Chuck Harder says he isn’t sure yet where he wants to take Reno Wine Distributors. But the mission of the new business is helping small vintners get distribution in northern Nevada’s local restaurants and retailers.
“People like to try local wines,” Harder said. “A lot of times you go into a place and there are 70 wines on a wine list.” But asking for local wine is pointless, he said, because they don’t have it.
Small producers and some exotic labels are generally unable to get attention from the major distributors of wine and spirits. Without a distributor to represent them, the wines can’t be sold into any retail or restaurant venue. This means the majority of the state’s wine producers are locked out of potentially appropriate venues like locally owned restaurants.
Nevada is a three-tier state, in which manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have legally distinct roles. The law prohibits a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages to serve as his own distributor.
Reno Wine Distributors has no sales force. Harder told GBN there may not be one. Instead, it will act as a facilitator, with winery personnel knocking on doors and closing the deals themselves. The product then will move through the sprawling warehouse on Parr Boulevard where Reno Wine Distributors has secured space to operate. The distributorship will handle paperwork and taxes.
Besides a handful of northern Nevada prospects, Harder anticipates importing from small wineries in the Sierra Foothills and elsewhere. He’s also heard rumors that out-of-state entities may be exploring the opportunity to start wineries here.
Reno Wine Distributors will also work with small brewers and distillers.
After a successful first year, Joe Bernardo decided not to conduct a 2018 wine academy without a minimum of ten students. The veteran winemaker thought the academy’s inaugural class might have exhausted demand with 23 graduates. It came as a pleasant surprised when he had to cap 2018 enrollment at 25. Story continues below.
“I could have had a few more people,” Bernardo said, noting strong word-of-mouth. “A guy tells his neighbor, stuff like that. I was surprised at the amount of enthusiasm, and people that were interested.”
Students in the academy attend a class once a month, and spend supervised time tending 20 vines apiece in vineyards belonging to Bernardo, or in vineyards owned by experienced growers William Coplin or Mary Sauvola.
Coplin co-founded the academy with Bernardo, and supervised students in 2017. He allowed the academy to earn 25 percent of the harvest from a broad assortment of mature grapes at his La Casa Castaña vineyard. Coplin’s grapes have produced wine for 8 years.
After the 2018 harvest, the year-long academy will shift its focus from viticulture to winemaking. Bernardo has tweaked the curriculum to focus more on testing the wine as it ferments. He touched lightly on it the first year, believing the process was too advanced for entry level students.
“Checking for sulfur, checking for acid,” he said. “A lot of people asked about it so I decided to include it the second year.”
Students will start pruning vines in May. Until then, Bernardo says, the action will be in the classroom.
While the awards will go to projects that enhance the “competitiveness of Nevada’s specialty crops,” the Department specifically disqualifies private parties as sole beneficiaries.
“Individual producers can apply,” Allured said. But the proposed project must have multiple beneficiaries, and should be for research, marketing, education, or outreach.
“Not simply to start up or improve operations,” Allured told GBN.
Nonprofit and tribal organizations, minority groups, disadvantaged farmers, agricultural associations, industry groups, community based organizations and academic institutions are also encouraged to apply, the Department says. Nevada boasts several community-oriented food distribution and research projects funded by the specialty crop grant program.
The funding is available through a partnership between Nevada and the United States Department of Agriculture. Letters of intent are due by March 15, 2018. Full application proposals are due a month later.
UPDATE – This story has been updated to reflect comments from Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Rebecca Allured.
“It’s been two years in the making,” said Joe Bernardo.
Bernardo stood in the parking lot of the 4th Street Wineries and watched a crew push cases of Basin and Range Brianna from the rear door of a mobile bottling plant. The plain, white cartons moved from a conveyor belt to a stacked pallet, where Basin and Range partner Wade Johnston guided a forklift into place.
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Bernardo and Johnston expected that by the end of the day they’d pack up 950 cases of their sweet, white Brianna and a Frontenac Rose. They’ve planned a separate bottling session in March for 450 cases of Frontenac and St. Croix reds.
Bottling day marks a new chapter for Basin and Range, whose 2016 harvest was unexpectedly put into frozen storage when their shared 4th Street location faced a series of construction delays and licensing challenges. The Basin and Range winemaking effort remained in limbo until last August.
“A long time getting here, long time getting the equipment, a long time getting the wine made,” Bernardo said. “Now we’re nine-tenths of the way there.”
The two bottling sessions — 1,400 cases by the end of March — includes vintage 2016 and vintage 2017.
Basin and Range will hold off its tasting room debut until all its varietals are ready to pour, likely in the early summer.
“I don’t want to rush the reds,” Johnston told GBN. “They could still sit in the bottle for a little bit.”
The brand will be offered in the same 4th Street tasting room that’s been inhabited since last fall by Nevada Sunset Winery. The two wineries operate in the same building under a recently-legalized business arrangement called an alternating proprietorship. A third winery, Great Basin Winery, LLC, is also located there, and has yet to debut its wine.
Prices for the Basin and Range products haven’t been determined. Bernardo and Johnston will host tastings to gauge response to the wine before pricing it, Bernardo told GBN.
Nevada’s wine and viticulture advocacy group will redefine itself in 2018, following a weekend retreat where new board members were initiated.
Nevada Vines and Wines will reach south to work with growers and winemakers in Clark County and the state’s rural regions. The organization also expects to collaborate with Nevada’s growing contingent of craft brewers and distillers to influence alcohol regulations.
“We’re going to be a lot more organized,” said Vines & Wines president Teri Bath. “We are Nevada Vines & Wines, not just northern Nevada.”
Bath will invite southern industry members to join the organization and to attend events in Reno.
At its retreat, the board welcomed Adrian Dyette and Stuart Michell as new members. Steve Bamberger and Mary Sauvola have both resigned from the board for personal reasons. It’s currently unclear whether Bamberger will continue to coordinate the group’s annual winemaker awards held in the spring.
Vines & Wines will also seek a new location for its monthly third Thursday tastings. The February tasting will feature chocolate and wine pairings with Allison Robinson of Wine Tahoe will pour from Boisset Collection. This event is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on February 15 at the 4th Street Wineries.
THIS STORY HAS BEEN CORRECTED: An earlier version of this story identified new Vines & Wines board member Stuart Michell as Stuart Mitchell.
Steve La-Sky, a.k.a Fireman Steve, was alone in the Vegas Valley Winery tasting room at 4 p.m. on a recent Wednesday afternoon, but this was an apparently brief post-holiday respite. In the past month, he’s tended to crowds of Golden Knights fans and Christmastime visitors. And the winery’s true grand opening is still weeks away.
Vegas Valley is Clark County’s first urban winery, a new venture by the management of Grape Expectations Nevada School of Wine. The tasting room is next door to the school, where several thousand alumni are a built-in constituency. Business has been brisk for an establishment that’s still in “soft opening” mode and selling only by the glass.
The team will ramp up to bottle sales as they’re able to unveil the wine in the production pipeline.
“We have only so much inventory,” marketing director K.J. Howe told GBN. “There’s more wine in the barrel being aged, but the amount we can sell will be determined after grand opening.”
The best seller is Vegas Valley’s 2014 Paso Robles Syrah, but La-Sky and Howe say the Rose is also popular.
“We can’t keep it in stock,” Howe says of the 2015 Gamay Rose. He notes that Rose as a category was dead for decades because, he says, it was essentially an afterthought made with leftovers. It’s been revived as winemakers have taken a more deliberate approach.
“You could make it spritzy, you could make it dry, you can make it sweet, you can make it any way you want.” he said. “We make it middle of the road.” The tasting notes indicate a “lingering finish of watermelon Jolly Ranchers.”
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Two whites and a Zin fill out the list. A broader assortment sits in the winery’s bonded area, waiting to be rolled out over the coming year.
The room has a low-key artsy touches created by the Grape Expectations winemaking community. A concrete floor has been finished to look like hardwood. Tiles on the face of the bar were crafted by an art teacher friend. Production manager Chad Evans, also a skilled carpenter, created an exquisite wall hanging from barrel staves.
Vegas Valley Winery is located in a light industrial district of Henderson, open seven days a week.
At Yerington’s Pellegrini vineyard, a retired science teacher grows grapes for the pleasure of working with plants, and makes wine for the love of chemistry.
“I enjoy the chemistry more than anything else about the wine,” says Steve Pellegrini. He also has a botanist’s passion for viticulture, and loves working outdoors.
You might call Pellegrini the reluctant winemaker. Dumping alfalfa in favor of grapes was his wife’s idea. The first experiment with 100 vitis vinifera was a flop.
“Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet – they all died,” he said.
That was 2004. Success came the following year with 150 hybrids, a suggestion from the management of the Tahoe Ridge winery. The Pellegrini vineyard now has 1,500 vines, all Frontenac.
“I kind of got hooked on it,” Pellegrini told Grape Basin News. But the real motivator was keeping his water permit. “In Nevada those are very hard to come by. I was gonna lose it if I didn’t put something in.”
The grape crop has preserved the permit, and more. As advertised by Nevada’s viticulture advocates, it’s also paid off handsomely in water conservation. The grapes require five percent of the water he used for alfalfa, Pellegrini told GBN.
A dozen years later, working in the vineyard is a full-time job. Making wine is secondary.
“I baby the plants,” he said. “They’re happy.”
The vines have 25 percent more space than they need, with 60 square feet apiece, six feet apart. He limits production to 2.67 pounds of grapes per vine.
“I’m told you can do a lot more than that. But I don’t want to have to start replacing them.” He likens it to raising cattle. “You don’t want them to have too many calves, you’re gonna wind up losing heifers.”
Pellegrini’s grapes have turned up in wines made by some of Nevada’s commercial producers. There was a short-lived arrangement with the Pahrump Valley Winery, and this year he sold part of his crop to the new Nevada Sunset Winery. But Pellegrini hasn’t been gripped by the commercial fever that’s fired up some of the state’s vintners.
“When you make your own product to sell, you’re gonna have people who don’t like it. You’re gonna have people who have all kinds of suggestions. I’m not interested in going there,” he said. “I grow it, drink it, and I’m happy with that”
The Pellegrini operation is driven by passion and pleasure. And then there’s the harvest party.
With 45 volunteers the 2017 harvest took a bit more than three hours. The rest of the day was for a big Italian style party, a way to revive some of Mason Valley’s Italian tradition that’s slipped away over the years, says Pellegrini.
“Big get-togethers, lots of vino, and the accordion, and lots of people coming together,” he said. “We’ve lost that.”
A brick Italian bread oven built by Pellegrini sits adjacent to the vineyard, a replica of the ones his stone mason grandfather once built for the valley’s ranchers. The door is a remnant he located when he set out in search of one of the original ovens.
The oven resembles a red-brick igloo. It sits neatly on a platform of stones, revealing the precision its builder brings to his projects.
The Pellegrini winery reflects similar precision. The building was once a taxidermy lab – he has a master’s degree in zoology. Now stainless steel barrels gleam above a spotless floor. In this space, winemaking is an ongoing chemistry experiment.
The reluctant winemaker is modest about his product.
“It’s a real deep red wine, very acidic. Probably wouldn’t meet the expectations of a lot of wine drinkers.” he said. “It’s such a deep red wine it’s almost black.”
“I’m just learning how to do this,” he says. “Every year I learn a little bit more.”
More than one member of Washoe County’s wine community has spotted the dying vines at the foot of Windy Hill. They’re noticeably brown and withered, even from a passing car. On closer inspection, there are some beautiful grapes hiding beneath the overgrowth.
Some local winemakers wince at the sight, given the shortage of Nevada grown grapes. One said he’d tried to locate the owner of the vines, and several wondered among themselves if they should just jump in and harvest, asking forgiveness if anyone complained. Or perhaps — if they could identify the owner — they could reach out and offer to tend the vines next season if nobody else will. Story continues below.
GBN located the management company for the adjacent Chardonnay Village development, which confirmed that the homeowners association owns the vines.
Darleen Reed of Equus Management told GBN the HOA members usually harvest the grapes each year, but not this year because they’ve been sprayed with pesticides.
“They’re usually picked clean within a day or two of when they’re ready,” Reed said. “There was some kind of a bug or something on them, so we sprayed them.” Story Continues below.
Indeed, makeshift signs are stuck in the grass. “Do Not Eat Grapes,” they warn. Reed said it was the contract landscape company that alerted Equus Management to the presence of a pest.
The homeowners would not be receptive to help from experts, said Reed, although she offered to pass along any messages, and gave GBN her email address. Inquiries should be sent through the Grape Basin News contact page.
Nevadans are growing grapes, and Nevadans are making award-winning wine. The state has serious vintners taking their wine to market. Notably, an urban tasting room is launching this fall in each of Nevada’s two largest counties, and at both ends of the state there’s a place to learn the craft of winemaking.
On the legislative front, the wine community has been active, first lobbying successfully in 2015 to remove ban on commercial tasting rooms in Washoe and Clark Counties. This year, state law was further revised so that several wine producers can locate under the same roof, allowing them to split the daunting cost of breaking into the business.
Now what? As 2017 Harvest draws to a close, GBN asked some of the state’s wine insiders, “If Nevada’s wine glass is half full, what would fill it?”
It depends who you ask. Members of Nevada’s wine community agree on many things. Above all, they’re unanimous that Nevada needs more home grown grapes. But two significant disagreements divide them.
The first is whether more revisions to state law would boost the industry. Advocates of wine as a tool for economic diversification cite Nevada’s statutory production cap as an inhibitor to large-scale investment here.
“Production cap” is, in fact, short-hand for a more complicated regulation. Nevada vintners can’t produce more than a thousand cases without triggering a requirement for 25 percent Nevada-grown grapes.
With Nevada grapes in short supply, and new vineyards requiring 3-5 years before they produce a payoff, the law is a disincentive for serious winemaking operations, says Teri Bath, president of Nevada Vines & Wines, a Reno-based nonprofit whose mission is promoting a Nevada wine industry.
“We’re in this to create an industry and create jobs,” Bath told GBN. She says it’s foolish to expect sizable vineyard investments when it’s illegal to sell more than a thousand cases while you wait for your Nevada vines to mature.
The second disagreement arises from the first. Nevada wine isn’t Nevada wine without Nevada grapes, according to Bill Loken, a supporter of the cap-and-quota statute. His prescription for Nevada is straightforward – grow more grapes, and require producers to use them.
Loken owns the Pahrump Valley Winery, where they’ve undertaken a $2 million expansion timed for a rush of in-state fruit expected to come from his one-man campaign to persuade alfalfa farmers to convert their fields to grapes. The effort has generated new vineyard acreage throughout the state, in part because of Loken’s assurances that he’ll purchase whatever the growers can produce.
“We have to have this (additional capacity at the winery) in place in order to take in all this new fruit that will start trickling in next year. And the year after that the loads will get much larger,” Loken said. “And then the year after that we’re gonna be swamped with Nevada fruit.”
Loken’s money is where his mouth is, in full adherence to his defense of the quota-and-cap.
Lowering the statutory requirement for local grapes or raising the case limit would threaten the Nevada industry, he says. Mega-wine producers in California would see value in a Las Vegas strip presence, for instance, swooping in with their own grapes, calling themselves Nevada wineries, and edging out our own producers.
This argument also summarizes the position of Nevada’s large alcohol distributors, whose lobbyists testify to the California threat when the legislature considers loosening winery restrictions.
The counter-argument says more business in Nevada is better, even if it didn’t originate here. Teri Bath of Vines & Wines suggests requiring California wine producers to also feature Nevada wines if they want a presence here.
“Why wouldn’t we want to partner with them, and say, ‘Okay, come on in, but you have to help Nevada wines. You have to carry a certain percentage of Nevada wines.’”
The Nevada Wine Coalition agrees. Executive Director Randi Thomspon points to the so-called Tesla effect, which raised Nevada’s profile among technology companies, and stoked interest in the Reno-Sparks-Tahoe region as a business destination.
“The main value of Tesla is it gave us credibility,” Thompson told GBN. “If California winemakers move here, it would give us credibility. Gallo moving here would give us credibility.”
Bath and Thompson have deep northern Nevada roots, and both have lived through decades of talk about economic diversification.
“Excuse me, don’t we have billboards on I-80 in Sacramento saying ‘come to Nevada?’ Why can’t we allow wineries to come here?” asks Thompson.
Making a go of it
Loken is quick with back-of-napkin calculations (actually performed on a smartphone) demonstrating that a small winery can earn a respectable profit producing a thousand cases with the current grape quote in place.
But at Twin Mustang Vineyard in Sparks, Jason Schultz says his mom-and-pop operation can’t make a go of it on a thousand cases.
His research comes from extensive conversations with the family wineries operating in the Sierra Foothills.
“By ‘make a go of it’ I mean if there’s two of you — a husband and wife, two partners — one of you can stop your job once you reach… four or five thousand cases,” Schultz told GBN.
Until the cap is lifted, Schultz says, he’ll most likely keep his day job and the winery will be an avocation.
That day job – he’s an expert in planning and permitting who’s worked for both Washoe County and the City of Reno – was useful in helping to shape a Washoe County ordinance allowing a winery on rural-residential property. But the county’s blessing is only the beginning. The cost of planning a full-scale winery with tasting room on his 10-acre residential parcel extends far beyond the cost of the vineyard itself. They can’t be met by selling a thousand cases, Schultz says.
The north, the south, and tepid support from the state
Nevada’s wine community is really two wine communities, with the north and the south operating at different speeds and on different wave lengths.
While Southern Nevada’s wine business is in go-mode, commercial activity in the north shrunk last year with the closure of Tahoe Ridge Winery. Fallon’s Churchill Vineyards had its biggest harvest ever in 2016, with a slightly smaller one this year, says Churchill’s Ashley Frey.
Churchill is committed to producing wine, but placing a growing emphasis its Frey Ranch distilled spirits business.
“It is easier to grow grains in our climate than grapes, and expanding production in the distillery is more feasible than planting a new vineyard…20K per acre and waiting 5 years,” Frey told GBN in an email. Story continues below.
The north also boasts an ardent community of hobbyists who are conceptually aligned with aspiring professionals to promote Nevada viticulture. But many of the most active members have no real interest in commercial activity.
Many producers agree that a north-south alliance of some kind could be valuable on some level, but nobody articulates a reason to create one, or what it might achieve.
And some wonder what happened to the state’s initial nod to the industry as a means to economic development. A 2013 report from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development identified “wine grapes and vineyards” among “expanded agriculture opportunities” for diversifying the Nevada economy.
But little institutional support has developed. A Sandoval administration insider who asked not to be named suggests that the GOED has bigger fish to fry, and so does the governor himself. Although further changes to the law would encourage growth, the industry should not expect the governor’s office to use its political capital to boost Nevada wine, the source said.
At the University of Nevada, where the state’s viticulture experiment was born, administrators have ended a program that allowed volunteers from the community to learn by tending the vines. Some of those former volunteers have planted their own vineyards, but the university is no longer a cheerleader for the effort.
Nevada’s lone show of support for its fledgling wine industry is a desert farming grant program that includes viticulture. The Specialty Crop Block Grant program funded a new viticulture program last year at the Desert Farming Initiative, Department of Agriculture spokesperson Rebecca Allured told GBN.
Learning the craft
At both ends of the state, there are places to learn from experienced winemakers. In the north, Nevada Vines & Wines sponsors a wine academy modeled after the original UNR program, where students “adopt” and care for a row of vines, harvest the fruit, and then make wine. In Las Vegas, Grape Expectations Nevada School of Winemaking has produced hundreds of trained winemakers.
At UNR, Dr. Grant Cramer has started a new class for enrolled students on alcoholic fermentation technologies. “How to grow grapes and hops, make wine and beer and determine their qualities,” the online description says. A science background is required, and the class is worth 3 elective units toward a degree in the sciences.
Cramer, who was an early advocate of Nevada viticulture, also teaches a twice-yearly weekend class that’s open to the public through Cooperative Extension.
Missing: vision and leadership
Nevada’s wine industry has a leadership void, says Bill Coplin, a veteran winemaker who was the first president of Nevada Vines & Wines.
“The wine industry in Nevada is still a crapshoot, a total crapshoot,”Coplin told GBN. The missing ingredient (in the north), he says, is “the anchor vineyard and the anchor winery.”
By which he means commercial heft, and a complement of entrepreneurs to lead the charge. Some young blood wouldn’t hurt, either, and Coplin says he knows several contenders who could conceivably become the face of the industry.
Schultz of Twin Mustang says wishes the wine producers would unify. Not just southern and northern unity. He’d like to see more unity within the northern wine community itself.
“If everyone just goes their own way, we’ll never get anywhere,” he said. Schultz also believes an alliance of alcohol producers including brewers and distillers might be useful.
In the south, Bill Loken is focused on growth at Pahrump Valley Winery, and doesn’t see how a formal alliance would advance the cause.
“We don’t think it’s our responsibility to grow the Nevada wine industry,” he says. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to see more producers in the game. “We will give advice, and do whatever we can do to help anybody.” ###
A Reno establishment designed to house three wineries on the city’s 4th Street corridor celebrated its grand opening on Friday. Nevada Sunset Winery has also made its mark as Washoe County’s first urban winery.
The winery opened with eight varietals, including a Granache Rose produced in house with grapes from Grace Patriot Vineyards. Owner Mike Steedman says they’ll unveil white wines in the coming months, and some fruit wines, as well as a few fun, seasonal products like mead.
Nevada Sunset is the anchor winery in the state’s only alternating proprietorship, a business structure that was illegal here until the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session. The alternating proprietorship permits multiple wineries under one roof, and is commonplace in California.
Steedman and two other local vintners planning to share the 4th Street space faced an uncertain future for the first half of 2017, after the Nevada Department of Taxation refused to approve the arrangement. An intensive round of lobbying pulled in support from some unlikely political quarters as the legislative session drew to a close. Steedman and assorted allies won passage for a bill allowing up to four wineries to operate in a single location.
The legislature during its 2015 session lifted a ban on commercial tasting rooms in Washoe and Clark Counties, paving the way for hobbyist winemakers in Nevada’s two largest counties to bring their products to market.
The next six weeks will see frenzied post-harvest activity at the 4th Street location, where Basin and Range Wines is also producing 2017 wines. The third entity is Great Basin Winery, LLC.