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University Vineyard at Valley Road to be Revived, Financially Self-Sustaining

About two thousand vines on two acres at a university agriculture project on Reno’s Valley Road will be nursed back to health, with the hope they’ll produce enough fruit to support future oenology and winemaking classes — and perhaps even a University of Nevada wine label. But there are challenges ahead, says the new program director of the Nevada Desert Farming Initiative.
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Dormant vines marked by a handmade wooden sign at the Valley Road vineyard on November 28, 2018. Photo: @GrapeBasinNews

Charles Schembre assumed the vacant post this fall with years of experience in vineyard management under his belt, most recently demonstrating sustainable growing techniques on a 20 acre vineyard owned by the Napa County Resource Conservation District. Prior to that, he managed as many as 150 acres of commercial vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties.

Charles Schembre, recently hired as Program Director for the Nevada Desert Farming Initiative. Photo: From DFI website

For two decades, members of northern Nevada’s winemaking community cut their vine-tending teeth at the Valley Road vineyards, until the University terminated a well-used volunteer program. Newcomer Schembre says he’s not familiar with folklore surrounding the decline of a dynamic relationship between the university and the region’s aspiring vintners, some of whom have since opened commercial wineries. But he is aware that there’s excitement surrounding his arrival, and the promise of new energy at the site.

Valley Road’s two acres would seem to be an easy task for someone with Schembre’s know-how, but success requires more than savvy farming, he told GBN in a recent interview.

“Two acres for me is nothing,” he said. “It’s exciting, but it also comes with a lot of planning and burden. We’ll have a lot of growth and juggling to do.”

The primary challenge will be paying for full-time labor, because grapes are labor intensive. The vineyards would suffer from  reliance only on volunteer staffing.

“Agriculture is about timing, not about doing,” Schembre said. It can’t be accomplished with people who give a few hours of time each week, he said.

Unharvested grapes at the Valley Road vineyards on November 28, 2018. Photo:@GrapeBasinNews

“The canopy is out of control, and you should have been doing the leaf thinning. You’ve got to be timely with it.” Timely attention to farming tasks requires money, he said.

“They (grapes) can be very expensive to farm if you don’t have the skilled labor, so it will be interesting for us to make that vineyard financially successful as well (as healthy).”

The most successful university programs in the nation have significant industry support, Schembre said. Notably U.C. Davis, Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo), and Washington State Universities exist side-by-side with large growers associations and commercial wineries.

“They’ve got these massive buildings and facilities that say, like at U.C. Davis, ‘The Robert Mondavi Center,'” Schembre said. “The industry funds the universities to build these things, to have the research. It doesn’t work in reverse. The Universities don’t scratch and claw to invest all this money into a crop, to hope that the growers or people will latch onto it.”

Getting Nevada grapes and wine on the map, and creating a robust program here will require financial support from the people who want to see it happen.

“That’s just he way it works.”

An extensive UNR winemaking program might never be more than a dream, Schembre told GBN.

“But what we can do is have a nice productive vineyard here, and be able to offer some classes and workshops, and it’s probably always gonna be pretty low key.”

The DFI will maintain the south vineyard as a research vineyard, with grape varieties planted in scattershot fashion to facilitate research on specific questions about soil or other growing conditions. Another acre to the north will be planted with two Bordeaux varieties that have done well in the research vineyard over the past decade.

“That’s enough grapes if they do well to produce a decent amount of wine,” Schmbre said. “If everything goes well, four years from planting we could have a good crop. We could get about four tons maybe, in four years. That’s gonna produce a lot of wine.”

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