Rod Byers: So, you want to have a vineyard — The history of one Nevada County vineyard
July 3, 2018
(Editors note: This is part one of a two-part story. Check the Farm to Table page Wednesday, July 11, for part two of this story from columnist Rod Byers.)
Diane Houston was excited. As she surveyed her new property, she felt like she was returning to her roots.
"The first time I stepped onto the Bear River Vineyard in the Sunshine Valley area of Chicago Park, I was hooked," she said. "I could have my own little private Napa."
Originally from Ohio, in 1986 Houston moved to Long Beach for work. Along with her mid-western roots, she brought her love of wine.
She was used to the limited wine selections of western Pennsylvania's restrictive State Liquor stores so discovering the Central Coast wine country where she could visit actual wineries, buying any wine she wanted, was a California postcard moment.
Occasionally she would visit wine country real estate offices.
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"I never really thought I would do anything like that," Houston said. "But I wanted to get out of L.A. and a vineyard was a nice dream."
Houston's small backyard garden in Long Beach just wasn't cutting it anymore. She had fond memories of working in the garden as a young child and yearned for a more rural lifestyle.
Fulfilling her dream
Wherever she traveled, Houston always had an eye open for her dream property. On one of her trips she discovered Grass Valley. Over a series of visits, it became apparent, western Nevada County was the place for her.
In 2008 she started looking for property. She wasn't actually looking for a vineyard, but she was looking for property where she could maybe plant one. Still she struggled to find the right place.
Finally, after expanding her search parameters, she discovered Bear River Vineyard. For Houston, it was the confluence of her two greatest passions, wine and gardening.
Houston purchased the five-acre vineyard property in 2013.
With that, Houston became the fourth owner of Bear River Vineyard, taking her turn to shoulder the load of living the good life.
Jerry and Adele Galuhn planted the Bear River Vineyard during the winter of 1987-88. They had purchased the property in 1983, a house sitting on five otherwise empty acres. At the time they too were living in Southern California. They also wanted to get out.
On one of his trips to Nevada County Jerry Galuhn met Fred Hargesheimer who had planted what is now known as Sierra Starr Vineyard. Through Fred, Galuhn developed an interest in grapes.
Adele, with her San Francisco-Italian heritage, thought a vineyard was a great idea. The Galuhn's moved to Chicago Park in 1987 and immediately joined the Sierra Wine and Grape Growers Association. They started planting the vineyard that same year.
Teaming up to get the job done right
Having no practical experience, they wisely hired Larry Bradley as a vineyard consultant. Bradley has long-enjoyed an esteemed viticultural career including masterminding Naggiar Vineyard.
Doing everything right, they planted 2000 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, about four acres in total. In the meantime, Jerry and Adele were taking all the wine classes they could at U.C. Davis.
They recognized that you can't sell grapes from a new vineyard, in a region no one has heard about, unless you can offer a sample of what the wine will be. Jerry started making wine.
"Jerry was happy to grow the grapes," Adele said, "and he liked making wine, but he didn't want to be in the business of selling wine."
In 1992, between Nevada City Winery, TKC in Amador, and Katharine Kennedy in Saratoga, they sold their entire first crop.
Getting their hands dirty
From the very beginning they developed a reputation for high quality, varietally-flavored grapes. But good grapes don't grow themselves. They require effort. Even with divided labor, the vineyard devoured a ton of time. As a school nurse, Adele had summers off and spent all of it in the vineyard.
"2000 vines are about what you can manage with two people actually out there doing it," Adele said.
Therein lies the issue with a two to five-acre vineyard. It doesn't generate enough money to hire people to do the work, while being too much work to do yourself.
"The only reason we made any money," Adele recalled, "was because we did all the work ourselves." It helped that the vines were young and productive, generating about four tons an acre.
For the Galuhns, the vineyard was a win-win. They loved the work, they loved the lifestyle. They loved drinking the wine they made from their own grapes. And it made a little money.
So why sell it? The reply was swift and blunt.
"Jerry died," Adele answered. "It was way too much work for me to do by myself."
Tom and Cheri Besemer would be next to take a swing at the vineyard dream.
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.