Sam Pillsbury, owner, and winegrower at the Pillsbury Wine Company comes from a background of filmmaking and screenplay writing in New Zealand – a far cry from the winemaking world in Arizona!
We talked to Pillsbury to find out how he made the jump into making award-winning wines and what’s coming up next for Pillsbury Wines.
CRUSHBREW: You have a pretty unique background in the entertainment industry. Can you tell our readers a bit about it?
SAM PILLSBURY:I fell in love with movies in high school and college in New Zealand, largely through Film Society screenings: Fellini, Truffaut, and Bunuel. I loved the wit and lyricism of Truffaut, and I think Fellini’s La Strada is probably the greatest movie of all time.
When in college, I started writing film reviews for the student newspaper, and I ran the college film club, where I raised the funds to buy a 16mm Bolex and started shooting black and white film.
It suddenly became obvious to me that’s what I wanted to do. The day after I got my MA I flew to Wellington and talked one of the only film producing entities in the whole country, the NZ National Film Unit, into hiring me. I worked there for five years and then started my own film company (in a place with virtually no film industry).
I was kind of lucky, because the first documentary I made was a huge hit, and then the first feature I made (wrote and directed) was the first NZ feature to get into the Cannes film festival.
CB: How did you get involved in the wine industry and do you think your background helped you in any way when setting up the Pillsbury Wine Company?
SP: I have always loved wine, and many years ago I started trying to figure out how to get started. Funnily, the same teacher who got me interested in movies did so with wine as well! I actually bought vineyard land in the ’80s in NZ but my work took me to Los Angeles, and I had to drop that project.
CB: How did Pillsbury Wine get its start and why did you decide to get into wine making?
SP: A movie project brought me to Phoenix, where I met my current wife. So I started noodling around Arizona looking for land possibilities. In NZ, the land I had bought was in an unlikely place, Waiheke Island, that turned out to be a brilliant place and now hugely expensive. I stumbled on a wine from remote Cochise county made from a little vineyard in this remote place. It was the most amazing chardonnay I had ever tasted. I shot down there the next day, bought 40 acres next to this vineyard and went into partnership with Al Buhl, the owner.
People thought I was nuts, but I had seen this happen before. We planted 20 acres of rhone varieties there in 2000, the same year Saturday Night Live claimed one of the best 10 ways to lose money was to plant a vineyard in Arizona! I laughed… THAT was how I managed to but 40 acres for $400/acre!
Now over 70% of AZ wine grapes come from this place, and the land is now around $7000/acre.
In 2006, Al and I sold the vineyard to AZ stronghold and I started Pillsbury Wine Company across the road, on 100 acres I had purchased. I now have 14,000 vines on 32 acres, and we built our own winery on the property in 2014.
CB: Your wines have won some pretty impressive awards, including gold medals. Any particular one you’re proud of?
SP: Well, I Am delighted with the awards. But I always joke that I had thought the two occupations would be so dramatically different, and they turned out to be the same. It’s an incredibly long and expensive process. The critics love your least impressive work and ignore your best. My favorite wine never gets awarded, it’s medium bodied and just gets buried by the big reds.
Like film reviews, it doesn’t bother me at all. I just use the good ones to help market the stuff. It’s like a badge of legitimacy. It’s hard enough to sell a wine from AZ already!
CB: What kind of wines do you produce and why did you choose those varieties? If you absolutely must pick a favorite, which one would it be and why?
SP: I’m a Rhone guy. After growing up drinking Aussie Shirazes and cabs, I was completely blown away by the first Chateauneuf I tasted in the south of France after one of my many visits to Cannes. So in 2000, I planted Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvedre and petite Syrah. My first two reds were a Cote De Rhone I called roan red, and a Chateauneuf I call diva. The roan red is my favorite (the nonmedal winner) and the diva (my Chateauneuf) is a bigger baby and gets a lot of awards. We also make a stunning petite Syrah, also a big gold winner.
My favorite white is a dry aromatic blend I make I call Wildchild white. I tried to recall a wonderful Gisborne dry Gewurtz I stumbled on in the ’80s. The present blend is Riesling and Chenin (from a neighbor) and Viognier and symphony. It’s our cheapest white and a stunner.
PIn addition to the above four Rhones, we grow chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Pinot Gris, Malvasia Bianca, and symphony.
CB: What’s next for Pillsbury? Any changes/additions/things to come?
SP: We make food wines. I avoid new oak, high alcohol, jammy flabby fruit. I want elegance and nuance rather than big. I call those Napa cabs “hummer wines.” I just think they are absurd.
We have so much fun innovating. I own the company so I can do whatever I want, and basically no-one has done this there before, so everything we do is an experiment. We are passionate about terroir so we don’t bring fruit in. We only purchase from one neighbor at the moment. We ferment mostly with wild yeasts (although we continue to run parallel ferments with cultured yeasts as controls), we ferment in neutral oak and stainless, we hand harvest, are sustainable, use no chemical sprays or fertilizers.
We have been experimenting a lot with co-ferments. I work with a young winemaker, James Callahan of Rune Wines (which he makes here with us). Presently have cote roti style co-ferments, Syrah with symphony, Malvasia, Roussanne as well as Viognier, and we are playing around with Renache co-ferments as well. We are so small and hands-on we can do this easily. We are also air-drying symphony and Malvasia and making fabulous dessert wines.
I also grow apples, peaches, pecans, and have a huge organic vegetable garden, where I supply some Phoenix restaurants, particularly the Breadfruit & Rum Bar.
If I can attract a big investor I would love to build a collection of passive solar casitas, and have a restaurant where we would serve only food grown on the property. To that end, we are planting olive trees and agave this year.