You could visit Las Vegas a hundred times and never know that a medal-winning winery was less than an hour away.
That’s certainly understandable, considering the sand-swept, cactus-studded Nevada desert doesn’t exactly evoke images of “wine country.”
But just 55 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, in a town whose name sounds like an excerpt from “The Little Drummer Boy,” you’ll find a Nevada anomaly: Pahrump Valley Winery.
From a historic perspective, a case could be made that there have been two Pahrump Valley wineries. About 20 years ago, grapevines were planted on a then-isolated plot of land in Pahrump. But they were not long for the world; they were trampled by wild horses.
In 1993, a second vineyard planting was undertaken. Those Zinfandel vines languished in the unforgiving desert climate for years, until an ownership change brought more appropriate farming practices. The healthier vines produced wine-worthy grapes for the first time in 2005.
In 2008, that Zinfandel bottling – Nevada’s first commercial red wine – was released under the “Nevada Ridge” name. It’s brimming with sweet red fruit and licorice impressions, and as of late December, only a few cases of the historic wine were still available.
Bill Loken, who ushered in the winery’s quality-focused approach when he took over ownership with wife Gretchen in 2005, is justifiably proud of the wine.
“I think the Nevada Ridge is just the tip of the iceberg,” Loken says. “When it won its first gold medal, it sort of justified the investment we’ve made in the vineyard. Until then, not very many people believed that a desert winery could produce a world-class wine.”
The “Nevada Ridge” Zinfandel won seven medals in all.
THE TURNAROUND BEGINS
Loken was selling real estate in Scottsdale, Arizona, when a company owned by his brother bought Pahrump Valley Winery in 2002 and took over the property in 2003. At first, Loken agreed to visit the site – which also included a restaurant – for a few weeks, assess the operation, and offer recommendations for improvement.
I discovered that it was a huge diamond in the rough,” he recalls.
Two weeks turned into a three-year turnaround project and a minority ownership stake. But before long, Loken realized that he and his wife needed to own the estate outright in order to justify the massive time commitment required to do the job right. They assumed full ownership in 2005.
A Napa Valley wine consultant was brought in to quarterback vineyard improvements and oversee early vintages. Meanwhile, Gretchen Loken began taking winemaking classes in America’s leading vitricultural program at U.C. Davis. The school teacher returned to the classroom, only this time as a student.
When the Lokens took over, Bill Loken recalls, “there were only two barrels on the property, and they were used for garbage.” Numerous barrels now are housed in the cellar/storage room, stacked high next to large stainless steel tanks.
“We rewired and re-plumbed the building,” Loken adds, “and outside, we planted new grass and added new fencing. We believe in paying as you go, so we’ve taken care of individual projects as our sales revenue has allowed.”
Among the more recent additions: more modern and efficient bottling equipment.
All of that investment has paid off. Since the various upgrades were implemented, Pahrump Valley Winery releases have garnered 28 gold medals, 20 silver medals and 90 bronze medals.
Loken has worked hard to forge relationships with quality-focused grape growers throughout California. He sources Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma Valley and the Central Coast, Merlot from Monterey County, and Syrah from Paso Robles. For Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, he has struck deals with growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
“We will always bring in grapes from other areas simply because the climate here is not conducive to very many varieties,” Loken says. “But we are committed to estate-grown wines because that is our unique niche.”
Joining the established Zinfandel vines is a new planting of Syrah, from which Loken hopes to produce wine as early as 2011.
“It’s still a learning process,” Loken adds, “but I think we’re now able to make smarter decisions.”
For instance, a small planting of Petite Sirah is planned “to beef up the color of our estate Zinfandel.”
WINING AND DINING
The winery’s restaurant, known as Symphony’s, also has benefited from the Lokens’ arrival.
“I grew up in the restaurant business in Minneapolis,” Loken says, “so I understand the importance of quality ingredients.”
Symphony’s is, without question, the best restaurant in Pahrump, and rivals many of the fine-dining rooms in Las Vegas.
The proximity to Vegas also has worked to the winery’s advantage, as some casino operators regularly transport their best customers – translation: big spenders – to the estate for an afternoon or evening of wining and dining. Some even make the commute by helicopter.
A winery in Napa Valley is not unusual, but one in the southern Nevada desert is unique, not to mention memorable – hence the attraction for those well-taken-care-of Vegas visitors.
But you don’t have to be a high roller to visit Pahrump Valley Winery. The wines are reasonably priced, as are the menu selections at Symphony’s.
“We want people to come back,” Loken says, “and if we offer good value, that will happen.”
It will. And given the tremendous improvements that have been made at Pahrump Valley Winery, Version 2… it will be deserved.
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3810 Winery Road, Pahrump, Nevada
* Tasting Room opens most days at 10:30 a.m.
* Tours available most days at 11:30 a.m., and 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.
* Symphony’s restaurant is open for lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for dinner Wednesday-Sunday from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended for dinner.