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Churchill Vineyards is Nevada’s only premium estate winery

Posted 6/1/2009

By Jim Sloan

Charlie Frey of Churchill Vineyards holding a glass of wine.

When people talk about the great grape-growing regions of the world, it’s not often that Fallon enters the conversation.

Charlie Frey would like to change that.

"Our goal is to produce premium wines from Nevada-grown vinifera grapes — the fine European wine grapes that they grow in Napa and other areas," says Frey. "Our climate is perfect for it."

That’s not just an idle boast. Frey has science on his side when he talks about the climate and soil needed to grow grapes and make wine in central Nevada.

His efforts at Churchill Vineyards on his 738-acre farm in Fallon are in part an experiment to see if farmers can stretch water resources and increase profits from agriculture by growing grapes instead of alfalfa or grain crops.

Grapes, for instance, use only 10 percent of the water needed to grow alfalfa. And while gross revenues from hay are from $400-$800 per acre, experts say grapes can produce up to five times that.

Frey began growing grapes on his family farm in 1999, and has tested 19 varieties of grapes to find the ones that would be the most successful and profitable. Like a lot of growers, Frey and his son also makes wine from the grapes they grow, and so far the vineyard’s most popular wines have been its white Riesling, chardonnay, Semillon and Gew├╝rztraminer. Their wine is sold at the winery on Dodge Lane in Fallon but is also found in such Reno stores as Whole Foods, Ben’s and Whispering Vine.

Although Churchill Vineyards remains tiny and unprofitable by wine-making standards, its experiments have shown promising returns. In 2006, the 13 acres of vines on Frey’s 738-acre alfalfa farm yielded from 3-6 tons of grapes per acre — comparable to Napa Valley vineyards and enough to make about 2,600 750-milliliter bottles of wine. That translates into a yield of from $31,200 to $52,000 per acre.

What’s more, data collected at the Frey farm shows that the Fallon area’s climate has just the right combination of hot days and cool nights to make it ideal for European wine grapes.

But don’t get the idea that Frey is rolling in cash. In the last 10 years he’s invested about $500,000 in the vineyard, and the operation has yet to show a profit. He’s quick to point out that he’s gotten a lot of help along the way — state and federal government funding for the irrigation system and trellises, a weather station from University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, and dozens of other donations and in-kind services from people who want to prove that you can grow great grapes and make outstanding wine in central Nevada.

"I’ve been blessed," Frey says. "I really have. It’s not just me. We’re all trying to do this together."

Frey is hoping his success with grapes will help preserve a way of life in the Lahontan Valley. In the last two years, seven farms within a 2-mile radius of his farm have sold their water and quit growing crops. The water is simply too valuable for many farmers to justify continuing to grow alfalfa.

But if Frey can show how to turn a profit by growing grapes, maybe that land will remain under cultivation and not be given over to dust devils and weeds. Although farmers from Lovelock, Smith Valley, Gardnerville and Yerington have visited Frey’s operation and are talking about planting grapes, many farmers hoping to get into the grape-growing business will need loans from banks, and so far the banks have been reluctant to back an unproven venture. Frey thinks the data being collected at his experimental vineyard will change their minds.

"It’s not an easy game," Frey admits. "It takes three to five years for the plants to mature, and you have to put up a lot of money in the beginning to get started. But if it helps the community and saves farms, then I think it’s worth the effort.”

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