One Year In: Artesian Cellars Thrives in a Chaotic Time, and a Major Strip Property May Want Their Wine
“It was never in our business plan to open a restaurant,” says Tim Burke. “Just typical winery stuff. Charcuterie boards, cheese and crackers, desserts.”
Burke is explaining – over lunch on the first anniversary at his Artesian Cellars Winery– how adding a kitchen and full food service became necessary.
Story continues below…
As he speaks, a 17-ton harvest is in various stages of processing. There’s Mourvèdre on hold in the barrel room. The staff is scrambling for plates and glassware thanks to the supply chain problems plaguing the larger economy. Tasting room tables are filling up with a weekend lunch-and-sip crowd, while a baker shows up with a cake for the anniversary celebration.
In the course of a year, Artesian Cellars has become a hot spot in Pahrump. But not without a series of abrupt twists and turns, leading staffers to joke that the winery’s name should be Adaptation Cellars.
Navigating the Pandemic
In March of 2020, the Nye County commission was set to approve the the winery’s license. On the day before approval Governor Steve Sisolak issued a COVID-19 shutdown of bars, wineries, and breweries.
Properties with a restaurant were exempt from the order. For Burke and partner Pam Tyler, the next step was a survival measure.
Drawing on experience from her years-long career in Las Vegas gaming properties, Tyler quickly built a serviceable, but fairly inexpensive kitchen. She is still employed as an engineering executive at the Rio in Las Vegas, where attending to industrial kitchens is part of the gig. Years of exposure to chefs paid off with menu ideas, which she tested on the local Rotary Club.
Artesian Cellars opened at last on September 11, 2020, vastly overstocked with food, Tyler feared. But the kitchen sold out that night.
At closing time, the last slice of cheesecake went to a woman celebrating her birthday with coworkers. With that, the cupboard was quite literally bare.
“We’re a winery that happens to serve food, but a lot of people think of us as a restaurant that happens to have wine,” Burke said.
Which brings us to wine, and the challenges inherent to the business of making and selling it. A robust promotional schedule drives the business, while the winemaker continues his education. Burke will soon attend a chemical analysis lab where he’ll earn credit toward a wine business degree.
“Don’t become a winemaker if you failed organic chemistry,” he quipped.
Meanwhile, a recent Artesian Cellars tasting room event drew an unannounced guest. It was the sommelier from a major Las Vegas Casino property, who expressed interest in bringing their wine to the Strip.
A Vision for Nevada’s Winemaking Community
Nevada’s wine laws are poorly defined. Its government agencies have been largely unprepared to deal with winery licensing. To prove it, there’s a tale of trouble behind the opening of every winery in the state since 2015, when the legislature loosened restrictions on tasting rooms.
Each establishment has fielded state, county, or municipal curve balls requiring extraordinary responses in the final days or weeks before launch. Even owners who believed they’d covered the bases have suffered delayed grand openings and financial anxiety after surprise inspections by licensing authorities.
Artesian Cellars, too, faced hurdles as its original opening day drew near, even before the pandemic.
The community of commercial winemakers chose Burke in 2019 as its representative at the state legislature, packing him off to Carson City with a long wish list of statutory revisions. The mission was a partial success, with some expansion of licensee privileges.
But much of the licensing heartburn has occurred at the county or municipal level. Various jurisdictions with alcohol licensing oversight have produced a tangle of regulations that don’t always mesh.
Story continues below…
Revisions to state law are made all the more difficult by disagreement among Nevada’s winemakers on the changes that are truly necessary. The disconnect may be due in part to the state’s geography, and the sheer distance between its two largest winemaking regions. The rest reflects different business models.
But Burke and Tyler say there’s another barrier to entry — absence of useful information. Burke is among those who’ve been disappointed in the University of Nevada’s wine program, which was unhelpful when he was an aspiring vintner.
He tries to encourage people who approach him for advice on starting vineyards, but also explains the expense, and the long wait for return on investment.
“A lot of people get into the wine industry that have vineyards. By nature, they’re farmers. We have business backgrounds. We’re not looking at it from a farmer’s perspective.”
Education for the Industry
“We want to create a blueprint,” Burke said. “We want to educate people who are interested.”
“There’s nobody (in Nevada) that tells anybody how. Nobody really tells you, ‘This is how you do it. This is how you get set up. This is how you get your grapes. This is how you get your supplemental wines you’re going to use for blending, or aging or whatever, when you don’t have enough Nevada grapes.’”
Down the road, Burke and Tyler expect to develop a training program and conduct vineyard monitoring that will put the state’s grape growers on the path to improved crops, and help wineries make money while they wait for their vineyards to mature.
They also championed an ordinance that paves the way for mom-and-pop wineries to open in Nye County with minimal regulation.
“I wrote something called the Family Winery Ordinance,” Burke said. “If you have 5 acres and 200 vines, you can open up a weekend winery. Now you’re gonna see more boutique wineries popping up out here.”
You won’t get anywhere if you moan and groan about the law, Burke insists. “In order to grow this industry, we went to the county. We got the county to back us up, we got (the ordinance) passed. It’s in effect right now.”
Lunch is over, and it’s time to get back to business. The Mourvèdre is waiting. Burke’s first task, though, is signing a limited number of commemorative First Anniversary bottles before the celebration starts.
Shortly after 4 p.m. the staff quiets the crowd. The cake is cut, a toast is made, and Artesian Cellars rolls into its second year.