with them to piece it all together,” Pierce explained. “It was written on a table in the tasting room of the SWC.” Supporting efforts like these, Pierce says, is what the Southwest Wine Center was created to do.

“This is just what we wanted: a community hub where things like this can get done. Just about every wine-related business here has a touchpoint at the SWC.” Southwest Wine Center alumni fill the vineyards, tasting rooms and retail outlets across the Verde, raising the level of craftsmanship and creating a community bond. “Winemaking here is a small community and it really feels like a family. Everybody helps each other out and works together.”

Spreading the Word

December’s announcement has drawn the attention of the international wine community, put the Verde Valley in the realm of celebrated regions like California’s Napa Valley and Sonoma County, and made 219 square miles in Northeastern Yavapai County “the heart of Arizona Wine Country.”

The next step, Pierce says, is to spread the word.

“Wineries are just now submitting new labels. We have a committee already working on websites and a logo. This designation will raise our profile and illustrate that the Verde Valley has wine every bit as unique as anything in California and Southern Arizona. That’s good for winemaking, for tourism, and for the community as a whole.”

While international recognition may be in the offing, Pierce says that, for now, he’d be happy with a bigger reach into the Arizona market. “You don’t have to get on a plane to go to Wine Country anymore.” He said. “Come on up from Phoenix and have lunch.”