It’s impossible to tell the story of Yavapai College’s Southwest Wine Center without telling Lisa Aguilar’s story – and vice-versa. The two are intertwined and Lisa – a 2017 Viticulture & Enology graduate – wouldn’t have it any other way. “This is an incredible place,” she says, looking out on the vines and the Black Hills on a recent visit. “I remember showing up here, as a student, at 5 a.m. You have to get a lot of stuff done before it’s really hot, and only so much time to do it. But you look around, and you’re in awe. I felt like, ‘I think this might be it. I think I might have found it.’”

‘It’ is that elusive blend of satisfaction and purpose that we all seek. Lisa has pursued it from the corridors of corporate design to the tidy confines of tasting rooms to the fertile soil of the SWC vineyards. And she has learned and taught a lot along the way. She is an artistic spirit, a foundational member of the Southwest Wine Center and Yavapai College’s 2024 Verde Valley Campus Alumni of the Year.


A fork in the road

Before the ascendance of Northern Arizona’s wine industry – when ‘wine country’ meant Napa and Sonoma, and the Southwest Wine Center was still a racquetball court, Lisa was already a successful Commercial Designer, with an 18-year career behind her ... and a fork in the road up ahead. “I was burnt out. With commercial design, you don’t turn it off at five. I was constantly thinking about it, constantly traveling – and not as fulfilled as I once was.”

At the Thunderbird Arts Festival in Carefree, Lisa discovered Arizona’s wineries. Inquiries led her to Nikki Check, then-director of YC’s Viticulture program. “I asked, ‘What do people do in Arizona’s wine program? If you get a degree, what happens?’” Lisa and her dad, Bill Anderson, started taking classes in 2013. They became part of SWC’s foundational class, taking courses, planting vines, creating the building blocks for a great teaching winery.

“It didn’t feel like it then,” she recalls. “At the time, we’d tell each other, ‘We grow rocks really well.’ But we learned everything: how to lay out a vineyard, site prep and vineyard installation.” The lessons didn’t stop there. Lisa and Bill joined forces with local entrepreneur Bill Smoot to open Prescott Winery that same year. Soon, she was General Manager for the Prescott Winery while studying Viticulture & Enology and working in the vineyards and the SWC Tasting Room when it opened. “My favorite thing was seeing how people reacted to the wines, and the stories behind them.”

Despite the enormous workload, Lisa thrived. She was named Viticulture & Enology’s 2015 Student of the Year. Lisa and Bill had parted ways with Prescott Winery by the time they graduated in 2017. But the experience showed Lisa her design skills could be useful in the world of wine. “The whole industry is a big design problem,” she laughs. “You have the business side: Grape growing, winemaking, business finance management, branding and communication of brand. It’s about balancing all these elements together.”

Those elements came together in 2018, when Lisa had the opportunity to return to YC, as the Tasting Room Manager at the Southwest Wine Center.


Becoming a wine ambassador

“I never really aspired to be a Tasting Room Manager. I always thought I would be in a vineyard, or a cellar or designing tasting room spaces.” As Manager, Lisa became an ambassador/spokesperson in the cozy haven between the winery and the vineyards. “There aren’t a lot of what I call ‘Trifectas’ in the Verde Valley – production, vineyard and tasting room all-in-one. We have something unique up here.”

The tone she set was unique, as well. “I don’t hold with the pretension that sometimes comes with the wine industry. What I loved was engaging with the people when they would visit.” All visitors who opened the SWC’s big iron door received a friendly and enthusiastic welcome, rooted in the joy of creating wine. “We’d talk about the fruit grown at the YC vineyard, winemaking and our program.” Lisa met people at their level of expertise and stoked their curiosity. “I loved creating those experiences. Watching people enjoy wine, without stressing out about it. Because wine is a beautiful thing. It’s ceremonial and meant to be shared.”

Lisa served as SWC Tasting Room Manager until 2022, when another fork in the road beckoned. Now – as she divides her time between helping her husband run his restaurant and pursuing her Champagne Masters certification – Lisa has returned to the Southwest Wine Center as a wine education workshop facilitator, doing the kind of outreach she loves.

“I facilitate workshops now. Bite-size, two-hour non-credit sessions with the community. Session One is a more expansive version of the educational wine-tasting, called ‘The SWC Experience.’ Session Two. ‘Tasting Around the World,’ is more about the grape: Origin, history, typical winemaking styles.” It’s designed to draw the enthusiastic and the curious, the same way she was drawn to the vineyards ten years ago.

“What I’m doing here really lights me up,” she says. “My goal is that, through these community workshops, others will want to take Viticulture and Enology program courses and begin their journey into the vast world of wine. It truly is a lifelong educational journey.