In Nevada, what do whorehouses and wineries have in common?

Before I give the answer, let me discuss the vineyard/winery issue here in Nevada.

I had always wondered why there weren’t many vineyards or wineries here in Nevada. After all, we’re snuggled right next to California, and – at least in theory – there should be some parts of Nevada that would be conducive to grape growing and wineries. Surely there should be a way for us to compete with California in some way, despite the lack of ocean influences. There is at least one winery in every state, and even states such as Texas, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, and Ohio have vineyards.

So what’s the deal with Nevada?

Pahrump Valley Vineyards

Pahrump Valley Vineyards

There are several issues with Nevada which makes grape growing somewhat problematic. The first and foremost is the quality of the soil. Southern Nevada in particular has bad soil for grape growing. It’s alkaline, rocky, heavy in Boron, and just is not grape-friendly. Traveling further north along its western border, however, the soil is better suited to grape growing although the issues of soil makeup are still a problem.

There’s also the issue of the climate. Nevada has probably the lowest rainfall average of any state, as well as the problem of the high-desert environment which makes for very hot days and warm nights in the summer and very cold climate during the winter.

Dr. Grant R. Cramer of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno, has an ongoing research project that is studying the effect of the soil and climate on grapes, the ideal grapes for the (largely Northern) Nevada soil and climate, and has been collaborating with Nevada Vines and Wines, a non-profit group of grape growers and winemakers in western Nevada who would like to see the tiny wine industry further developed in Nevada. There’s also a High Desert Hops project ongoing, but that’s a different post!

The research project has studied Syrah, Merlot, Semillon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Lemberger, Pinot Gris and Riesling, all wines with good marketability.

An economic analysis prepared by Dr. Cramer’s colleagues shows that grape growing can net more profits than alfalfa, a popular crop in Nevada. In addition, wine grapes use 12 times less water than alfalfa.

The other issue is part one of a political problem.

Nevada is a large state; at 7th in area size, it’s larger than most people realize. The problem is that according to data published by the Congressional Research Service, the federal government owns 84% of the state. It’s an area that all of the New England states could fit into. The Federal government, by the way, owns no land in New England. That amount of Federally-owned, untouchable area means that Nevada is 35th in population density and that there’s a lot of land that could go to all kinds of agriculture, including vineyards.

That being said, there are talks ongoing that could see many acres of that land transferred to state control, which can only mean good things.

By the way, some of that Federal land includes Area 51!

And Then There’s Nevada (Shaking My Head)

Sanders Winery

Sanders Winery

Under the “Shoot Yourself in Your Own Foot” category, the biggest obstacle to the possibility of a vibrant wine industry is Nevada law. Aside from the “service” jokes that I won’t touch, this is where the whorehouse/winery comparison makes sense.

To run a bordello in Nevada, the hosting county must have a population of less than 700,000. This requirement eliminates Clark County (Las Vegas) and Washoe County (Reno), the two largest population centers in the state. Interestingly, only eight of the 19 counties that could legally permit bordellos do so.

To run a winery in Nevada, the hosting county must have a population of less than 100,000.

What?!? Are wineries less desirable than whorehouses? According to Nevada law, they must be.

Okay, I’m being a little facetious here. The actual reason for the law was – in theory, at least – to help the wineries in smaller counties, such as Nye, Churchill, and Minden, (correction: Minden is the county seat of Douglas County) to grow. Those counties are where the four existing wineries now exist. Four. I guess that made sense for some reason in the early ’90s when it was signed into law. Yet let’s face it, if you look at California, there’s no law outlawing wineries in, say, large population areas such as Los Angeles or San Francisco. Good thing, since some of the best wineries in the United States have a San Francisco Bay AVA.  And there are wineries in Los Angeles, San Diego, and every large population area where there’s room for vineyards. And how many wineries are there in just one AVA – let’s say, Paso Robles – compared to the entire state of Nevada? There are also single vineyard AVAs – think Calera in the Mt. Harlan AVA – that haven’t suffered because of the open attitude. See my point?

Churchill Vineyard

Churchill Vineyard

Opening up the possibility of permitting more wineries in the state could allow the economic expansion of the small wine industry. The state of Washington – whose primary wine region climates are very similar to Northern Nevada’s – has seen its wine industry mushroom in the last few years. I think people visiting Lake Tahoe or Reno, for instance, wouldn’t mind day trips to Nevada vineyards and wineries should there be more available.

Nevada is a tourist state, and this type of law restricts the possibility of economic expansion and diversity, which residents have been clamoring about for years. It also flies in the face of the freedom that other wine regions enjoy – if you can find a place where vineyards will grow and wine will be made, then go for it!  Opening up economic possibilities is much better than raising taxes because people love opportunity, hate taxes, and will always find ways to avoid paying them.

A law that was prefiled in the legislature hopes to address this issue. As stated in an article posted in the December 24 issue of the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

The winery bill comes from Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, who wants to remove a provision in state law prohibiting the state’s two largest counties from selling wine that is made “on premise.”

“Many Western states have had tremendous economic success growing grapes and making wine, and I think it’s time Nevada joined this growing industry to help diversify our economy in Washoe and throughout the state,” Hickey said in a statement issued in July when he announced his intention to introduce the bill.

There’s a reason why some of the best customers that California wineries have are from Nevada. We pour millions into the California wine industry each year from this state alone. I can say that safely because the wine industry contributes about $40 Billion (with a B) into the California economy each year. We want wine; California’s convenient. In my case, it’s a lot more convenient than Minden (correction: Douglas) or Churchill Counties. I’d rather go to a place where I can spend a weekend – or vacation – visiting multiple wineries rather than making a long trip to visit just one.  If there were more wineries, it would give me a good reason to travel and explore the wineries of my adopted home state.

Let’s hope that Assemblyman Hickey’s bill is passed and gives Nevada wineries more status and opportunities than the whorehouses.

As I learn more, I’ll share the news.

Nevada Wineries

Pahrump Valley Winery

Churchill Vineyards

Sanders Family Winery

Tahoe Ridge Winery

Links and Resources

Nevada Legislature: Wineries bill among list of prefiled bills

Could Wine-making Get Big in Northern Nevada?

CNS News

Viticulture Destiny

Wine Guy

UNR Gazette