As we approach mid-October, it is an understatement to say that 2020 has not been kind to the Nevada wine industry. The COVID-19 shutdown of bars until September 11, 2020, also closed all Nevada wineries unless they served food in a restaurant format. The only winery that qualified initially under that restriction was Pahrump Valley Winery. That winey had its liquor license revoked by Nye County for failing to file all of the required paperwork necessary for that license. They cannot reapply for six months from the date of the revocation and then must refile all of the required paperwork when they reapply.
The fires in Napa that destroyed vineyards and wineries will have far-ranging effects, even on Nevada wineries. In late September, a blaze known as the Glass Fire erupted in Napa Valley. It would soon become the most destructive wildfire in this valley’s history—worse, even, than the record-setting fires of 2017. This time, 1,235 buildings have been destroyed, including nearly 300 homes. Less than 24 hours after the Glass Fire exploded, one of Napa Valley’s grandest wineries could be seen engulfed in flames. The hand-quarried stone winery of Château Boswell, located on the storied Silverado Trail, was decimated. From there, the fire moved relentlessly through the valley’s northern stretches, damaging structures on at least 26 wine and vineyard estates. Castello di Amorosa, a popular tourist hub modeled on a medieval Tuscan castle that took 15 years and $40 million to construct, saw one of its main buildings destroyed. Newton Vineyard, an ambitious property owned by luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey that had just completed renovations a few weeks earlier, was in ruins.
But most of the Glass Fire’s devastation occurred at small-scale, family-run wine estates—names like Behrens, Sherwin, Hourglass, and Hunnicutt. Historic buildings dating to the mid-19th century at Burgess, Cain, and others went up in flames. Along with them went inventories of bottled wine, in some cases the entire production of multiple years. The fires also have devasted this year’s harvest. By one estimate, fire and smoke complications may prevent as much as 80 percent of Napa Valley’s 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes being made into wine.
Our hearts go out to those Napa area wineries and vineyards as they start the painful process of rebuilding decades of hard work and dedication. The Napa fire’s damage will also affect Nevada wineries. Without enough Nevada grapes to supply our current Nevada wineries, our wineries are forced to source grapes from neighboring states. The Napa wineries, with no grapes to harvest, have reached out to source grapes for wine production. Nevada wineries have, in the past, been able to source grapes from the Sierra Foothills, the Lodi region, and Southern California. One Washington bulk wine producer told me they just received an order for 90,000 gallons of Chardonnay from a Napa winery. Napa’s shortage of grapes will drive the price and availability up across every Western wine-growing region, hurting Nevada wineries already struggling from the COVID-19 shutdown.
The long term solution to this problem is to plant more Nevada vineyards large enough to be commercially viable. Both Northern Nevada and Southern Nevada have climates suitable for grape production. But vineyards are expensive to plant, and it takes several years before any revenue is generated from wine grape sales. The current Nevada statues are not favorable economically for small Nevada wineries that want to plant their own estate vineyards. Those statues need to be updated and several of the commercial wineries are working together towards getting needed changes in place. When we eventually have a significant amount of Nevada grapes for our wineries, we will be less dependent on the California vineyards. In the event of another tragedy to the California wine industry, Nevada grapes might also become a source to those wineries. Without more Nevada vineyards, we are at the mercy of the big California wineries and vineyards.