Two years after run for U.S. congress, Billy Kovacs continues winemaking legacy at Sandor Vineyards

When his father unexpectedly passed away in 2018, Billy Kovacs felt a strong connection to the family's Sándor Vineyards and to keeping his father’s legacy alive.

They say there are six degrees of separation between all people in the world. In Tucson, that number’s likely lower, and if it’s Billy Kovacs we’re talking about and you don’t know him directly or haven’t heard of him, you probably know someone that does.

From the early days as a partner of Prep & Pastry, to a jack-of-all-trades role with Hotel Congress and Maynards, to countless concepts in between, it was Kovacs’ 2018 bid for United States Congress that really thrust him into the limelight. Although his run for office did not score him the seat, he ended up in that very same office in his role as outreach director for Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick. In that role, he continues the work he’s always done—building community relations throughout Southern Arizona.

That’s his full-time job, but if you’ve ever met him, you’d know there’s always more than one. Now he has his own business to tend to. Literally: it’s a vineyard.

Billy Kovacs tends vines at Sandor Vineyards

Billy Kovacs tends vines at Sandor Vineyards (Photo by Adam Lehrman)

Sándor Vineyards was launched by Kovacs’s father in 2008, mostly as a passion project. When he unexpectedly passed away in 2018, Billy felt a strong connection to the vineyard and to keeping his father’s legacy alive. Actually, he wanted to do more than keep it alive – he wanted to turn it into a profitable business. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.

“I remember the moment everything changed for me, when I said to myself, ‘I can do this’” Kovacs recollects. “While working on David Garcia’s campaign for governor, I scheduled a day for David and our team to tour Aridus Wine Co’s crush site in Willcox. That’s where we store and make our wine, and I wanted to show off Arizona’s small but mighty wine industry.”

Little did Kovacs know that the tour would end up taking place just days after his father passed away.

“During the tour, our winemaker Lisa Strid surprised us with a tasting of the Petite Sirah from my dad’s last harvest. That moment – and the wine – was incredible.”

To say that Kovacs was overwhelmed would be an understatement. The combination of emotion from the recent passing while finally tasting the fermented fruits of his father’s labor set the stage for what would ultimately come next.

“I’d spent the last decade watching my dad build his dream, but tasting the wine he’d always dreamt about making without him being there to enjoy it with me lit a fire inside,” Kovacs said. “With the help of some incredible friends and business partners, we turned the lights back on for the dream to live on – and to produce some incredible wine in our little corner of the world.”

Billy Kovacs at Sandor Vineyards

Billy Kovacs at Sandor Vineyards (Photo by Adam Lehrman)

Located in Pearce, Arizona just under 30 miles from Willcox, which is inside the perimeter of Willcox’s official American Viticultural Area (AVA), Sándor Vineyards sits right on Turkey Creek and just against the Chiricahua Mountains. As one of only two AVAs in Arizona, the region is unique and ideal for growing wine grapes.

At Sándor Vineyards, Kovacs grows Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Mourvèdre on 16 acres. At this time, there’s no winery – all wine is made nearby at Aridus Wine Company, although Billy is heavily involved in the process.

The 2016 Rosé of Grenache shines with crisp, tart fruit. It’s a summer favorite, but, “so are the others,” says Kovacs. “and I can’t wait for our upcoming wines this fall”

While Billy’s skills span the gamut, food and beverage has always played a major role.

“Most of my friends and I entered the workforce around 2008,” he said. “We applied for jobs while watching the economy bottom out. The restaurant industry took us in, gave us a home, and for those of us who aspired to something more, it gave us a chance to go out on our own.”

And that’s exactly what Kovacs did when he helped launch the popular breakfast and brunch restaurant Prep & Pastry. Although he’s no longer involved, he remembers those days fondly.

“I’ve always been the product of the friends and community who have lifted me up and helped me believe in my voice and my ideas. Though I still have server nightmares, say “corner” and “behind” in meetings, and hate polishing wine glasses, I’m still grateful for the people I’ve met along the way and the humility my restaurant experience gave me.”

“Some time ago, a good friend of mine who now oversees high-end wine lists in New York City asked me to come work for this small restaurant opening up on the northside of Tucson called Jax Kitchen,” said Kovacs. “Jax carried small batch wines which forced me to go beyond whether a wine is a Merlot or a Cab. I learned about vintage, climate of the region, how that climate affects the wine, and why I should care.”

Petite Sirah and Rose of Grenache from Sandor Vineyards

Petite Sirah and Rose of Grenache from Sandor Vineyards (Photo by Adam Lehrman)

As Kovacs ramps up production, you can expect to see more and more of Sándor Vineyards wine available for sale locally in stores and on wine lists. He’s also launched Sándor wine club, The Founder’s Club which is exclusively for the first 200 wine club members and comes packed with some amazing perks.

“I’m proud to be a part of such an amazing industry of winemakers and growers who continue to show the world just how great Arizona wine can be.”

Sándor Vineyards is located at 13154 AZ-181 in Pearce, AZ. More information can be found at sandorvineyards.com.

Adam Lehrman started Tucson Foodie in late 2008 as a way to track his search for the best food Tucson had to offer.

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