RENO, Nev. — Grape growers in Washoe County plan to lobby legislators next year to update a state law which prohibits them from making and selling wine.
Current law allows wineries in smaller counties, and the Nevada Wine Coalition, the new political action committee, argues that Nevada has an opportunity to foster a multi-billion dollar wine industry if it lets Washoe and Clark counties participate.
“We’ve been talking to anyone who will listen as to why we need to get this law changed,” says Dennis Eckmeyer, vice president of Nevada Vines & Wine, a nonprofit growing 3,000 vines at the University of Nevada, Reno Main Station Farm. “It’s not sexy like Tesla or high-tech like drones but it is like an $8 billion industry.”
That’s about the size of the wine industry in the state of Washington, where 350 grape growers and 800 wineries now operate.
The new coalition has already enlisted one legislator, Assemblyman Pat Hickey, from District 25 in Washoe County, to sponsor legislation in the 2015 legislative session and believes it may have tacit support from the governor’s office since the state released an agriculture report last year identifying wine grapes as both an agricultural and tourism opportunity.
But the group may not be without opponents, depending on how the legislation is drafted.
“I’ve been lobbying since 1993 and someone is always opposed to something about a bill,” says Randi Thomspon, vice president, Amplify Relations, a Reno public relations and lobbying firm working with the coalition.
Thompson says the group has no intention of circumventing the three-tier distribution model used in the state. That system requires makers of alcohol to sell product to retailers through distributors.
“If anything, we’re creating a new product for the distributors,” says Thompson. “Sixty percent of Washingtonians drink Washington-made wine.”
But current law allows wineries in smaller counties, such as Churchill Vineyards in Churchill County and Tahoe Ridge Winery in Douglas County, to sell an unlimited amount of wine on premises.
Ashley Frey, who owns and operates Churchill Vineyards with her husband Colby, said she believes the more wineries in the state the better and supports the law as long as the businesses can continue to sell unrestrained on premises.
“I would support any winery coming to Nevada,” says Frey. “I do know from experience, though, that bills get changed, things get taken out.”
Distributors’ representatives did not reply to a request for comment, but the new craft distillery law enacted in 2013 may provide an idea.
That law allows boutique distilleries of spirits throughout the state. Churchill Vineyard, for one, is already distilling and selling brandy under the law. Another is Seven Troughs Distilling Company in Sparks, which makes and sells a white whiskey called Recession Proof Moonshine.
When the craft distillery law was introduced, it allowed the distilleries to sell one-half gallon of liquor to an individual every day. By the time the law passed, that provision had been changed to allow sales of two bottles of spirits per person per month.
The Nevada Wine Coalition is now fundraising to raise the $30,000 it says it needs to lobby the legislatures, holding a wine tasting in July and a backyard vineyard tour on Aug. 10.
Eckmeyer says the group had 40 submissions for the wine tasting and had to limit the backyard tour to seven home vineyards even though 18 applied.
“You’d be amazed at how many wine grape home growers there are,” he says. “We buy local, we grow local. Why not buy local wine?”