Sierra vintners unlikely winemakers

By Kathleen Stebbins The Associated Press
Wednesday October 23, 2002


TRUCKEE — Russ and Joan Jones had a not-uncommon dream: to spend their days with family, enjoying life, making wine. But where others might imagine a lush, sprawling Napa Valley estate, their vision was a little different. 

They figured they’d make wine in Truckee, Calif. — a town that at an altitude of 5,900 feet is frequently the coldest spot in the continental United States during winter. 

Russ Jones credits his wife for the inspiration. Both grew up in Truckee and have been sweethearts since meeting at Tahoe-Truckee High School in the late 1970s. 

“She talked me into doing it,” he said. “I was going to be an electrical engineer.” 

“I thought it would be so romantic to own a winery,” Joan Jones said. 

The location makes for a catchy ad line: the couple bill Truckee River Winery as “the highest and coldest winery in the United States.” 

Nonetheless, the venture didn’t emerge from thin air. Russ Jones, after abandoning the engineering idea, ended up earning a degree in oenology from the University of California, Davis. He then worked at wineries in California and Oregon, where he discovered his love for that state’s fabled grape pinot noir. 

When it came time to settle down, the Joneses weighed their mutual love of wine against a desire to return to the lifestyle of their hometown and decided the two weren’t incompatible. Now, they bottle about 500 cases of wine per year, including pinot noir, zinfandel, merlot and sauvignon blanc, under the label of Truckee River Winery. 

Their first efforts were modest ones. As early “garagistes,” they literally made the wine in their garage. 

“We were just going to make a little batch,” Joan Jones remembered. “We crushed the grapes with our feet. But it was so good our friends kind of prodded us.” 

Their friends weren’t their only fans. That first wine, a 1989 pinot noir, went on to win a bronze medal at the California State Fair. 

High-altitude oenology is a bit more complicated than the alternative — grapevines don’t tolerate the high Sierra cold, so the Joneses contract a year in advance to buy grapes from vineyards in lower, more moderate California climes. 

In September, when the grapes are picked, they truck them up to the winery, which since 1996 has been housed in a picturesque red-and-white barn behind their home. 

“The (work) usually starts after Labor Day and lasts through October,” Russ Jones said. The process starts with the “blessing of the grapes,” in which Russ Jones sprinkles snow saved from the previous spring’s last snowfall over the harvest. Friends and neighbors help with the crush. Then the Joneses ferment the grapes, barrel the juice for aging over the winter, and bottle the results in the spring. 

Russ Jones is particularly proud of 300 cases of about-to-be-released 2000 pinot noir, made with grapes from Gary’s Vineyard in California’s Monterey County. 

“These grapes just had incredible intensity,” Jones said. “The 2000 pinot noir is the best I’ve ever made. Prior to that (my best wine) would be the 97.” 

Meanwhile, out in the sagebrush of western Nevada, the high, dry and occasionally very cold Carson Valley isn’t exactly Eden from a grape growers standpoint. 

Nonetheless, Rick and Kathy Halbardier set out in 1991 to realize their dream of growing wine-worthy grapes in the picturesque valley along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada range. 

They formed loose partnerships with the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute and embarked on a decade of climatic research, consulting, experimentation and, sometimes, disappointment. 

“It’s a completely different world up here,” Rick Halbardier said of Carson Valley growing conditions. “We learned a lot. We made many mistakes.” 

Not one to be easily dissuaded, Halbardier, who like Jones had studied oenology at U.C. Davis, kept cultivating vines. Ten years, six test vineyards, 30 grape varieties and 3,500 vines later the Halbardiers are about to release Tahoe Ridge Winerys 2001 chardonnay, which Rick Halbardier proudly points to as the first commercial wine made from Nevada-grown vitis vinifera grapes. 

Commercial vineyards were not totally unheard of in the state before the Halbardiers’ attempts. None, however, had grown vinifera, the “old world” European vines favored by winemakers such as those in Napa Valley. 

“The difference is the flavor,” Rick Halbardier said. 

The biggest challenge for vinifera growers, he said, is managing the vines through the winter to prevent dieback. 

“A lot of times our falls will start freezing and we’ll start shutting our irrigation systems down,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t get any rainfall or snowfall until December and the plant will start to dehydrate. It puts a huge amount of stress on the plant. They go dormant in the winter months but they still need moisture to sustain them.”