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A trio of wineries has set the standard for the Silver State’s successful vino industry.
Photo: Rachid Dahnoun (all; above: Tahoe Ridge Winery)
You’re playing a game of charades, and the subject “Nevada” comes up. One of the last things you might do is flip your pinky up, slowly bring your hand to your mouth, and tilt your fingers skyward to mimic the act of drinking wine. But perhaps some day you will, and Nevada will become a wine destination to rival its next-door neighbor to the west.
For now, though, Nevada is the place wine aficionados can go to escape the Napa Valley crowd, and three wineries—Tahoe Ridge, Churchill Vineyards, and Pahrump Valley—are at the forefront of the Silver State’s winemaking industry.Tahoe Ridge Winery, Marketplace, & Bistro
In the early 1990s, while in his 20s, Rick Halbardier retired from the Internet business and moved to Minden with his wife, Kathy. While Kathy was attending the University of Nevada, Reno, Rick decided to try his hand at farming—not just any kind of farming, but grape growing, a venture not commonly pursued in the Carson Valley.
Almost 20 years later, Tahoe Ridge Winery is the result of Rick’s career change. Tahoe Ridge is a pioneer in the quest to establish a wine industry in Nevada. In 2001, Tahoe Ridge harvested and produced the state’s first commercial wine, a chardonnay, from 100-percent Nevada grapes, and all 456 bottles sold out in two weeks. Since, the winery has been successful in producing wine from a number of cold-weather varietals: La Cross, La Crescent, and Brianna whites and St. Croix and Frontenac reds.
The Tahoe Ridge tasting room and bistro, which opened in November after relocating to Minden from Genoa, is worth a stop for lunch, dinner, an afternoon respite, or a glass of wine on the patio. “[The tasting room and bistro has] good food and a good atmosphere, complemented by a grand piano in the dining area,” says Gardnerville resident Deborah Tyler. “We have been great fans of the cabernet since we moved here a couple of years ago. The staff is friendly, and the fireplace is warm.”
The tasting room and bistro feature award-winning wines, produced with grapes from the company’s own vineyards and from grapes grown in California.
Within the bistro, innovative dishes feature wine suggestions, including pizzas such as the Garden Pie, with goat cheese, pesto, and tomatoes; or the Wild Mushroom Medley, with cognac-soaked mushrooms and camber cheese. The Tahoe Ridge tasting room and bistro also offers small plates, including citrus and garlic black pepper shrimp or chicken tequila penne, along with an assortment of salads and other appetizers.Churchill Vineyards
Established in 2001, Churchill Vineyards in Fallon takes advantage of a climate similar to that of eastern Washington state—and has the grapes to prove it. The climate in Churchill County closely matches that of Walla Walla, the second-largest grape-growing region in the country renowned for its robust reds.
In fact, Churchill County is where Northern Nevada produces most of its vinifera wine grape vines, says Colby Frey, owner and manager of Churchill Vineyards. The hot days and cool nights in Fallon, about 60 miles east of Reno, are the keys to growing quality European-style grapes. “The trick is to get past the frost,” Frey says. “We are known for our sweet cantaloupes here, and those same conditions can also produce a grape with a lot of sugar. We have six to seven varietals that we think may do exceptionally well in the area, all fine European-style wine grapes that make premium wines. White Riesling and Gewürztraminer do exceptionally well here.”
Churchill Vineyards produced its first estate wine in 2004. Larry Ruvo, who owns Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, has helped make Churchill Vineyards the most widely distributed Nevada-grown brand. Semillon is Frey’s favorite. Although generally used for blending, Frey bottles it by itself, and customers are very happy with the wine. They are also growing the popular Gewürztraminer and pinot gris, both of which sell out quickly. Limburger grapes, pinot noir, and melbac grapes are in the ground and, thus far, have given rise to high production hopes.
In May 2006, Churchill Vineyards was approved to be the first distillery in the state, allowing them to produce 20 barrels of distilled liquor, including vodka and brandies such as grappa that should be ready for consumption by summer 2010. The vineyard, distillery, and winery are located on one of the oldest farms in Nevada, dating to the 1800s. Wine-tasting events are scheduled by appointment only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.Pahrump Valley Winery
Bill and Gretchen Loken, owners of Pahrump Valley Winery, are adding estate vineyards and partnering with others in the Silver State to expand their Nevada offerings. “We are now sourcing grapes from half a dozen growers around Nevada with several new Nevada-grown wines set for release this year,” Bill says.
Nevada Ridge, a zinfandel packaged in a deep red bottle and silkscreened with gold Nevada mountains, was produced from estate grapes harvested in 2005—making it the state’s first commercial red wine. It took the Gold Award at the 2009 Pacific Rim International Wine Competition, Nevada’s first homegrown wine to receive such international acclaim.
Pahrump Valley Winery won 51 national awards last year, including 10 Gold Awards between Nevada Ridge, 2005 Syrah, 2007 Symphony, 2007 Peak White, and Creme Sherry. Since the Lokens took over the winery in 2005 (it opened in March 1990), the couple has won almost 200 awards from wines they produced primarily from California grapes. They hope to be equally
successful with their own harvests.
The wines are receiving good reviews locally as well. Issa Khoury, owner of Khoury’s Fine Wine & Spirit in nearby Las Vegas, says several of Pahrump Valley’s wines “are a little on the sweeter side, which makes them good for customers who are just getting out of white zins and looking for a good bridge to new wines.” The winery also sells a variety of dry blends such as pinot noir, syrah, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon.
The Lokens have done extensive renovations to improve customers’ wine-tasting experiences, such as adding rooms to make guests more comfortable as they wait for a table to the restaurant or enjoy a glass of wine. An awards wall showcases the winery’s accolades—each bottle stands on its own pedestal, its award draped over its neck like a dowager duchess’ diamonds.
Symphony, Pahrump Valley’s light summer wine, has won Double Gold and Best of Class awards in international wine competitions. Pair a bottle with steak or seafood (try the lobster bisque) at the restaurant of the same name, a hidden jewel that offers indoor and patio dining overlooking gorgeous grounds. Pahrump Valley’s annual Grape Stomp, traditionally in October, attracts hundreds of wine enthusiasts, revelers, and music fans.
The winery sweetens the deal with a helicopter pad for fly-ins. “We’ve had as many as 11 helicopters fly in at one time,” Bill says. “Generally high rollers from Vegas.”
Downtown Wine Walk
First Sat. of each month
Thirsty Third Thursday Wine Walks
Main Street District
Third Thurs., thru Sept.
DBA Wine Walk
Second Sat., July-Oct.
Riverwalk District Wine Walk
Third Sat. of each month
Wine Walk at The Village
The Village Lake Las Vegas
New Vista Community Wine Walk
Town Square Las Vegas