Rod Byers: So, you want to have a vineyard — The history of one Nevada County vineyard
July 10, 2018
(Editors note: This is part two of a two-part story. Check out TheUnion.com for part one of this story from columnist Rod Byers.)
Tom and Cheri Besemer were next to take a swing at the vineyard dream, buying the property of Bear River Vineyard in 2003.
A refugee from the tech industry, Besemer had neither a green thumb nor a wine background. But he had the wine bug and all the fever that came with it.
Undaunted by having no experience, he figured, "All I had to do was step in and take over. That way I could educate myself as I went along."
Besemer made wine, for the first time, in the fall of 2003.
"Looking back with what I know now, it's amazing it turned out so well. It just shows you what good grapes can do," Besemer said.
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Besemer's plan worked. He nurtured the grapes, learning how to farm his newly renamed Cherianna Vineyard as he went. He continued making wine, becoming more capable with each vintage.
Convinced he was on the right track, in 2006 he decided it was time to sell in order to move to a bigger property to create his own vineyard and winery.
He succeeded in opening Besemer Cellars as a commercial winery in the south county but never planted the vineyard.
Exchanging hands … again
Next it was Jim and Bronwyn Manning's turn at la dolca vita, buying Cherianna Vineyard in 2006, returning it to the original Bear River Vineyard name.
In the 1980s a geological field trip introduced Manning to the Sierra Foothill Gold Country.
"Even back then when I was looking at property," Manning said, "I had an eye on creating a vineyard."
Some dreams never die.
Twenty-five years later, a geologist friend who had since moved to Colfax was sipping wine at Solune Winery one day when he found a brochure advertising a vineyard for sale. He immediately emailed Manning who was living in Napa at the time.
"Bronwyn and I drove up that weekend," Manning said, "toured the property, fell in love and made an offer the next day. We were focused on the lifestyle aspect of the property."
Thanks to the Galuhns, Bear River Vineyard had a well-respected reputation for high quality grapes.
"Our goal was to maintain that reputation and also to have access to the BRV grapes for our home winemaking," Manning said.
Learning the hard way
While buying a vineyard may have been a dream come true, reality soon took over.
"We did it with a healthy dose of naiveté," Manning said. "We purchased the vineyard without a true appreciation of the amount of work required to properly attend to such a property."
Doing all the work themselves created a steep learning curve.
"We gained knowledge through classes at UC Davis, Ag Extension programs, books, and most importantly, through the kindness and mentorship of the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association," Manning said.
In 2008 a job took Manning to the other side of the world leaving Bronwyn to manage Jim's "vineyard dream" mostly on her own.
When he was home, Manning's time was completely consumed by vineyard projects. Finally, In 2012, they negotiated for Clavey Vineyards to take over all viticultural responsibilities.
Then in 2013 another job necessitated selling the vineyard outright.
"Living on that little slice of heaven in Sunshine Valley was an amazing experience," Manning said. "Every time we open a bottle of wine, we have a deep appreciation for the amount of energy, thought, attention and passion required to produce it."
While that experience is one they treasure, they have no intentions of buying another vineyard.
"I think we'll leave that to the professionals," Manning said. "We still own a home in Nevada City that is walking distance to the Nevada City Winery tasting room. That sounds like a great compromise."
The beginning meets the end
Which brings us full circle to Diane Houston who was also hooked the first time she stepped onto that little slice of heaven in Sunshine Valley and bought the property.
Doing her due diligence, Houston went in with her eyes wide open, talking to as many experts as she could before buying the vineyard. In spite of that, she was still surprised.
"The reality of the amount of work is overwhelming," she said. "I love it but it is incredibly time consuming."
Sadly, the passage of time has worked against her. The vines, now 30 years old, are much less productive. Last year's harvest brought in about a ton an acre, down from four in the Galuhn's era.
"The cost of farming is more than the value of the grapes," Houston said with a sigh.
Houston is facing challenging choices. She can try to keep up with the work herself. She can look for someone to farm the vineyard in exchange for the grapes, assuming she can get the yields back up again.
She can let parts of the vineyard die off, making the size more manageable. Or she can turn the end product into a commercial bottle of wine increasing the value of the grapes over 1000 percent, making it economically viable, if she's successful. But that would mean having a winery, with all the attendant risks and costs.
Houston loves the property. She loves the lifestyle. She is committed to finding a way to make the vineyard work. She is just not sure how.
In the meantime she has renamed it Red Paws Vineyard, in honor of the tracks of red dirt her beloved dogs leave wherever they go in her own little private Napa.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about him at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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