Pahrump Valley’s Bill Loken on Winery Success and Nevada Grown Grapes
Things are good at the Pahrump Valley Winery.
“We couldn’t be happier,” winery owner Bill Loken told Grape Basin News over coffee in his recently-expanded restaurant.
Our table was nestled against a glass-enclosed sun room with a vineyard view, where the last of the lunch crowd lingered. Behind him, an open door revealed a small banquet room. Both spaces were added in the last three years, taking the winery’s dining capacity from 50 to 124. During roughly the same period, Loken tripled the size of the tasting room.
Soon, another expansion will yield 7,000 additional square feet of production, storage, and banquet space. Under Loken’s management, and with his wife Gretchen in the winemaking role, the rural winery beneath the west-facing peak of Mt. Charleston seems poised for long-term success.
“Our goal is to become a 12 to 14,000 case winery within 10 years, and be a minimum of 80 percent Nevada grown,” he said.
In pursuit of the goal, Loken has been campaigning aggressively to persuade Nevada farmers to abandon alfalfa in favor of grapes. His aspirations for his own winery will require 60-80 acres, he estimates. Beyond that, the hope is that new vineyards will supply an increasingly robust wine region, which will in turn spur demand for more vineyards.
“Since the law changed, we’ve added between 9 and 10 thousand vines,” he said, referring to 2015 legislation that was conceived to boost Nevada as a wine destination, and changed the law so wineries can operate tasting rooms in the state’s two urban counties, Washoe and Clark.
“The growers were nervous, and when the law changed I encouraged them,” Loken said. “Now you can plant with assurance that there’s gonna be demand for your product. It’s not such a risk as it was before.”
To quell any unsettled anxiety, he shares the risk with growers who agree to put in new vineyards, promising to buy up even grapes that don’t make good wine.
Loken is unmovable on the subject of Nevada grapes, which he asserts are critical to a successful wine industry in the state. Vineyards come first, then wine. Any questions?
Firmly committed to the proposition that Nevada wine requires Nevada grapes — the more the better — he showed up in Carson City in 2015 to influence statutory requirements for fruit content. He ruffled some northern winemakers, who cast his hardline stance as simple protectionism, and came to view him as an opponent to opening up the urban counties.
Loken contends that any protectionist instincts were aimed squarely at California mega-producers, who might use an urban winery law to sweep into the state with their own juice and set up shop on the Strip. He was never intent on keeping Nevadans out of the business, he said.
“Had no restrictions been put (into Assembly Bill 4),” he said, “there would have been absolutely nothing to prevent Gallo, Trinchero, The Wine Group, Franzia, Golden State Vineyards — any of these great big conglomerates – they could have gone right into downtown Reno, they could have gone right into downtown Las Vegas, and put in large bottling plants. Had tankers coming in on Monday, bottle it on Tuesday, and then selling it in their tasting rooms on Wednesday.
“If you can do that, why would you ever invest in a vineyard in a rural area? Why would you ever encourage growers to put in grapes, because you just basically cut the industry out before you got started.”
Assembly Bill 4 was introduced by Washoe County lawmaker Pat Hickey on behalf of the Nevada Wine Coalition, a northern group that formed in synergy with a viticulture and winemaking program at the University of Nevada, Reno. In AB 4, they sought only to remove a population cap that prevented them from operating tasting rooms in the second-largest Nevada county.
In the bill’s first hearing, Loken testified that Nevada wine containing anything less than 75 percent Nevada grapes would not comport with federal law. He also said he endorsed the bill’s goal for the urban counties, but warned against becoming “a wine suburb of California.”
Loken says that as the session progressed, he relaxed his insistence on a high concentration of Nevada grown fruit. He agreed on dropping the minimum from 75 percent to 50 percent, and upon further reflection, to 25.
“We want to keep it a low bar to get in and get going,” he said, because small successes would breed demand, and would fuel expansion of both growing and winemaking in the state.
The state’s largest liquor distributor also had a hand in shaping the legislation, and AB 4 was amended to place a 1,000 case cap on sales for new wineries using less than 25 percent Nevada grown fruit.
On this year’s legislative agenda, the Nevada Wine Coalition announced it would try to raise the 1,000 case limit, arguing that the cap would hobble return on investment while new wineries wait for fledgling vineyards to mature, a 4-6 year process. The plan came under immediate attack by the distributors’ lobby. The Coalition has since retreated from a case limit amendment.
Now, as the Coalition seeks other changes to the law, Loken wonders why the state’s northern wine producers believe they need more legislation to be successful.
“It’s been two years,” he said. “Where are the vineyards? Where are they? I don’t see them going in.” He points out that southern Nevada vineyards have tripled in 18 months.
“If we’re here two more years from now and nobody’s put any vineyards in, there will not be a sympathetic ear in this state to change anything in that law.”
That’s a worry, but it does not appear to be Bill Loken’s worry. As we walk through his small barrel room, Pahrump Valley is preparing to bottle 750 gallons of Pinot Grigio. They’ve outgrown this room, but by next year, a new, larger room will house 200 barrels. In the center of the new barrel room, tables and chairs will seat 80 for meetings and special events. The expanded facility will have 12 fermentation tanks, a new high-speed, automated bottling line, and will store more than 18,000 cases of bottled wine.
All of this will take shape just in time for Pahrump Valley’s thirteenth harvest.