Family tries to turn desert into vineyard
FALLON – Charlie Frey and his son, Colby, are working hard these days to get Lahontan Valley’s first vineyard up, running and profitable.
“We haven’t made one dime yet,” Frey said, “but I love challenges and this is not easy.”
The Frey Ranch south of Fallon is home to two vineyards, totaling 6.5 acres, with seven more acres being prepared for a new vineyard.
With 960 vines per acre, the ranch will be cultivating 12,960 grape vines by the end of summer and should produce 2,500 bottles of wine.
The Freys have planted 11 different varieties of grapes and are trying to determine which will grow best in Fallon’s climate.
So far, the white wine grapes are outperforming the red grapes because it takes longer for the reds to mature.
As Colby Frey drove the ranch golf cart around, he explained the process for establishing the new vineyard.
First, more than 2,000 posts are driven into the ground and drip irrigation lines are laid out. Next, a trencher loosens the dirt and manure is mixed in. An auger is used to dig holes for the vines, which are planted by hand. Last, the horizontal support wires are strung.
“It’s a lot of work,” Colby Frey said, “and it takes three to five years for the vines to mature.”
A pond stores water for irrigation. The water is pumped into a 12,000 gallon tank where it is filtered and treated with chlorine to help prevent algae from growing on the drip irrigation emitters.
Driving through the rows in the established vineyards, Colby Frey explained that the vines have been trimmed back recently to two buds on each shoot. Each bud should produce two grape clusters.
He pointed out the misters overlooking each vine. When temperatures near freezing, the misters automatically turn on and cover the grapes with mist that freezes, he said. Ironically, the ice casing on the grapes insulates them.
The Frey Ranch has its own weather station, which is linked up to the Desert Research Institute in Reno. It checks temperature, wind speed and direction, soil temperature and moisture level.
If the grapes survive the birds and mildew, they are ready for picking. The grapes are gathered into bins and sent to the crusher-destemmer. Paddles along a horizontal auger separate the grapes from the stems and crushes them enough to loosen the skin.
Crushed grapes for white wines are pumped into the basket press, which extracts the juice to be fermented. Red wine grapes are sent directly to the tank to ferment with the skins attached to give the wine its color.
The juices ferment in stainless steel tanks for about two weeks before “racking off,” in which the wine is carefully extracted from the tank, leaving behind yeast cells and grape skins at the bottom of the tank.
From there, the wine goes through a cold stabilization process, which chills it to 25 degrees. The wine forms crystals and is racked off again to separate the crystals.
Colby Frey will test the pH level, sulfur, acidity and alcohol content of the wine before it is aged for six to eight months.
The bottling process is a quick one. Bottles are filled two at a time with a quick shot of nitrogen first and then the wine. Wine can be degraded by oxygen, so nitrogen is used to remove oxygen from the bottles.
After the bottles are filled, they are put into the automatic corker, which vacuum seals it and corks it.
“We’re supposed to be able to do 1,600 bottles an hour, but I don’t know if we’ll be that fast,” Colby Frey said.
The Freys also acquired an experimental distiller’s license and are experimenting with whiskeys and brandies. Frey said cantaloupe wine didn’t turn out well, but the cantaloupe brandy is promising.
Because it’s the first distillery in the state, no laws exist to regulate it. Frey said he is working with state Sen. Mike McGinness to develop the legislation.
The Freys also are experimenting with unusual wine ingredients, using locally grown products.
“We tried onion wine. It’s actually not too bad. It tastes sweet, but is has a weird smell,” Colby Frey said.
That wine was made from onion and potatoes from Yerington and from raisins. The Freys also have considered growing corn, wheat, barley and rye as ingredients for other spirits.
Churchill Vineyards is Nevada’s only estate winery, meaning the grapes are grown, made into wine and bottled all on site.
“We have control of everything. We know exactly what happens during the entire process,” Colby Frey said.
“It costs about $15,000 per acre to plant grapes,” he said, “but we’ve spent more because we’re still experimenting.”
Along the way, the Freys have been guided by Dick Tjissling of Yerington, a former winemaker from California. They’ve also received help from Jay Davison, local plant and soil specialist with Cooperative Extension from the University of Nevada.
Frey said they needed Davison’s help to lend credibility to their venture. He said banks are more willing to approve vineyard loans if the university is in support.
Frey said he pursued the venture because his son wanted to continue farming and it’s just too costly to produce hay and grain.
“We’re trying to figure a better way to continue this lifestyle,” he said.
By planting grapes, he’s only using one-tenth the amount of water, and the value of the land as a vineyard is greater than as alfalfa fields.
“In the end, I think it’ll be profitable,” he said.
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