Yavapai College’s 2021 Verde Valley Alumni of the Year
Yavapai College honored a Verde Valley success story on Wednesday; two former Fortune 500 executives who reinvented themselves through education, put literal roots down in our community, and bottled wonders from its very soil. In a lunchtime ceremony yesterday, Cornville residents Valerie and Daniel Wood, Southwest Wine Center graduates and co-owners of Heart Woods Cellars, were named Yavapai College’s 2021 Verde Valley Alumni of the Year.
“Recently we were asked how has YC impacted our lives,” Valerie says. “Honestly, we don’t know what we would be doing today if it weren’t for Yavapai College. The education and experiences we received there helped us change our lives and achieve our dreams.”
Valerie and Daniel Wood both had professional careers in a Fortune 500 company. In 2003, they put down roots in the Verde Valley. New tasting rooms and restaurants were supporting the accelerating momentum of Arizona’s growing wine industry. Valerie and Daniel were meeting people and making new friends. Relationships are important to them, and they were enjoying new friendships, the beautiful environment, and the peaceful pace. They looked forward to spending more time in Arizona.
Valerie explains, “Daniel and I each had good careers and worked for the same company, but we didn’t see enough of each other. We needed to find a way to spend more time together.”
In 2009 they left corporate life and moved from Tokyo to Cornville for big blue skies, fresh clean air, rural setting, and down-to-earth people. They immersed themselves in their new lifestyle, with plans to contribute and participate in a growing sector of the economy. That growing sector turned out to be the Arizona wine industry.
Their quest led them to a pivotal conversation with a local winemaker, who suggested they check out Yavapai College’s (then) brand-new Viticulture & Enology program in the Verde Valley. “So we took some classes thinking we would get a good overview,” Valerie and Daniel chuckled at the memory, “and we did not stop.”
“We were learning so much, the vineyards were being planted and the new Viticulture & Enology program was becoming quite the learning center for winemaking and grape growing and we became Founders at the Southwest Wine Center for contributing to the capital fundraising to build the winery.” Valerie said.
Valerie and Daniel helped plant thousands of grapevines in the College’s 13-acre vineyard. The Viticulture & Enology program instructors were experienced and passionate about sharing their knowledge and helping students gain experience and knowledge. “The instructors cared, and we felt it.” Daniel says.
Valerie says the program was eye-opening: “We were learning a lot; our brains were on overload, and we loved it. We were enjoying the camaraderie from students and instructors. We’d be in a class with other students and get to know their stories and their background. We were humbled by some of their life challenges and struggles. Some of our classmates couldn’t afford the books, or a babysitter or the gas to drive from Phoenix to Verde Valley and back for a class. We would hear their dreams and feel their struggles. We all came together with a common interest of learning about winemaking and grape growing in Arizona.”
While attending college, they worked part-time at the Yavapai College Southwest Wine Center and are still part-time employees. In 2015, Valerie and Daniel graduated, with honors, in the second class of the Viticulture & Enology program.
The plan for their own winery unfolded gradually as established skills and new enthusiasms began to blend. “One of our last courses involved developing a business plan,” Valerie says. “We recognized that we could do it from a business point of view. We also acknowledged we did not have the capital for the start-up. Serendipitously, we were invited to be part of the first Alternating Proprietorship Winery in the State of Arizona. It’s like a Co-Op where tenants share the large equipment & facility that is owned by a landlord who operates its own winery.”
Heart Wood Cellars is now a jewel of Arizona’s wine industry. In five years, they have produced 29 wines, and been awarded over 40 medals from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the Arizona Grand Wine Competition. Valerie and Daniel have achieved their dream of spending time together and growing meaningful relationships and participating in the community. “We are a part of our community now,” Daniel says, “we have a wonderful support network.”
The Woods have been studious also, about sharing their time. Valerie has taken a leadership position at the Yavapai College Foundation, where she is in her third year as president. Daniel volunteers his time and leadership skills in the Verde Valley Wine Consortium, currently on a committee, working with the Federal Government (TTB) on obtaining approvals for the Verde Valley to be a nationally recognized grape-growing region named the Verde Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) and is past treasurer of the Arizona Wine Growers Association
“We are grateful for all the support people have given us in our journey.” Valerie says. Valerie and Daniel want to support students in the Viticulture & Enology program at the Southwest Wine Center, where they have learned so much, and see how students and alumni have continued their relationships after classes.
Valerie and Daniel helped start the College’s student organization named Grand Crew, for students, alumni, and wine industry supporters. Valerie says, “We wanted to find a way to help part-time and full-time students realize their dreams.” After graduation, they funded the Valerie and Daniel Wood VEN scholarship, which offers eight scholarships per year, for ten years. Now in its fifth year, their scholarships, like a healthy vineyard, have reached into the community and helped provide an impressive yield. Valerie says. “I have been out in the College vineyard harvesting next to a student, who says, ‘Thank you for the scholarship.’ One student walked up to us at a wine festival and said, ‘You gave me a scholarship. You gave me my life back. You changed my life, thank you.’ We hear from some students who have received our scholarships. It’s heartwarming to see their smiling faces and to know we had a positive impact.” Yavapai College’s Alumni of the Year Award is bestowed annually to Prescott and Verde Valley Campus graduates whose careers exemplify scholarship, character, and public service. For additional information on YC’s Alumni of the Year Awards, please visit: www.yc.edu/alumni