Rod Byers: Remembering Dennis Ball and Indian Springs Vineyards
November 6, 2018
As we write the history of modern viniculture in Nevada County, it's impossible not to recognize the contribution made by Dennis Ball and his Indian Springs Vineyards in Penn Valley.
The 450-acre property eventually included 225 vineyard acres, by far the county's biggest. At one-point Indian Springs Vineyards was responsible for one out of every two bottles of Nevada County wine.
Growing into a farmer
Ball grew up in the Bay Area, in a construction family that built big projects, really big projects, like freeways and dams. Ball left the family business to start his own family business to build more really big projects.
If you needed to move a lot of dirt around, he knew how to do it.
While not a farmer, Ball always liked farming. As the 1980s approached he increasingly longed to leave the Bay area for a more agrarian lifestyle.
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Trouble is, he didn't know what, and he didn't know where. Otherwise, he had a solid plan.
Ball did what a lot of people did, got in the car and toured northern California looking for the right place. He was introduced to grapes on one of those trips.
A vineyard became the what.
When he discovered Nevada County and Indian Springs Road in particular, he knew he had found the where. In 1983 Ball purchased 450 acres in Penn Valley.
It was a daunting project. In those early days, if you stood on the top of the tallest ridge there was nothing but hundreds of rolling acres of scrubby brush stretching out past forever. Ignoring the gnarly vegetation and instead somehow seeing graceful, arching vineyards required both bold and brave vision.
Ball was the perfect guy for the job. Building the vineyard married his desire for an agrarian life with his heavy equipment knowledge as he carved out hillsides and terraces creating Indian Springs Vineyards.
The original vineyard was 112 acres.
It's great to play Tonka truck but a big vineyard has real consequences. One hundred twelve acres generates over 550 tons of grapes, enough to make 35,000 cases of wine. Ball, with no wine industry connections didn't know where he was going to sell them. When he started, the same question kept coming back to him, "where in Nevada are you?"
He sold grapes to some notable wineries but it wasn't enough. In 1985 he jumped on his motorcycle (another of the great joys of his life) and headed over to Placerville to see Les Russel, the owner/winemaker at Granite Springs Winery in Fairplay.
Ball wanted Russel to make a custom crush for him so he would have samples to offer perspective buyers. Ball continued to sell grapes to other wineries while developing outlets for his own Indian Springs label.
Russel produced Ball's wine until 1992 when the quantity Ball wanted became more than Granite Springs could handle. Russel remembers it fondly.
"Dennis was very professional," Russel said. "He had a good handle on his goals and what he wanted to do. We got along really well."
Ball then connected with Jed Steele, the winemaker at the heart of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay but who had since opened his own winery in Lake County. Steele Wines became the new production home for Indian Springs Vineyards.
In 1995 Ball, along with wife Julie, opened the Indian Springs Tasting Room in downtown Nevada City. The tasting room and glittery wine accessories store quickly became home base to a very large and loyal wine club.
Jim Harte, co-owner of the ol' Republic Brewery in Nevada City, met Ball in 1995 when he was the owner/chef of the Stewart House in Grass Valley.
"A few years later Dennis hired me. He was definitely a mentor to me," Harte said.
Harte started working for Ball, both in the tasting room and vineyard, eventually taking the position of sales manager. Harte remembers Ball as being gentle and kind but very tough at the same time.
"He knew what he wanted," Harte said. "He was soft-spoken, but he could be very powerful. It was fantastic working there. The wines were great. We were in more than 15 states with 20 percent year over year growth."
A bump in the road
Sadly, the 21st century proved a rougher playground. In 2001 Ball and general manager Ben Heinzelman broke ground on a new vineyard, doubling the size of the original vineyard.
The new vineyard was planted to provide the needs of two big wineries. Suffering a downturn from the burst dot com bubble, both wineries backed out of their contracts leaving Ball with all the debt and none of the income.
Unable to turn the tide, Ball filed for bankruptcy in 2004. Catlin Properties purchased it in 2005 intending to develop luxury houses scattered throughout the vineyard. That never happened.
Dennis and Julie continued to operate their iconic tasting room on the corner of Broad and Pine Street until 2013 when they retired to a life of travel and grandkids.
A lasting impression
It is hard to overstate Dennis Ball's importance to our local wine community. As an emerging wine region, Indian Springs was our ambassador. Through his grapes, Ball introduced Nevada County to wineries throughout the north coast. As a producer, Ball introduced Nevada County to wine drinkers across the country.
Ball and Indian Springs Vineyards put us closer to being on the map than anyone. The vineyard on Indian Springs Road remains in operation, a standing tribute to Ball's legacy, and the best answer yet to "where in Nevada are you?"
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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