Rod Byers: Celebrating 40 vintages of Nevada City Winery |

Rod Byers: Celebrating 40 vintages of Nevada City Winery

Allan Haley sat back in his chair smiling, fingertips laced, remembering the very first vintage. This year the founding visionary of Nevada City Winery is about to celebrate the fortieth vintage.

In 1980 Nevada City Winery was the first commercial winery to open in Nevada County since the early 1950s. Allan Haley and winemaker Tony Norskog picked and crushed that first vintage with grapes grown in John Callendar’s Little Wolf Vineyard, the county’s first modern vineyard, planted in 1974.

Haley grew up in Nevada City, part of Nevada Union High School’s first graduating class. He went on to Harvard but it was a Rotary Fellowship in Germany that changed his life forever.

It was there that he discovered wine. “Every luncheon the Rotary Club served first class German wines,” he recalled. “They set my tongue alive.”

Enthralled by the mystery and artistry of wine, he began spending every weekend touring the countryside in his VW Beatle, visiting wineries and learning about wine. Soon he was spilling over the border into France. Alsace was practically next door and Burgundy was not far away.

Returning to the states, upon graduation from Harvard Law School, he set up practice in Hawaii. Having developed a taste for fine wine, he found Hawaii to be a wine desert. Relying on connections he had established in Europe, in 1975 he formed Bacchus Imports, a distributorship to bring fine wines to Hawaii.

At about the same time, Haley recognized there was a local renaissance of vineyard plantings. By the late 1970s, Doctors Jewett, Smith and Cobden, along with numerous others, had vines in the ground.

After considerable study Haley was convinced Nevada County offered the soils and climate to “make wines to challenge the world’s best.” In 1980 he returned to Nevada City with the express intent of opening a winery.

Never short of lofty dreams, Haley had visions of creating a vineyard and winery on the site of the old Nevada City airport located on the mountaintop just above what is now the Rood Government Center.

The deal was there. The money wasn’t. In 1980 interest rates were approaching a stratospheric 20%. Money was tight, especially for an ambitious winery proposition. Undaunted, Haley formed a partnership of nine and with seed money from that cobbled together that first vintage.

Haley envisioned a 25,000-case winery specializing in two or three world-class varietals. It was just the kind of winery he handled with Bacchus Imports: small enough to be artisan, big enough to supply a national market.

He quickly learned that dreams and reality seldom align.

By 1982 it was apparent the airport deal with the city was unlikely. The Winery was working out of a garage on Rock Creek Road and needed space. That summer they moved to The Foundry Garage on Spring Street becoming a tenant of the Miners Foundry.

Although they had numerous DBAs on file, Haley selected Nevada City Winery as the official name knowing it was at odds with his national ambitions. “I knew it would help us get established locally,” he explained.

Because there were so few grapes around, instead of a lot of cases of a couple of things, they produced a few cases of a lot of things. It was perfect for supplying a local market but never enough to take on the road.

With no vineyards of its own, the Winery encouraged anyone interested to plant grapes. “Our motto,” Haley remembered, “was ‘If you grow them, we’ll crush them.’”

Another pivotal point came in 1989 when the Nevada City Winery unexpectedly became the owners of the Miners Foundry. Suddenly Haley’s dreams had new vibrancy.

Rather than using the Foundry for commercial purposes, the Winery first created then deeded the Foundry to the Nevada County Cultural Preservation Trust, better known as The Miners Foundry Cultural Center, historic landmark #1012.

“The Foundry should belong to the people of Nevada City,” Haley declared. “It was important to preserve it as an historic landmark.”

Haley then imagined the union of Nevada City Winery, Miners Foundry and the Nevada Theatre under one umbrella, making Spring Street the nexus of the most dynamic historic, cultural, and commercial site in all of the Sierra Foothills.

Nevada City Winery geared up for a major expansion. Again, investment money was not there. The Winery’s 1990 expansion, and the grand triumvirate cultural trust didn’t happen.

In the meantime, the Winery was producing some pretty good wines. Mark Foster became winemaker in 1992 and quickly went on a torrid path, winning numerous awards including multiple “Best of State” and “Best of Sierra Foothill” honors.

The Winery finally did expand in 2000, into its current form, but that story will wait for another time.

Although Haley is hands off in the day-to-day operations, he has always worked closely with Foster on each wine’s specific blending trials. You can sometimes spot them at the end of the tasting bar, six or eight beakers of wine in front of them, trying endless combinations in search of the perfect blend.

After forty years Haley is proud that the Winery has not only made some great wines but has also pointed the way for others to follow. Many of the local vineyards Nevada City Winery first encouraged have gone on to become notable wineries themselves.

As great as he thinks Nevada County is for wine, Haley still believes the best vineyard is yet to be discovered.

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. He can be reached at or 530-802-7172.

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