From the early gold miners, who would stake a claim based on a few flakes of placer gold in a river, to the hordes of gamblers who flock to “Vegas” feeling that today is their “lucky day”, Nevada seems to attract speculators.
Thus, it is not surprising that a few intrepid individuals think they can grow wine grapes in Nevada—and they may be right. Although wine grapes were grown briefly in the 19th Century in southwestern Nevada, it was not until 1988 that Jack Sanders established the first modern commercial winery in the town of Pahrump, about 1 hour west of Las Vegas. And he is still producing wine after nearly three decades.
Shortly, thereafter, Pahrump Valley Winery opened for business although it didn’t flourish until Bill and Gretchen Loken bought the place in 2003 and turned it into a destination for Vegas visitors wanting a break from the Strip. Today, Pahrump Valley Winery is a thriving, award-winning oasis in the desert featuring free tasting flights, tours of the winery, and a fine-dining restaurant on premises. Their tasting room is open 7 days a week and their wines are quite good. I tasted through those made from Nevada-grown grapes (they make several wines using imported California grapes as well) and was favorably impressed with the whole lineup. I reviewed the standout Tempranillo here but enjoyed their Zinfandel, Barbera, and Primativo as well.
400 miles north of Pahrump in the agricultural center of Fallon, Churchill Vineyards continues their experiment in sustainable agriculture, which began in 2001 with the planting of their first experimental vines . Because wine grapes use far less water than most other crops, Frei Ranch and Churchill Vineyards think the future of this arid region can be well-served by making wine, and they aim to prove it. They are the only Nevada winery producing estate-grown, white wine grapes (their red grapes are imported from California). And the verdict is thumbs up. Their crisp off-dry Riesling was refreshing and their Petite Sirah (using Lodi grapes) rich and compelling, with big berry flavors, judicious use of oak, and robust but controlled tannins. But the revelation was their estate-grown Gewurztraminer. Explosive lychee and hazelnut notes with floral hints, a lush, medium body, and long, spicy finish give this wine a hedonistic temperament that rivals some of the the better versions of this grape from California and Washington. Highly recommended.
Unfortunately, I was unable to taste the wines from the Sanders family or those of the only other winery in Nevada—Tahoe Ridge in Minden, NV. But the wines I did taste make me want to return to Nevada and provide more complete coverage.
How can these wineries succeed in the hot, arid climate of Nevada? They have to employ some tricks that cooler regions need not. While most wine regions trim leaves to give more sun exposure to the grapes, wineries in hot regions preserve the leaf canopy and will also plant vines closer together to provide more shade. In Southern Nevada, harvest comes early, in late July, before the worst of the summer temperatures can wither the vines. But the real secret is cool nights. Northern Nevada’s summer temperatures are usually in the 90’s—no hotter than the wine regions in Southern Italy or Western Washington. But at about 4000 feet above sea level, their night time temps drop into the 50’s helping to preserve acidity and slowing sugar development giving the other dimensions of the grapes time to ripen. Pahrump at 2500 feet also has cooler temperatures than Las Vegas with night time temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s early in the summer. Long ripening, thick-skinned varieties will grow in hot climates. The real challenge is water. But as long as water from the mountains keeps flowing, the relatively less thirsty wine grapes should remain well-watered.
Of course, four wineries does not a wine industry make, especially when they are scattered throughout the state. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the development of a wine industry in Nevada is the state law that forbids wineries in counties with over 100,000 residents from selling their product directly to customers at the winery. The intent of the law was to help rural counties compete with Reno and Las Vegas. But the effect is to make it difficult to develop a winery business model in those parts of the state that cater to tourists. There are plans afoot to change the law in 2015.
With modern technology, a desert oasis is no longer a matter of survival for weary travellers, but a wine oasis could sure take the edge of a bad day at the gaming tables.