Michael Pierce seems to always have a full calendar. No, make that a really full calendar. And he always handles it with grace. Among his areas of interest and responsibility, he is the Director of Enology (winemaking) at Yavapai College’s Southwest Wine Center at the Verde Valley campus in Clarkdale. He makes his family’s Bodega Pierce wines with estate-grown grapes from his family’s Rolling View Vineyard in Wilcox and his own Saeculum Cellars wine, a small batch premium operation. He oversees government affairs for the Arizona Wine Growers Association, the statewide wine trade group, including working directly with their lobbyist Alan Everett, the former mayor of Sedona and the former director of the Arizona Liquor Board. And he recently oversaw the opening of the new Clarkdale Bodega Pierce tasting room. So how did he get here? That’s not a simple straight line, to say the least. Michael grew up in Scottsdale and graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2004 with a degree in Electronic Media/Visual Communications. In college he began experimenting with home brewing and winemaking— and he caught the bug.
He began taking UC Davis enology courses in 2005. He and his father then enrolled in Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program, including studying at their well-respected viticulture and plant studies facilities in Prosser. He completed his enology studies in 2009 and went to Hawkes Bay, New Zealand for his first harvest. He then worked with Delegat’s Wine Estate in Oregon before going to Kayena, Tasmania.
Well traveled, he went to work for Arizona Stronghold Vineyards in Camp Verde in 2010, moving up quickly. He became lab manager in 2011, assistant winemaker in 2012, and took over as winemaker in 2013. His enthusiasm and quick study ability, coupled with a good palate and broad knowledge of all aspects of viticulture and winemaking, allowed him to gain a solid reputation as a young man on the rise.
Meanwhile, a mandate from the Supreme Court made Arizona finally change its prohibition laws in 2006, allowing wineries to operate as they do today. Vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms began popping up all over the Verde Valley, leading to the formation of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, a not-for-profit trade group, in 2008. They approached Yavapai College to develop a wine program to help meet the industry’s workforce needs. Classes started in 2009.
With Maynard James Keenan’s help, the first acre of grapes was planted on campus in the spring of 2010. The school hired Nikki Check Bagley, a vineyard manager for Maynard, to head the Viticulture (grape growing) Department. Planning for an Enology Department started and work began to secure the necessary financing, as the state had withdrawn all community college funding because of the crash. A seldom used campus building was targeted, and work began to raise the estimated $3 million needed. The Yavapai College Foundation took on the challenge, forming Friends of the Southwest Wine Center for ongoing support. (Full disclosure: I was the founding President and Chairman of the Board of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, the second instructor in the program, and the proud recipient of the 2012 Innovator of the Year award from the Foundation.)
In the meantime, Michael’s parents, Dan and Barbara, wine lovers both, moved to the Willcox area and purchased an 80-acre farm, naming it Rolling View Vineyard to honor the family’s Nebraska farming heritage. It included an eight-acre abandoned vineyard. Dan brought it back to life and expanded it to 27 acres under vine with 18 wine grape varietals. Michael began making the family’s Bodega Pierce wines at Maynard’s Four Eight Wineworks in Camp Verde. When the time came to begin the Enology Department operations in November 2014, Michael was selected to head the department. He and Nikki brought successful Verde Valley industry track records with them. They set out to create programs that would produce graduates prepared to succeed in the industry. They instituted a practicum requirement. Each student must work a minimum of 60 hours each term for a professional vineyard or winery, locating their own opportunity.
Thus, every student comes to know people in the business and how they operate and vice versa. You’ll find students and graduates at essentially every winery in the area. Along with technical skills, they learn that creating a new winery and establishing a brand is expensive and takes time. You can’t sell a $5 wine for $25 to cover your costs thinking customers won’t notice or, conversely, that you can sell a $25 bottle for $5 and stay in business.
The students’ consistent, high-quality wine is gaining recognition. They regularly win major Arizona and national competitions. For example, the Southwest Wine Center 2014 Sunlight (a white blend) won the Gold Medal and Best of Class Award at the 2017 Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition in Berkeley. The teaching vineyard has grown to 13 acres on campus, producing 25 tons of high-quality fruit in 2018. It’s expected to produce 40 tons as the grapes mature by 2020. The 3,000-case capacity winery produced 1,000 cases this year and sells it at the Southwest Wine Center tasting room on campus. Sales support the program’s costs. The Southwest Wine Center Tasting Room is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. at 601 West Black Hills Drive, Clarkdale.
Innovative programs are added constantly. A major symposium is now held each April in conjunction with a statewide amateur winemaker competition to help locate, encourage, and support new talent. The success of the program has directly led to the founding of the Sedona Culinary Institute on the Sedona campus of Yavapai College.
“Michael’s goal when he started the enology program was clear. He set out to build the program he wished had been available to him when he started in the industry. He seems to be succeeding.”
Story written by Tom Pitts Photos Provided by Yavapai College & Bodega Pierce