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How do you make wine in the Nevada desert? UNR, wineries unite to boost efforts

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Cheyenne Cohen/Katie Workman via AP

This November 2019 photo shows a glass of wine being poured around a selection of other wines in New York. There are plenty of good wines to choose from to accompany your Thanksgiving dinner, from Rieslings to Grenaches to Pinot Noirs.

The Silver State isn’t necessarily known for its whites and reds.

Now, a newly formed partnership between winemakers, growers and University of Nevada, Reno researchers aims to change that.

Few people probably know that UNR has been researching grape production for more than 25 years.

Jill Moe, the director of the Desert Farming Initiative at UNR, says "there's real potential here" to compete against the California wine regions of Napa and Sonoma, noting a Reno winery, Sunset Winery, that recently beat both regions in a competition.

She said the program is part of the university’s Experiment Station on the east edge of campus covering five acres. They generate 20 tons of produce each year and support agriculture programs across the state.

“Part of [the program] is developing sort of a network of demonstration vineyards across the region from that wet network and the experience … providing practical guidance for new growers here,” she said. “And then also promote winemaking.”

‘YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE GRAPES SUFFER’

Grapes are a very drought-tolerant plant, she said. “The drought actually can improve the quality of the grapes by concentrating flavor and can be high value crops that farms can switch to.”

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"I always think when people ask about water and grapes, the adage that ‘to have good wine, you need to make the grapes suffer,’ and they do suffer a bit here, but you can make great wine,” says horticulturalist M. L. Robinson with UNR.

He said they used grape leaves to shade the fruit. “It’s amazing how tough they are,” Robinson said.

‘IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT?’

Sanders Family Winery was the first Nevada winery, opened in Pahrump in 1988. How did people approach them back then? Well, owner Jack Sanders said he was typically asked one question: “What the heck is a winery doing out here in the middle of the desert?" 

Sanders says the best wine comes from hot, dry climates. Napa's temperatures now match Pahrump's.

“The chardonnay grape loves to have hot days, but cool nights. Pinot Noir is similar to that. The rest of the grapes go throughout the winemaking process, pretty much stand hot days as well as hot nights. And so the fact of the matter is it has to do with the dryness of the climate,” he said.

Pahrump Valley is home to agricultural level grows of cotton, alfalfa, lettuce, hemp.

Sanders says the wine industry "has given [Nevada] another tourism industry." When they opened, they had the goal in mind to be a tourism destination, "and it worked."

"It appealed to my sense of greed and my sense of laziness," Sanders jokes about the wine industry.

"The average winery person worked about 90 days a year. I'll tell ya' this, I haven't had a day off this year so far,” he said.

He said those involved with the research aren’t missing anything, and wineries should pay them more attention, because they’re supportive of the wineries.

'SUSTAINING BY THEMSELVES'

Don White is a master gardener with UNR Extension. "I'd always enjoyed sipping [wine] out of my grandpa's glass,” he said of his lifelong interest in wine. “I've always bought into the mystique of wine and winemaking and actually had a short career as a wine salesman and had my own tasting room in Denver.”

He volunteers at the Research Center and Demonstration Orchard in North Las Vegas, a collaborative facility of Extension and UNLV. 

In his work, he said they used to go out to Red Rock Canyon, where they would find wild grapes growing in slot canyons, but they don’t produce fruit.

“They do very well sustaining by themselves,” he said.

Moe, Robinson and White are voices in The Northern Nevada Demonstration Vineyard and Winemaking Network, a new partnership “aimed at building on practical experience in the region, as well as drawing on viticulture expertise from around the Western U.S.”

For more information, click here.

Guests

Jack Sanders, owner, Sanders Family Winery; M.L Robinson, associate professor, horticulture specialist, UNR; Don White, master gardener, UNR Extension; Jill Moe, director, Nevada Farming Initiative

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