Rod Byers: The times, are they a-changing?
I am involved in the production of Nevada City Uncorked. Now in its seventh year, Uncorked is a sip-and-stroll wine and food experience that takes place in 17 different venues throughout downtown Nevada City on Aug. 26.
Relying on Nevada City’s Victorian charm as the event’s foundation, the different venues include historic locations, inns, art galleries, wineries, restaurants and stores. Each location hosts a winery and food purveyor, celebrating the agricultural bounty on our northern Sierra foothills.
Uncorked is hosted by the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Vintners Winery Association. You can get details and tickets at http://www.nevadacitychamber.com and tickets online at http://www.sierravinters.com
Part of my Uncorked role is to interact with the local wineries, which also gives me an opportunity to assess how things are going. It feels like, for the first time in several years, there is a changing wind blowing through the local wine community.
The number of Nevada County wineries had been climbing with a steady, sometimes spurting growth rate since 2000, when there were six. In spite of the enthusiasm a growing industry brings, it hasn’t been an easy road.
The wineries were spread out over significant distances with no easily definable hub. It was apparent that in spite of the growing number of wineries, Nevada County was not attracting enough wine tourism for the wineries to be financially successful.
Regular readers of this column may recall, back in March of 2011, I wrote about “Moving Day” when there was a rush of wineries opening downtown tasting rooms. In quick fashion, there were 16 wineries housed in tasting rooms throughout downtown Grass Valley and Nevada City.
Sierra Starr spearheaded that movement in 2009 when they moved their tasting room from their vineyard and winery location to downtown Grass Valley. “You have to go where the people are,” Phil Starr said at the time.
Sierra Starr’s move coincided with a change in California wine law that allowed a winery to sell both glasses and bottles of wine at a second location beyond their primary facility. With that change of law in 2010, suddenly a downtown tasting room was viewed as the key to survival.
In the intervening years, more wineries have continued to open. Right now, Nevada County is home to 21 wineries.
I think we are coming to the end of that growth trend. It is awkward because nobody wants to talk publicly about changing plans or declining fortunes. Nobody wants to say they are closing for fear of a negative impact on their sales. Even wineries that have already ceased production, including making no wine last year, don’t want to say anything.
And they are right. The wineries look at the wine in their cellars as an asset and the more it is devalued by “going out of business,” the worse off they are. Far better to sell every last box and then say, “Oh, by the way …”
That being said, no names please. Not fair. Still, it is not unreasonable to estimate that as many as five wineries won’t be here by this time next year.
Coufos Cellars closed at the end of last year. Two other wineries are currently for sale. That is a big deal because it remains to be seen whether a house/winery/vineyard will sell as a winery/vineyard in Nevada County, or whether it sells as a house with a bunch of bushy things in the yard. So far not.
The biggest problem lurking out there is the path of succession. Sierra Starr has made a smooth transition from father Phil to son Jackson, with many bright years ahead.
Gary Smith, son of Wayne Smith, and the second generation to operate Smith Winery says it’s not the second but the third generation where things get really sticky. “It’s hard enough to make the first transition,” Smith said. “Making it to a third generation is rare.”
Most of our wineries don’t have a second generation in sight. What happens when the farming is less fun and the winemaking more strenuous? And those aren’t even the hard parts. It is the never-ending quest and need for sales that most owner/winemakers don’t properly anticipate.
Operating a winery is a harder challenge than expected. The downtown solution didn’t exactly turn out to be the panacea hoped for. Currently seven wineries still maintain tasting rooms in either Grass Valley or Nevada City. Continuing to lack a solid base of wine tourism, the Nevada County wine road to glory isn’t getting any shorter.
I’m not suggesting that the local wine industry is going to disappear. Far from it. There is a core group of wineries with solid foundations that will be successfully turning grapes into wine for years to come.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but muse, as we sit on the cusp of legal marijuana in California, if we won’t see neat rows of pot, tucked, trellised and pruned, the way we see vineyards dotting the landscape today?
Could we imagine marijuana becoming an agro-tourism driver in the way that viniculture has so far not been able to manage in Nevada County?
Could the next generation of vineyards in Nevada County be legal pot farms?
The times, they are a-changing.
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 On TV. You can find information about his wine classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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