Sam Pillsbury Spills on the Reason He Landed in Arizona, and Launches a Wine Column for Chow Bella

Taste test.
Taste test.
courtesy of Sam Pillsbury

This week we introduce a new, occasional wine column by one of the best-known Arizona winemakers, Sam Pillsbury. Welcome to Spillsbury.

When managing editor Amy Silverman asked me to write for Chow Bella and New Times, I had to stop and think how that was going to work. I think that will evolve. I want to excite interest in all Arizona wines. It's my dream that we might all be one big, happy family. To that end I hope to explore our region with my fellow winemakers and growers, and examine what makes us original, different, and sometimes truly excellent!

(Disclaimer: I am no expert. I thought I knew a lot about wine 14 years ago. I now realize I know squat. I just have my opinion.)

So, Amy asked that question people tend to ask: "What is a New Zealand filmmaker doing making wine in Arizona?"

My answer: "Sex."

See also: - Romancing the Grape: Pavle Milic's Quixotic Wine-Making Adventure - Wine Smarts: What Is Noble Rot? Brian Reeder and Pavle Milic Hit Scottsdale to See If Anyone Knows

Sam Pillsbury Spills on the Reason He Landed in Arizona, and Launches a Wine Column for Chow Bella
Courtesy of Sam Pillsbury

Women get it immediately. They always laugh louder and faster than men. It's the same with our Rosé, "One Night Stand."

When I introduced our first Pillsbury Wine Company Rosé, Vintage 2006, it was made from grapes of dubious origin we had planted. It was an unremarkable white with interesting fruit and some questionable nuances. We pulled the grapes and replanted, but subsequently, with help from magician Eric Glomski (Page Springs Cellars), we produced a pretty nice Rosé (got an 89 from Mark Tarbell).

On my first pouring to a rather large crowd, I explained we had nicknamed it One Night Stand since those particular grapes were gone forever and we could never make this exact same wine again. The women burst into spontaneous laughter and the men looked a little guilty and confused. I have never been able to explain this, and I'm not going to try.

The name has been on the label ever since.

The rest is history, including this:

So, 20 years ago, I'm sitting in my house in New Zealand in the (Southern Hemisphere) summer, January and the phone rings. It was an exec from Universal I had worked with on a Western we shot in New Mexico in 1990 (Into The Badlands with Bruce Dern, Mariel Hemingway, Helen Hunt, and Dylan McDermott), asking me if I'd like to shoot a pilot for a TV series in Phoenix. They sent me the script via the latest high-tech method, our thermal paper fax machine. Horrendous. Four rolls of paper and about four hours.

The script was kinda dodgy, it was (blush) called Knightrider 2010 -- no, not with the aging surfer, rather about a guy who smuggled illegals across the Rio Grande in a monster truck. I had an instinctive sympathy for the guy, and I hadn't done any action flicks before. Also, this had the monster truck demolishing a shopping mall, which I thought presented some interesting challenges.

And I was broke. Guy's gotta work. I said yes.

So I arrived in Phoenix and there was this interesting woman working as location manager on the set. We've been together ever since, and we have a 7-year-old, the same age as my granddaughter. They love each other, I love them both to death.

Sex. That's how I got here.

The wine bit? Well, ever since I was 13, when my family emigrated to NZ from the USA on an Italian ocean liner, I have loved wine. Those Chiantis on the table every night, spicy and fragrant, glowing ruby red when held up to the light, parents drinking at my side, wine with dinner, a little buzz on... I was in heaven.  

Sam Pillsbury Spills on the Reason He Landed in Arizona, and Launches a Wine Column for Chow Bella
Courtesy of Sam Pillsbury

A lot of filmmakers do wine...Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), the actor I shared an office with in the '70s, makes Pinot Noir and Riesling. NZ director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out), a fellow filmmaker from Auckland who now lives in Santa Monica, has a vineyard in NZ.

Coppola, of course.

Is it because we crave to be revered, for sort of like gods we make something for people out of nothing, that brings joy, and we love the adulation? Maybe, but, man, that stuff had better be really good, because they'll kick the shit outta ya if it isn't.

Is it because we crave stepping into the unknown, doing something horrendously expensive, incredibly risky, that takes forever?

I really thought the two occupations would be stunningly different. Movies are abstract and ephemeral; growing grapes and making wine would be organic, earthy, substantial. I would have land, I would have vines growing out of the soil. These are things you could touch. It would be so permanent, so grounding.

They are almost exactly the same. Risky, costly, taking forever, the critics love your crappy stuff and trash your darlings. The weather messes up your schedule. And the vines will die, the wine will go actually lasts longer. Hah.

I started making films in NZ when there was almost no film industry. People thought we were crazy. Then we got on this wave and started surfing it. Hi, Peter Jackson! Exhilarating! The same thing happened here with wine. It's so much fun.

I started making films because I love film, and I started making wine because I love wine. It's that simple. And with film, you have studios and networks that mess with your work. I own this company. I do whatever I want.

I started by buying some land in the mid '80s on the magical Waiheke Island in NZ, home of some of the best boutique wines in NZ (see Stonyridge Vineyards). This little island with its own microclimate off the east coast of Auckland had two vineyards on it in then. I sold the land a few years later when I moved to Los Angeles because of the movies.

It took a while but spending more time in Arizona due to you-know-what, I started thinking wine again. Having lived with the phenomenon of growing quality wine grapes in unusual places, I was open-minded about that, and in 1999 while camping up in the Verde Valley, I noticed the setting sun hitting a limestone cliff across the valley.

Having spent time in the South of France (Cannes Film Festival with my movies) I thought 'Ahah, Provençe!'

A walk down the creek bubbling out of Montezuma Well at dawn the next day and behold: wild grape vines climbing up all the trees. Of course...high altitude, cooler! What's even better, more UV, cooler High Desert nights. Excellent wine!

A bit of research and drinking some AZ wines of the time (Dos Cabezas, Callaghan) proved the point. I drove SE down to Cochise County, bought some land next to the then 40 acre Dos Cabezas vineyard, went into business with Al Buhl, the owner, and now have 100 acres of my own, and grow and make my own wine from local grapes only, while around us are some 500 acres of vineyards.

We grow mostly Rhone varieties. I discovered Chateauneuf de Pape on one of my Cannes visits and it transported me. It was the first "feminine" red I had ever was warm, gentle, fragrant, voluptuous. Sexy. I swore I'd make that wine one day, and now we do. Our Roan Red is a Cote de Rhøne; our own Estate Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, a GSM.

And our 2011 Diva, a Arizona Chateauneuf; a blend of our own Estate Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Syrah. We call it a PMS.

We make our wines in Willcox and Camp Verde, have a Tasting Room up north in Old Town Cottonwood, and we open our Tasting Room at the vineyard just south of Willcox this May.

All because of sex.

Well, isn't it why we're all here?

Sam Pillsbury has made dozens of documentaries, TV series and feature films in New Zealand and Hollywood as writer, director and producer, and now grows grapes and makes 100 percent Arizona wines in Arizona. He lives in Phoenix. You can get more information about his wines and tasting room at

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