Lincoln County Grower’s First Commercial Harvest Produces Winning Wine
Betsy Whipple wants the world to see Nevada as a special place. Specifically, she’d like to make Lincoln County’s Pahranagat Valley into a wine tourism destination. She’s got a few cheerleaders, including up-and-coming winemaker Tim Burke, who bought Whipple’s first commercial harvest, and made it into a very good white blend. Story continues below…
“It was our first time working with those grapes because they’re French Bordeaux varietals that you just don’t see,” Burke told Grape Basin News. “And we liked the results.”
Burke named the wine VMR, a 2018 blend of Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane. The VMR was quite young in March of 2019, but Burke and winemaking partner Pam Tyler entered it in the Nevada Vines & Wines competition, and it scored a bronze medal.
“It turned out excellent,” he said. “Very fruity, dry on the palate, full mouth.” Burke likes how the VMR is developing now, almost a year later. He will definitely show up for Whipple’s 2019 harvest.
Busloads of tourists, on the other hand, won’t show up for some time, unless they’re geologists investigating the asteroid that crash landed in the region some 360 million years ago. The so-called Alamo Bolide Impact caused a tsunami in the prehistoric lake that once filled the Great Basin, and it sculpted the land Pahranagat Valley now inhabits.
For now, visits from hoards of wine lovers are less likely than – well, less like likely than an asteroid smashing into Nevada.
Betsy Whipple is the lone viticulturist in the Paranagat Valley, a long, narrow oasis strewn with springs and lakes that have boosted farming and nurtured the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. Story continues below…
The valley’s close-knit communities include Alamo, Ash Springs, and Hiko, where Whipple’s home and her vinyard are located. If you grew up here, you know everyone. Among Whipple’s friends are the Higbee family, of which various members have served on the Lincoln County Commission, and several of whom helped harvest nearly a ton of grapes from the Whipple vineyard last fall.
Ed Higbee has taken an interest in viticulture. He planted 10 Tempranillo vines on his own property, which he may augment with 10 more once he’s gauged their success. Higbee has limited time to spend on farming because he also has a demanding job.
“I want it to be successful,” he told GBN. “I don’t want it to fall apart just because of lack of attention.”
Higbee’s experience with grapes is limited to the Thompson table variety that have grown for years in the valley. He knows virtually nothing about wine, but says he was pleased recently to get thumbs-up from a few knowledgeable New Yorkers who tasted the VMR white blend, which he served to them in a business setting.
Betsy Whipple’s venture into viticulture was inspired by conversations dating back to kindergarten with a now-deceased friend. Even as a five-year-old playing among the Thompson grape vines, he seemed to view them as a special crop, she said. Years later, they had long talks while she was home from college, and he speculated that Pahranagat Valley has potential as a wine growing region. Together, they envisioned vineyards and wineries as a draw for tourists from Las Vegas, which lies a bit more than an hour south.
When she graduated from Cal Poly, Whipple launched a career in financial services with stints at several big-name firms in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Eventually, she headed home and dug into earnest research about the Paranagat Valley’s climate – going back 100 years, she says – and the grapes that might do well in it.
Then came planting experiments, and big investments in vineyard development. Whipple was frustrated with mixed results after following advice from vendors who instructed her in Napa Valley techniques.
“Those things don’t work here,” she says, sweeping a hand across Nevada’s desert horizon.
Her continual search for advice brought her into contact with Nevada’s experienced vintners. First, Rick and Kathy Halbardier of the Tahoe Ridge Winery. Later, Bill and Gretchen Loken from Pahrump Valley Winery, and finally Tim Burke, who has vineyard experience at both ends of the state.
Burke helped Whipple lay out a new Cabernet vineyard, and has advised her as she cleared a new plot to plant more Viognier.
“We’re planning a long term relationship with her,” said Burke “We’re expecting quite a bit bigger harvest this year.” Burke is currently planning to open a commercial winery in Nye County.
Whipple’s an optimistic grower now, but she’d like to see the tax code altered to make viticulture more economically palatable. She’d like to take a deduction sooner for thousands of dollars invested in vineyard infrastructure, and for 1,250 vines now in various stages of maturity.