Fallon looks sleepy when you’re driving through its alfalfa farms, cows and “downtown,” where there’s nary a hustle or bustle.
It’s difficult to imagine that this small Nevada town (somewhere on the drive between Reno and Las Vegas) hides ground zero of Nevada’s craft liquor movement. But, after spending an afternoon at Churchill Vineyards, visions of a future when Fallon and Nevada are synonymous with liquid innovation start to distill in your mind.
Eight and a half miles south of downtown Fallon on Highway 95, Frey Ranch can be as difficult to see as that seemingly farfetched idea. A small “Churchill Vineyards” sign whispers about the ranch and vineyard tucked behind alfalfa fields at the end of a few curvy dirt roads. A canopy of trees invites visitors into the agrarian elegance and vision of the historic property.
Barns, silos, fields and antique farm equipment surround a picturesque homestead built in 1944. As the grape vines and gazebo come into view, the ranch starts to look like a vineyard.
Ashley Frey, one farm owner, waits in front of the winery building. Her husband, Colby Frey, will give a tour later, but right now he’s in the big tractor ripping dirt and aerating a field for this year’s two-row barley crop. In the house, Alice, their 9-month-old daughter takes a nap — she’s a bit crabby.
Frey Ranch is the only estate vineyard in Nevada and the second estate distillery in the United States (the other is 3,000 miles away in New York). Every spirit that bears the Frey Ranch label is grown, distilled and bottled on the property — it doesn’t get any more battle born than that.
Growing from legacy
Colby and Ashley run the farm with a handful employees. Alfalfa grass, wine grapes, barley, corn, wheat, 10-year-old juniper trees, wild sagebrush, wild rye and wild asparagus grow on the farm’s 1,200-acre space. To frame that for city folk, Frey Ranch’s crop diversity sets it apart from most farms focused on specific crops or related ecosystems (think corn or grass and cows or wheat and barley). The ranch only needs hops to round out the liquor triumvirate.
“We tried hops once but they didn’t grow,” Colby said. “Pretty sure we just got bad rhizomes though.”
Colby is a fifth-generation farm boy. In the mid 1800s, his great-grandfather received one of the first deeded lands in Genoa, Nev. The Frey family settled on the ranch outside of Fallon in 1944 when Colby’s grandfather bought the land. By the 1980s, Colby’s father Charlie bought the property. Now, the land and the legacy belong to Colby. But he knows that legacy provides a palette for experimentation and innovation with wine and spirits.
The next phase of Frey Ranch and the legacy that Colby hopes to leave for Alice lies in the unfinished distillery rising in the center of the property.
Exposed wood shows through the front of the towering building designed by Colby and his father Charlie (Ashley’s still determining what the outside facade should look like). Inside, pipes pop from the unfinished floor ready to be connected to a distilling system designed for Frey Ranch.
“When we talked to Vendome Copper and Brass Works about our distillery plans, they were excited because this is the first system they have designed to use each component in the exact way it was intended,” Colby said.
High praise coming from Vendome, the company that built stills for Maker’s Mark and other major distilleries.
The custom plumbing in the Frey Ranch distillery allows for the seamless creation of any grain liquor using a pot still, column still, vodka still and gin basket in one room.
Some distilleries may use separate buildings or require extraneous pipes, tubing sprawled about the floor or jury-rigged methods that degrade efficiency, waste time and create tripping hazards. But not this one. Most of the plumbing runs under the concrete floor so the separate boiler room feeds into the mash house, which feeds into the still room, which feeds into the barreling room.
When the distillery opens for tastings, visitors will be able to watch the process from a wide window in the tasting room looking on to three copper and stainless steel stills.
Once completed, the distillery will house the entire process for all of Frey Ranch’s liquors, except for its brandy, which will continue distillation in the winery.
Distilling the future
This summer, Frey Ranch plans to make vodka, gin and whiskey. A limited volume of the whiskey will also be barrel aged into bourbon for at least two years, but probably four.
“We’re fortunate to be farmers, we don’t have to rush to sell our product early,” Colby said. “I don’t know how long we’ll age the bourbon, but we’ll sell it when it’s ready.”
With an estate distillery, Colby controls the quality of the product from start to finish and he owns the process. To produce a higher barley yield, he could add more nitrogen to the soil. That would net him more money, but he won’t do it. Too much nitrogen degrades the flavor, and he would rather grow better tasting barely, even if it means less tonnage.
The ranch grows more grain than needed, and local breweries and distilleries clamoring for Nevada-grown grain for their beer will buy the overage. Colby and Ashley see this as one way to build the local brewing and distilling community into a strong local industry in Northern Nevada. It’s one step toward creating a future where the production of beer, wine and liquor play a key role in Nevada.
For the Freys, that future looks like a warm Saturday in August with tourists and locals mingling in the winery, enjoying glasses of estate riesling. Outside, Alice plays with other children around the vintage farm equipment. Visitors to the ranch sit in old-fashioned rocking chairs on the distillery’s porch, drinking gin made from the juniper berries 50 feet behind them. In the distillery, a couple watches grain pour into the mash house from the observation deck. And all the while, each marvels at how a liquor oasis rose from Nevada’s arid farmland.
Michael Higdon originally published this story on DrinkableReno.com and has made it available to The Union. You can follow more craft beer and craft liquor news in Northern Nevada at twitter.com/drinkablereno and facebook.com/drinkablereno.