FLORENCE -- W illiam “Mac” McWilliams visited the Windmill Winery one day while he was looking for a house to buy in Florence. The 79-year-old former Navy diver, who had worked for oil companies in Alaska in civilian life had just become a truck driver.

Windmill owner Harold Christ told McWilliams, “You’ve got to be kidding; why don’t you come to work here?”

“He just lit up,” Christ’s wife, Katie, recalled.

As impromptu hires go, McWilliams turned out to be one of the best; he was the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. He was talented, building the dock at the Lakehouse and decorative touches like a Golden Gate Bridge replica. His handiwork is all over the property. “I bought one of his paintings for Harold’s birthday this year,” Katie said.

“He and I had a lot of great times,” Harold recalled, “sitting in a couple of old rocking chairs in the evening, having a glass of wine and settling all the world’s problems. … We miss him.” Earlier this summer, the Windmill hosted McWilliams’ memorial service.

He lives on at the Windmill, and not just in the memories of the owners and his fellow employees; his picture is on bottles of Barbera, the first Windmill-brand wine made with a grape grown on the property.

Full-bodied with hints of dried strawberry, plum and anise, it’s tasty and satisfying with a smoothness that belies its 13.20% alcohol content.

“I love the Barbera, I think it’s my favorite,” Katie said. Barbera is the heat-resistant red grape that grows at the Windmill, she explained, “the only one that we can really grow well in Florence.”

A monk from St. Anthony’s Monastery was instrumental in helping the Christs choose the best grape for the climate. They tried other varietals, but they didn’t really stand a chance in Florence’s oppressive heat. “As Harold likes to say, we grew wonderful raisins,” Katie said.

“Because of the soil and because of the heat, if we were truly going to feature Arizona wines, we had to find another place to grow,” Harold said. Read the label on other Windmill wines and you’re likely to see “produced and bottled by the Windmill Winery in Willcox, Arizona,” where the Windmill’s other grapes are grown. The vintner there has vines he’s been growing for 20 years.

A commitment to feature Arizona wines was somewhat an act of faith by the Christs, because not long ago, there weren’t many good ones. But more recently Arizona wines have earned a lot more acclaim, including the Windmill’s own.

A wedding at the Windmill — it’s a busy wedding venue in normal times — in most cases wouldn’t be complete without Windmill wine.

“To be able to incorporate the wines that we grow on the property, and the experience our guests are able to have here in the wine-tasting room prior to their wedding, adds a special touch,” Marketing and Sales Director Tana Sheets said. She said couples may come for the ambiance, and the potential for beautiful photos, but the wine has come to play an integral part as well.

Harold said guests like Windmill wine at the weddings they host because it’s a perfect fit with the venue and a more complete Arizona experience. For one of their many rescheduled weddings, guests who’ll be watching from New Zealand have asked the Windmill to ship them some wine so they can celebrate as authentically as possible as they watch the livestream. When couples return to the Windmill on their anniversaries, they often share a bottle of wine, Sheets said.

The Windmill held 180 weddings last year. Under normal circumstances, it hosts weekly live music and food trucks, concerts and shows, corporate dinners and parties, reunions, painting classes with wine (“paint-n-pour”), a monthly “Cowboy Church” service and others. It can still host some private parties, and had a bridal shower recently.

But since spring — like everywhere else that hosts crowds of any size — it has been mostly quiet.

In normal times, Sheets said they might have held a “reveal party” to celebrate the arrival of their two newest wines, a Sangiovese and a Merlot. When Pinal Ways visited the Windmill in late July, the new wines were corked and still sitting in Willcox. Amid the pandemic, there was no hurry in bringing them here.

But they’re expected to be big hits with locals as well as tourists. The bottles themselves are keepsakes, featuring paintings done by Windmill neighbor Ann Rankin from the Rankin Family Farm.

Labeling a wine is no simple matter, and in fact, it’s a lengthy process; the federal government approves wine labels, Harold said. It can be the number one reason a customer chooses a wine. Windmill visitors also enjoy seeing the Windmill’s staff and pets on its wine labels. The Windmill’s Alicante Bouschet features the Windmill’s three beer burros, “Ellie Mae,” “Jethro” and “Harry Garcia” on the label.

Even though the tasting room is closed, customers can still buy wine by the bottle on the website, and the Windmill will either ship it or make it available for pickup. There’s also a wine club, with discounts and events for members. At one such event, guests developed their own unique blends using syringes and petri dishes. “It doesn’t sound very appealing, but it really was a lot of fun,” Harold said. Ann Rankin’s wine won the taste test — everyone liked it so much, the Christs decided to bottle it. It’s called Barnstormer. “We’ve had it for over a year now, and it’s very popular,” Harold said.

They also have some neat things to show their customers when they can welcome crowds again. The Windmill has missed out on a few weddings because their license doesn’t allow them to serve hard liquor. But they’ve since found a wine-based rum and whiskey, and “you couldn’t tell the difference,” Harold said. He called it “the next big thing for us and our business.”

More than just wine, mead made with honey was becoming popular before the pandemic. A prickly-pear-flavored one is especially delicious.

An employee told the Christs about a slushy mix she enjoyed in Ohio. They’ve since trademarked it and put it under their label. It makes a refreshing cooling drink with peach wine or sangria that customers can also make at home.

Finding new things to offer people has always been the Windmill’s byword. Before this, Harold was a housing developer, for the Village at Copper Basin in San Tan Valley and others. The Christs first came here to start Florence Farms Nursery to help meet the demand for landscaping plants in the mid-2000s housing boom.

It was their friend, the late Harry Luge, who first looked around and said, “Why don’t you do weddings here?” PW


Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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