Wilhelm Family Vineyards pairs tasty tapas with Spanish-style varietals because, wine not?

July 3, 2019
By Dana Sullivan
By Dana Sullivan

Wine & dine at the only wine-tasting room in Tucson that serves food.

In an industry dominated by men, winemaker and owner of Wilhelm Family Vineyards Karyl Wilhelm is crushing it—and we’re not just talking grapes.

An Air Force veteran who worked in aeromedical evacuation, Karyl is no stranger to taking big risks.

As a reservist, she volunteered for active duty during the Gulf War, where she met her husband Kevin Wilhelm, an accomplished F16 pilot, before pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering. A whirlwind romance, a few dangerous missions and two kids later, they decided to settle down in Oro Valley—but they wouldn’t stay put for long.

“My husband, a Colorado farm boy at heart, was craving more space,” she said.


So the family purchased 20 acres of vacant land just south of Tucson in Sonoita.

Not long after, they discovered that Sonoita was, at the time, the only region in Arizona to have earned the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation. Living in a designated grape-growing region meant one thing to the adventure-loving Wilhelms: it was time to take another risk and open a winery.

“I was an engineer, he was a fighter pilot,” she said, “so we thought, between the two of us, how hard could it be?”

Learning the ropes

As it turned out, opening a winery was incredibly, back-breakingly hard—but that didn’t stop them, nor did their lack of experience or general winemaking knowhow.

“I didn’t know anything but how to drink it,” she joked.

Instead of calling it quits, Karyl got to work studying and training at UC Davis to complete her winemaking certification while also beginning the process of planting and growing her grapes. Meanwhile, Kevin got to work on just about everything else.

While the work certainly had its challenges, Karyl’s life motto helped get her through it. “Don’t do things half-assed. Your pants won’t fit and you’ll walk funny,” she said with a laugh. “You’re either all in or you’re not.”

Wilhelm Family Vineyards (Credit: Dana Sullivan)
The hard work pays off

After three years of intensive work, the Wilhelms opened the doors to Wilhelm Family Vineyards in 2008.

Business was good, but there was just one problem: they had to outsource catering for events because the land in Sonoita wasn’t zoned for commercial kitchens.

Enter: Wilhelm Family Vineyards Tastings and Tapas. Karyl knew that having a tasting room in Tucson would not only be convenient for local customers, but would also allow them to cater events at the winery. After searching for the perfect space, they settled on a cozy little spot on the northeast side of town.

“It’s where our demographic is,” she said of the location. “It’s an affluent area, close to major resorts, shopping, and Sabino Canyon.”

Wine at Wilhelm Family Vineyards (Credit: Dana Sullivan)
Finally ready to wine and dine

In October of 2018, Karyl opened the doors to a tasting room complete with a simple yet satisfying menu designed to complement her vast selection of award-winning, Spanish-style wines.

There are staples like the charcuterie board, which features generous servings of meats and cheeses and comes in a half or full size. There is also a rotating selection of specials that incorporate local ingredients along with seasonal fruits and veggies.

“We call [the menu] Staples and Specials,” said manager Okhui Waller, who helps Karyl with everything from running the restaurant to developing recipes.

Grilled Goat Cheese Queso Blanco and Meatball and Mushroom Skewer Tapas at Wilhelm Family Vineyards (Credit: Dana Sullivan)
Wine and tapas pairings to try

Of course, we can’t talk tapas without mentioning the wines they were designed to pair with.

Popular varietals include the Albariño, a crisp, light white that’s all too refreshing during Tucson’s hot summers. Karyl recommended enjoying a glass with the grilled goat cheese queso blanco, which features locally sourced goat cheese and roasted red peppers atop a crunchy crostini.

If you prefer a bold red, the Tempranillo offers exciting flavors of currants, blackberries and plum that pair exceptionally well with the meatball and mushroom skewers. Drizzled in a “secret sauce,” the bite-size meatballs pack in a savory-yet-sweet flavor that stands up to the wine’s robust profile.

An inclusive wine-tasting experience

When it comes to pairing wine with food, Karyl and Okhui both insist that the experience should be fun—not intimidating. “We always say, ‘the best wine is the wine you like,’” they both agreed.

If you’re not sure where to start, the wine flight is a great way to try four different wines at a time. The sangrias are also a good place to dive in—they come in unique flavors that showcase Karyl’s creativity and affinity for winemaking.

Wine flight featuring Albariño White Wine, Tempranillo Red Wine, Viva Sangria and White Chocolate Almond Dessert Wine. (Credit: Dana Sullivan)

The Arriba Sangria, for example, combines sweet prickly pear and passionfruit with an exciting kick of jalapeño at the end. Other sangrias you’ll find only at Wilhelm include the Fiesta, a citrusy blend of sweet orange and tangy lime, and the juicy, peach-infused Viva.

All of the wines at Wilhelm Family Vineyards are vegan and the menu items can be made keto, gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan.

Operating hours & location

Operating hours are 3 p.m. – 8 p.m. Monday – Wednesday and 1 p.m. – 9 p.m. Thursday – Sunday.

Wilhelm Family Vineyards Tastings and Tapas is located at 5425 N. Kolb Rd., Ste. 119. For more information, call (520) 900-7166 or visit wilhelmvineyardsventana.com.

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