LAS VEGAS – The Research Center & Demonstration Orchard in North Las Vegas currently has over 200 grapevines consisting of 24 varieties of grapes, most of them being wine grapes. The Orchard is a collaboration of University of Nevada, Reno Extension and UNLV, which has been ongoing since grapevines were first planted in the Orchard in 2005 to conduct research on growing grapes in southern Nevada.
The University of Nevada, Reno has been conducting research on growing wine and table grapes in Nevada for more than 25 years. The research has provided some valuable information for growing grapes in both northern and southern Nevada, as well provided some local wineries with Nevada-grown grapes. The work has been done by the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources; and its Experiment Station and Extension units, in collaboration with other institutions and local growers and vintners. Now, a new partnership has been formed to conduct additional research on growing grapes for winemaking and to advance and promote the winemaking industry in the state. The Northern Nevada Demonstration Vineyard & Winemaking Network is a new partnership aimed at building on practical experience in the region, as well as drawing on viticulture expertise from around the Western U.S. The primary partners include the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources; and its Experiment Station unit and Desert Farming Initiative; and the Nevada Grape Growers & Winemakers, an organization of Nevada grape growers and winemakers and others in the state who want to support the industry.
“Our College is absolutely committed to partnering with businesses in this state to promote the growth of industries with potential for our state,” said Bill Payne, dean of the College. “There seems to be a real synergy right now with growers, producers and others in the community, that the time is right to enter into a more formal agreement to bring the University’s resources and research capabilities to help advance this industry.”
Payne says this partnership fits perfectly into the activities of the College’s Desert Farming Initiative, which runs a commercial farm, including orchards, open fields, hoop houses and a greenhouse, and seeks to advance climate-smart farming and food sovereignty in the region through demonstration, education, research and outreach.
The goals of the partnership are to demonstrate state-of-the-art commercial wine grape production at various locations in the region; provide practical guidance for growers on site selection; provide practical guidance for growers on criteria that can be monitored or measured to assess vineyard production; and provide ongoing guidance, educational opportunities and events to promote Nevada winemakers and develop the Network.
Leaders of the partnership include Stuart Michell, president of Nevada Grape Growers & Winemakers; Alynn Delisle and Mike Steedman, co-owners of Nevada Sunset Winery; and, from the College: Bill Payne, dean; Chris Pritsos, associate dean of research and Experiment Station director; Jill Moe, director of the Desert Farming Initiative; and Grant Cramer, professor emeritus.
Initial activities of the new partnership
To jumpstart the new partnership, the College and the Experiment Station each contributed $5,000 to the Nevada Grape Growers & Winemakers in October to support activities and events, such as classes, formal wine evaluations, vineyard tours, roundtables, professional speakers and more. With partners of the Network, a University of Nevada, Reno riesling wine has also been produced, and a red blend wine will be bottled soon. The blend is the result of a wine-blending event where eight teams of attendees competed against each other to produce the best blend from wines supplied by Nevada Sunset Winery.
Also as part of the new partnership, the Desert Farming Initiative and the Nevada Grape Growers & Winemakers selected a riesling varietal, and the Experiment Station has purchased grapevines of the varietal, to develop a network of demonstration vineyards. Some new vines will be planted at the University’s Valley Road Field Lab, home base for the Desert Farming Initiative’s, and some vines will be planted at a few other locations in the area. By having a network of sites, the partners hope to learn more about how the vines do in different microclimates, and with various methods of trellising, pruning and irrigation management.
The University planted its first experimental vineyards at the Valley Road Field Lab in Reno in 1995. Grant Cramer, professor emeritus with the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, who is one of the leaders of the new partnership, conducted research there with other colleagues for more than two decades.
Ongoing efforts in southern Nevada to support the winemaking industry
Meanwhile in southern Nevada, the Research Center & Demonstration Orchard sold over a ton and a half of grapes grown at the Orchard last year, much of it to local wineries. The largest buyer was Sanders Family Winery in Pahrump.
“Jack Sanders, owner and operator of the winery, obtained the first winery license in Nevada and is a proud supporter of winemaking in Nevada, and really supports our research,” said Don White, an Extension Master Gardener who volunteers at the Orchard. “He appreciates being able to get a lot of our grapes, as it allows him to meet the Nevada state winery license requirement of having at least 25% Nevada-grown grapes be used for wines poured in Nevada winery tasting rooms.”
White has helped conduct research at the Orchard, managing the vineyard and taking measurements, including one study on the effects of drought and soil salinity, as well as ambient heat-rise, on the grapevines. The project was overseen by Cramer and Associate Professor and Extension Horticulture Specialist M.L. Robinson. It was conducted in collaboration with UC Davis and sponsored by the Northern California Grape Growers Association.
The four-year grant provided $30,000 in 2015 to install trellising, run irrigation lines, and plant 100 colombard and syrah vines that UC Davis propagated and provided for the study. An additional $12,000 per year was provided to maintain the vineyard, collect data and make observations.
Colombard and syrah were chosen for their moderate tolerance to the stresses being studied. The vines planted were propagated on their own root systems or grafted to four known root systems that had varying degrees of additional tolerances to these stresses, to observe and measure which vines/ root systems performed best under maximum stressing. In addition to the vines planted at the Orchard, the overarching study also included two other locations in the desert Southwest, with the Orchard in Las Vegas being the southernmost, most extreme climate of the three research sites.
Several of the rootstocks chosen for grafting were derived from wild, indigenous desert grapes, one from the foothills of the Amargosa Mountains 50 miles from Las Vegas at the entrance to Death Valley, and one from the rim of the canyons at Big Bend in Texas.
When the study concluded, among other findings, the research showed the vines grafted with the wild grape rootstocks performed well under the stresses.
“During the 2019 growing season, I watered the grapes only 5 to 8 gallons a week,” White said. “We discovered the grapes still grew and produced well on these wild grape rootstocks. That year, the vines produced over a half ton of grapes.”
While that particular study has concluded, Extension is conducting additional studies on growing wine grapes at the Orchard. Sometimes, as some varieties are tested and don’t do as well as others, they are swapped out to try other varieties.
“I think a lot of people are amazed that you can even grow grapes here, and the number and the variety that you can grow,” said Louise Ruskamp, manager of the Research Center & Demonstration Orchard. “Grapes are not that difficult to grow. You can start getting a decent crop within three to five years, and that’s true for the wine grapes or table grapes.”
For more information on the University’s wine grape growing research and support of the winemaking industry
In southern Nevada, contact Louise Ruskamp, LVResearchCenter@unr.edu, 702-786-4361.
In northern Nevada, contact Jill Moe, email@example.com, 775-682-9783.