Can the Nevada Wine Industry Grow?

New regulation may open opportunities

by Jane Firstenfeld
Pahrump Valley Winery is one of three bonded wineries in Nevada, according to Wines Vines Analytics.
Carson City, Nev.—It’s a hard-drinking state with one of the tiniest wine industries in the nation, but Nevada may open window for growth if a bill that recently passed the Assembly meets the same favor in the state Senate.

Assembly Bill 4 would alter 1993 regulations that currently forbid winery operation in Nevada’s two most populous counties, Clark and Washoe, homes to Las Vegas and Reno. As presented and amended, AB 4 would continue to limit tasting room sales to 1,000 cases for wines containing less than 25% of Nevada grapes.

Considering that Nevada currently has only three bonded wineries, according to Wines Vines Analytics—fewer than every state except Hawaii and Delaware—and an estimated 10 acres of wine grape vineyards—the restrictions present a problem for those who would like to see a growing wine industry in the state.

Two interested parties who testified before recent legislative hearings have differing viewpoints about the bill. Irene King, owner of VegasWineaux, testified at several hearings, including the most recent on May 6, via video. A certified first-level sommelier now preparing for her Master of Wine certificate, King wrote, “There is a fight (and that’s probably the right word) going on in Nevada right now to open up those counties with large populations to legally have wineries established in them. The current law as it stands allows more leeway for Nevada’s famous bordellos than it does its wineries. It is restrictive, and as a result there are only four wineries in the state.”

Cui bono?

On her blog, King blamed “special interests” for these restrictions. Speaking with Wines & Vines, she implied that these special interests include the state’s existing wineries in Nye County (outside of Las Vegas) as well as wine distributors. “They say they invite anyone to come in and start a winery, but they want to be protected. If they come in and make wine and don’t use 25% or more Nevada grapes, their sales will be limited” to the 1,000 cases per year cap.

King would like to see more diversity. “Here, a ‘wine vacation’ is a 50-mile day trip on a bus trip to Pahrump. If wineries have the production to sell more wine, they have to go through distributors. To sell to the Bellagio (or other major casinos), you have to have a distributor. Las Vegas is all about “juice.” In Vegas, she explained, “juice” isn’t grape juice, it’s power and influence. “It’s who you know.”

Bill Loken owns Pahrump Valley Winery, destination of the wine tour bus trip. Founded in 1990, it’s Nevada’s oldest and largest winery, selling 80% of its 10,000-case production direct to consumer (DtC). Although he has an estate vineyard and sources from several small vineyards, he still must import some grapes from California.

“We are for the bill,” he stated unequivocally. “The state of Nevada allows wineries in every county. In counties of 100,000 or more population, DtC sales are not allowed.”

Loken recently flew to Carson City to testify on behalf of the bill. Because grapegrowing is a rural activity, he said, the legislature said to put it in rural areas.

“They wanted to prevent tanker trucks from coming in and bottling California wines. We believe in encouraging vineyards. Vineyards come first, then wineries. AB 4 would put vineyards first. We asked that they change the required percentage of Nevada-grown grapes.”

Despite or because of its wide-open spaces, desert climate and terroir, he said, “We are poised for big growth. Our wines are bought as fast as we can make them. You can’t have a farmers market without farmers.”

Southern Nevada has a long growing season and “lots of sunlight. We’re in alluvial sand. If you trench down 6 feet, you can harvest grapes at the end of the third growing season,” he said. Zinfandel, Syrah and Tempranillo thrive there; he’s looking into white Albariño vines for future plantings.

“Every single grower and winery in the state wants to see many more wineries,” Loken said. The concern about DtC sales seemed to center on the specter of California grapes bottled in Nevada being sold in “15 tasting rooms on the Vegas strip. The state did not want to turn the keys over” to corporate interests.

“We want to create our own identity,” he said. He predicted that, after the amended bill was passed 42-0 in the Assembly, the Senate vote would harvest the same result.

“AB 4 opens the entire state, but requires wineries to enter the market and plant the vines.”

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