A proven marketing model is helping the Verde Valley ride out the economic tide on a wave of wine. “We have seen the sales of wine at local vineyards double over previous years’ sales,” said Lana Tolleson, president/CEO of the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce. “No other business has achieved that kind of success.”
“In a troubled economy, consumers start looking closer to home for their products. We see [the wine industry] as a magnet,” said Tom Schumacher, a founding member of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium. The demand for local wine is demonstrated by the growing number of Flagstaff and Sedona restaurants serving Arizona wines. Pesto Brothers in Flagstaff recently hosted an Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and Page Springs Cellars wine dinner that packed the house.
Cottonwood was hit hard by the economic downturn two years ago. “Construction was one of our biggest industries,” lamented Tolleson. But the community turned to other of its lesser-recognized industries: tourism and wine.
In five-year economic development study, wine rose to the surface as a sustainable economic solution. Casey Rooney, economic development director of the Cottonwood Economic Development Council (CEDC), explained, “We uncovered tasks that have to do with sustainable living in the Verde Valley. One of the goals that came out of the study was to support the local wine industry.
“Wine is an economic development engine,” said Rooney. “It’s one of those things that, in a down economy, is doing really well.”
So in June 2008, the Verde Valley Wine Consortium was formed under the auspices of the Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization (VVREO, pronounced VeeVee-Rio by locals). The VVREO is made up of Sedona, Cottonwood and other community business and government leaders.
A Three-legged Stool: Sustainability, Education, Marketing
Verde Valley Wine Consortium members include wineries, growers, industry personnel, educators, regional developers, local governments and support businesses. They aim to foster a culture of sustainability, promote educational programs, and market the region.
“Participation has grown exponentially; every time we get together, there are more people. There is excitement … there are seven wineries and peripheral businesses that are growing around it. In a time when our economy is down, it’s really exciting to see something good going on in our community,” said Rooney.
“This is not just about Cottonwood, Camp Verde or Jerome; we’re all working together on this miraculous wine industry. We’ve got cities working with cities, and agencies working with regional groups. And no one is tripping up the other.”
Rooney stresses that efforts are to support the wine growers. “They are the people that are producing the jobs; they are the ones that put us on the map.”
With a collaborative effort of local and state agencies, government and private business people, the Verde Valley Wine Trail was born.
The Proven Marketing Model
“We started the wine trail effort with a TEAM Grant from the Arizona Office of Tourism. We hired AZ Communications, which won the Governor’s tourism award,” explained Tolleson. In 2008, the AZ Communications concept – Arizona’s Salsa Trail of Graham County – won the prestigious Governor’s Tourism Award for Innovative Promotions.
The Salsa Trail, a union of thirteen restaurants, a tortilla factory and a chile farm, spreads across Graham, Greenlee and Cochise counties, into the towns of Safford, Thatcher, Pima, Solomon, Duncan, York, Clifton and Willcox. Each restaurant is familyowned and operated.
“Mike Finney of AZ Communications saw great similarities between the Salsa Trail communities and our Verde Valley communities,” said Tolleson. The Website for the self-guided tourism trail was launched last August.
“The proven model was taken from a culinary experience and brought to a wine experience, which includes the family farming components that are growing in Cottonwood,” said Finney. “During a time of cutbacks, the program is thriving through public and private efforts.”
As the wine trail increases visitation to Sedona and the surrounding area, Flagstaff and others in the region should see increased traffic as well. According to the 2009 Flagstaff Tourism Survey, “Flagstaff serves as a hub for visitors to Northern Arizona… especially Sedona.” 64.5 percent of visitors to Flagstaff have visited or plan to visit Sedona.
Visitors come up to Flagstaff from the Verde Valley. The survey reports that one in ten visitors to Flagstaff stayed in Sedona and surrounding areas the night before. Jessica Stephens of the Flagstaff CVB points out that visitors are encouraged to stay the night in Flagstaff and make the Verde Valley a daytrip: “We promote the area in our 5-Day Explorer guide.”
Sedona visitors reported that 12 percent spent the previous night in Cottonwood and five percent spent the night in Flagstaff in a 2007 Verde Valley Tourism Survey.
Roll Out the Painted Wine Barrel
Tolleson divulged that the group would soon be rolling out a new element of the marketing campaign: painted wine barrels. “The project will pay local artists to paint barrels, similar to the painted javelina project in Sedona. This will be a way that local businesses that aren’t related to the wine industry can be part of the wine trail and help promote it. The painted barrels will be displayed at businesses. At the end of the campaign, they will be auctioned off and the proceeds will go to the Viticulture program at Yavapai College.”
Yavapai College is a leader in the state for offering viticulture and enology classes. The Verde Valley campus carries the weight of the educational leg of the sustainable wine stool. “Students come from Prescott, Phoenix, Sedona and Flagstaff. Classes are filled and we’re turning students away. The next step is to make it a full-blown degreed and certificated program,” said Schumacher, also the Yavapai College Verde Valley Campus executive dean.
“People come and want to support the local small businesses, the foundation of our economy,” said Schumacher. “And we have infrastructure — resort complexes, hotels and activities — to support it in the Verde Valley.” FBN