Wine Consumer

Magazine

Nevada Pioneer-Tahoe Ridge Winery

WineConsumer, Kenneth Young
09/19/2013

Bone-chilling winds spilling down the eastern slope of the Sierras can drop the winter temperatures in the Carson Valley well below freezing. Summer days of sizzling temperatures and steaming thunderstorms beat on acres of hearty vines struggling to produce fruit for Nevada’s newest agriculture enterprise: wine grape growing.
The headquarters of Nevada’s fledging wine industry is the tiny community of Genoa. Originally named Mormon Station, the historic town some 40 miles south of Reno, was founded by Mormon settlers immigrating to California in 1851. Across the road from the Genoa Saloon – the states first “watering hole” – a small sign invites passersby to taste the wines of Nevada’s first, and only, commercial winery; Tahoe Ridge.

Rick and Kathy Halbardier are not native Nevadans nor do they have a heritage of grape growing and wine making. Rick is a southern Californian with an electrical engineering degree from UCLA. Kathy is a mid-westerner with a background in banking, finance and project management. Together, they have a vision for Tahoe RidgeVineyards to grow, produce and successfully market high quality, hand crafted Nevada wines.

The couple met in the mid 1980s when Rick was working in fiber optics for a little company called Novell and Kathy was doing software development for Metropolitan Life. After years of constant travel with only brief times together, Rick and Kathy decided to chuck it all for a less hectic lifestyle. tahoe ridge wine

 

The Halbardiers initially settled in Sacramento but were enticed to visit the Carson Valley by one of Kathy’s old roommates. “We were hooked,” Rick recalls. “We bought our property the next weekend."

Rick developed a fascination with fermentation science through his cousin’s UC Davis student roommate and began taking classes in enology and viticulture from the UCD extension program. Rick was invited to work his first grape harvest by winemaker Grant Taylor at Domain De Napa in 1990 and enjoyed every aspect of the hard but satisfying work.

Through his association with the Napa winery, Rick became acquainted with Dr. Alan Young and began taking classes at the International Wine Academy in San Francisco where he graduated in 1994. Rick’s practical winery experience was enhanced by working with Dave and Tom Jones at Lava Cap in the Sierra foothills and Russ Jones at Truckee River Winery. “These guys along with Bob Bertheau (head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle) were my mentors and very instrumental in developing my wine appreciation and knowledge,” Rick said.

By the spring of 1990, the Halbardiers had relocated in the Carson Valley but there was no wine industry in Nevada for Rick to work in. It was on a trip to Sacramento that the idea of growing grapes struck Rick and Kathy. “I vividly recall sitting in the parking lot of Tortilla Flats in Placerville when we came up with the idea,” Rick related.

“We had the land, the finances and the time but little knowledge of grape growing. We knew how to dig a hole and plant a grape. We saw how to put in a drip system and set up a trellis but that was about it,” Rick recalls. “We needed help so we hooked up with Dr. Wayne Johnson who ran the Desert Research Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno. While he didn’t have a background in cold-hardy grapes, Dr. Johnson had studied under Michigan State cold weather viticulturalist Dr. Stan Howe.” At first, Dr. Johnson didn’t think wine grapes could be grown in northern Nevada but Rick convinced him to help find out what was possible.

In the year between making the decision to grow grapes and actually planting the vines, Rick and Kathy worked with DRI’s Dr. Jim Asby to develop a climatic model of the Carson Valley. This model was then compared with climatological data from around the world and led to contact with Dr. Danny Jackson from Lincoln University in Adelaide Australia. Dr. Asby suggested that Rick look at a system called the Latitude-Temperature Index to compare growing regions. This system considers site latitude and elevation which is quite different from the traditional Davis model of heating unit comparison. According to Dr. Jackson, latitude and elevation may be the two most important factors affecting the growing environment in the Carson Valley.tahoe ridge wine barn

The Latitude-Temperature Index is based on the theory that the air is thinner at higher elevation result in faster photosynthetic development. In addition, the further north the site, the longer the daylight in hours during the growing season. For example, Napa and Sonoma will get low clouds or fog during the growing season that may not burn off until mid-morning whereas the Carson Valley will get sunlight shortly after dawn and continue until eight or nine in the evening.

According to Rick, the value of the LTI model is not in trying to match a site with a climate that was ideal for grape growing. Rather, the model was more useful in comparing climates that were similar to the Carson Valley environment and had successful histories of growing grapes. “What we finally did was to study five areas in the world with similar LTIs,” Rick said. These five areas were Bonn, Germany; Epernay, France; Christ Church, New Zealand; eastern Washington state; and the Finger Lakes region of New York state.

“When we did the comparative analysis looking at all the data including temperature, precipitation, winter freeze rates etc., it showed that our potential to grow grapes in the Carson Valley was equal to or better than these other areas of the world that been growing grapes for between forty and several hundred years. That gave us the glimmer of hope we needed to plant the first vineyard,” Rick explained.

“The varieties we thought would do pretty well never did anything,”

The first 900 vines planted in Rick and Katy’s vineyard in the spring of 1991 were cool climate varieties including Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Semillon, Muller-Thurgau, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. “We worked with people at Washington State University and Cornell University who had a lot of knowledge about growing grapes in very cool climates,” Rick said. “They recommended seven varieties and that’s what we put in.”

The survivability of that first planting was a bit disappointing. “The varieties we thought would do pretty well never did anything,” Rick recalled. “We really didn’t have any idea why cold weather varieties like Muller-Thurgau, and Gewurztraminer didn’t survive and other varieties did,” Rick said. “What we found from those vines that did survive was that the growing cycle in Nevada is completely different than in California.”

Applying the LTI, Rick and Kathy determined that Nevada has about 1.36 growing degree day units at the 4,300 foot elevation for every growing degree unit at sea level. Since northern Nevada can get frost well into late April, the frost free growing season in the Carson Valley is approximately 135 growing days. However, applying the LTI factor of 1.36, it turns out that the valley has the equivalent of 178 growing days. The result is that the grapes grow and mature faster at the Carson Valley elevation than they do at sea level. “That meant the grapes would achieve mature sugar and acid levels in a shorter time,” Rick said.

Knowing that the Carson Valley could produce mature grapes if the vines could survive the winter was encouraging to Rick and Kathy but they knew they needed viticulture help. During their travels to gather advice from high elevation growers in the Sierra foothills, Rick and Kathy kept hearing about “Demetri” who lived “somewhere over in Nevada”. It turned out that “Demetri” was Demetri Tchelistcheff, son of famed winemaker Andre Tchelistrecheff. Demetri had a small vineyard in Topaz (a small town about 20 south of Minden) and produced Nevada’s first wine from his grapes. Tchelistcheff became Rick and Kathy’s vineyard consultant and advisor until his return to Napa in 1996.

Demetri provided the Halbardiers with invaluable guidance as the vineyard developed. “He thought we were on the right track with our selections and highly recommended that all the vines be own-rooted to eliminate crown gall often found in cool climates,” Rick related. Tchelistcheff also urged to Rick and Kathy to get certified plant material from Washington or Cornell University’s foundation library where the plants were more acclimated to the cold environment.

“A lot of what we did between 1992 and 2001 was pretty much trial and error,” Rick says. “We got a lot of die-back every winter but really didn’t know why. We tried different trellising systems and evaporative cooling but had limited success. Our vines would look beautiful during the growing season and we were doing everything we knew how to do. We would do tissue samples every month and from November to February, everything would look good. By March the tissue had turned yellowish green and the vines would die.”

Frustrated by not finding an answer to the die-back problem, Rick turned to Cornell University’s Dr. Bruce Wright. Instrumental in the development of the New York and Ontario wine industries, Dr. Wright had a wealth of knowledge about growing grapes in sever climates.

The problem according to Dr. Wright was solar radiation stress. In New York, winter is marked by cloud cover lasting from November to March with only the occasional sunny day. The northeast also gets snow that lasts the entire winter. This covering of snow acts as an insulator keeping the vines inside the thermal mass at a constant 32 degrees.Tahoe Ridge Rick and Kathy

In northern Nevada, vines are totally exposed to the elements throughout the winter. They get sunshine, wind, night freeze, daytime thaw, dehydration from lack of precipitation followed by sudden re-hydration from winter storms. The vines are constantly under stress to the point that when the days start to warm in February and March, the vines don’t have the energy to pull themselves out of dormancy.

The solution to the problem for Rick and Kathy was two-fold. First, Dr. Wright recommended planting “inter-specific varietals”. Second, Dr. Wright suggested implementing a technology called “cane renewal”. The Halbardiers implemented both recommendations in 2002-03.

In the spring, Rick pruned all but a single spur cane from each vine in order to concentrate the vine’s energy. Rick continues, “Our goal then was to protect this hearty cane over the winter by pinning the cane to the ground and covering it with 12-16 inches of dirt.” Although labor intensive, the cane renewal technique eliminated the winter die-back problem.

Rick and Kathy also started replacing unsuccessful varieties with Cornell’s inter-specific varietals. These are genetically cross-bred vines at the seed level. Originally called French Hybrids in the 1960s, vines developed in the 1990s from genetic combinations are capable of producing excellent wine grapes while maintaining specific characteristics like cold heartiness and drought resistance.

“As of 2004 we had grown 34 different varietals and wound up pulling most of those out because we thought they would never make it. Out of the 34 varieties, we know that four are potentially commercially viable in the Carson Valley,” Rick said. Those four varieties are Chardonnay, Lemberger, Riesling and Semillon. “We and several of our growers have recently planted inter-specific varietals including Melody, Harmony, Tramanent, Frontenac and Chardonnel,” Rick stated.

Tahoe Ridge Winery was bonded as an education and research facility making wines from northern Nevada grapes for experimental purposes only. In 2000, Tahoe Ridge went commercial moving from the Harlbardier’s garage to Russ Jones’ Truckee River facility. The first commercial wine made in the state of Nevada was Tahoe Ridge 2001 Chardonnay from Gardotti vineyard in Gardnerville. “We hand signed and numbered every one of the 456 bottles of that first vintage,” Kathy smiles. The wine was a success and sold out within a few weeks of release.

Today, there are 12 wine grape growers in Nevada. The 15 acres of northern Nevada vineyards produced a little over 10 tons of white wine grapes in 2004. From this fruit, Tahoe Ridge produced a little over 200 cases of white wine.

“I think Barbera and Tempranillo do particularly well in central Nevada and may well be Nevada’s most important red varieties in the future,”

The northern Nevada climate is too cool to commercially grow most red wine grape varieties. However, Nye County in west-central Nevada, half-way between Reno and Las Vegas, has a warm, dry climate that is conducive to growing red varieties. In 2004 Rick established the first five acres of a 25 acre vineyard that includes 25% Barbera, 25% Tempranillo, 25% Primativo and 25% red Rhone varieties. “I think Barbera and Tempranillo do particularly well in central Nevada and may well be Nevada’s most important red varieties in the future,” Rick said confidently.

After 14 years of experimentation, frustration, and just plain hard work, Rick and Kathy Halbardier have demonstrated that good wine can be made from grapes produced in Nevada. They are so confident in the success of Nevada wines that Tahoe Ridge has broken ground for a $2.5 million winery and marketplace just a few miles south of Genoa. Located on the historic Van Sickle Station Ranch, the ambitious project features a state-of-the-art winery and barrel room, tasting room and gourmet market in a renovated 150 year old barn, an Artisan Cultural Village, and a museum.

“Sure, there are limitations to a Nevada wine industry and we will never be a Napa Valley, but we know we can grow good grapes and make good wine,” Rick concludes with a confident smile.