Wine by the numbers – A look at the industry in Nevada County |

Wine by the numbers – A look at the industry in Nevada County

“How many wineries are there in the County?” came the simple question. It caught me off guard. “11 … actually 12, no, maybe 13 …?” I stammered back.

How many wineries are there? It used to be simple. Our modern era started in 1974 when the La Purisima Winery, located in Sunnyvale, crushed the first commercial wine produced from Nevada County grapes since the 1950s.

Nevada City Winery, in 1980, was the first of the modern wineries to open in the county. I can tell you from personal experience, being the only winery in the county has some benefits.

But being part of a community of wineries has even more. Chief among them is more credibility.

Smith Winery was next to open, in 1987. By 1991 there were five wineries, and we thought maybe there were enough to form an association.

We decided to have a luncheon meeting to discuss it. It was a beautiful setting, a lovely outdoor table, set al fresco style with an array of foods.

We conducted the meeting through lunch, all the while sharing the table with the family goat. We decided a goat has to eat, too, and better a little tomato salad than the grapes. It was years before we had another meeting, though I don’t think it had anything to do with the goat. There just weren’t enough wineries yet.

Over the next nine years, only two more wineries opened, closing the 20th century with seven. It wasn’t that hard to keep track. Since 2000, there have been eight new wineries, six of them in the past two years alone.

There are more on the way. It feels like a moving target, but if asked, I would say there are 15 bonded wineries in the county. Eleven have their wines on the shelf, for sale. Of the others, some have wine in the bottle while others will produce their first commercial wines this harvest.

There are still more in the process of getting bonded, and they will produce their first commercial crop next year. No matter how you squish them, there are more grapes ripening and more wineries crushing them. We now have an association with enough wineries to have an impact.

The diversity is remarkable. We cover just about any pattern you can think of. The smallest winery produces 300 cases while the largest produces 45,000 cases annually. Wine labels by law say where the wine was bottled, as well as where the grapes are from. Our local wine industry includes wineries with grapes that are grown outside of the county but bottled here, to grapes that are grown here but bottled out of the county, to grapes that are neither grown, produced nor bottled here, to wine that is produced and bottled in the county at the site where the grapes are grown. But in all cases, the winery headquarters are here.

Of the existing wineries with wine available for sale in the local area, about half are 1,200 cases or less, aquarter are under 3,000 cases, and the balance are 9,000 cases or larger.

Because of the huge discrepancy in size, the biggest wineries affect the average numbers of all the other wineries. For sheer volume at 45,000 cases, Nevada County Wine Guild produces the most wine. In fact, Nevada County Wine Guild produces more wine than all the other county wineries combined.

Their flagship wine, Daily Red, at 25,000 cases, leads all individual wines. But take that wine out of the mix, and the red table wine category falls way down in the quantity rankings.

Then Syrah becomes the largest produced varietal with approximately 7,800 cases. Zinfandel is next at 7,150 cases, as well as offering the broadest number of choices.

Nine wineries have a Zin available for sale in the county. Merlot follows at 6,500 cases, nudging out Cabernet Sauvignon at 6,350. Chardonnay is the biggest white at 6,000 cases, but a trend to watch for is the white Rhone varietals Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne that are being planted around the county.

They represent small numbers now, but they tolerate our warm summers well and show great promise for white wines here.

The trends we see here are not dissimilar to what we see in most other Foothill Counties. The specific rankings may be different, but in general, reds dwarf whites. The Bordeaux grape family of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc leads all reds. Syrah has been on the fast track for several years, and there is an increasing interest in Italian varietals like Barbera or the Spanish Tempranillo.

Specifically, how do we compare to our foothill neighbors? El Dorado now has 45 wineries, the number having doubled several times over the last few years.

Amador County has 30 wineries. Calaveras County has also had a doubling of wineries recently, and now has 20.

The wineries there have really helped to improve the fortunes of that area. Placer County, which in the 1960s had more wineries than all other foothill counties combined, now has six.

Our grand total is 85,000 cases of wine. It may only be one spilled tank for a big guy, but it has an estimated retail value of approximately 15 million dollars. I wondered, how big a sneeze is that? I asked Larry Burkhart of the Economic Resource Council.

“Moderate” he said, “While not the largest economic sector, it makes a significant contribution to our overall local economy.”

The indirect value offers even more than that, contributing to job creation and tourist dollars, as well as preserving open space. It also spreads our name.

Wines from Nevada County are sold across the U.S. and in Mexico, Canada and Japan. Even more than that, it contributes to the quality of life here. Wine creates an ambiance of pastoral beauty. It cherishes the land and promotes a gracious way of life we all enjoy so much.


Rod Byers is director of sales and marketing at Nevada City Winery, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 913-3703.

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