An oasis of wine culture near Vegas

This is not wine country. It’s the Mojave Desert.

And yet here, in a tumbleweed town that touts the two legal brothels nearest to Las Vegas, sits Pahrump Valley Winery -- Nevada’s first.

The odds have been stacked against the winery since it sold its first bottle in 1990. Boiling summer heat makes grape-growing difficult; the reception among locals was tepid; and the current owners bought the business knowing nothing about wine.

But the fortunes of Pahrump Valley Winery have improved with age.


On a recent afternoon, three locals lingered on the veranda of the winery’s restaurant after a leisurely lunch. An empty bottle of Chardonnay sat in a chiller on the table.

Kathy Williams, 56, gestured to the winery grounds: 3 acres of greenery dotted with shady trees, a gazebo and several dozen rows of grapevines -- about 1,500 plants in all.

“You wouldn’t expect this,” she said, “because it’s such a desert community and such a cowboy town.”

“It’s nice to have something that isn’t that!” exclaimed her friend Kathy Comstock, 62.

Two years ago, Comstock had Christmas dinner at the restaurant (named Symphony’s after the winery’s most popular wine, a sweet, fruity white). “This was the only nice place in town other than the casinos,” she said. Her friends nodded.

The winery is attractive for what it is not. For Comstock and other locals, it’s relief from Pahrump’s casino-lined main drag, which is crowded with chain restaurants and brash billboards advertising the two brothels, Sheri’s Ranch and Chicken Ranch.

For tourists who make the 60-mile trip from Las Vegas (a trip locals refer to as “over the hump to Pahrump”), it’s a break from the neon excesses of the Strip and from the endless hum of the slot machines.

Much of the winery’s business comes from Vegas, said Gretchen Loken, who owns the winery with her husband, Bill. A limousine company charters day trips from the major hotels on the Strip, she said, and there’s a helipad behind the vineyard so that high rollers can touch down for tastings.

The Lokens have cleared a little area next to a man-made waterfall for people who come to the Vegas area to get married -- but who want an Elvis impersonator officiating.

One might think a winery would be more at home in Las Vegas, with its hordes of tourists. But wineries are illegal there.

Although Nevada is not known for its prohibitions, an old state law bans wineries in counties with more than 100,000 residents. That’s why the winery’s original owners set up shop in Pahrump (which is in Nye County, population 45,000).

In the early years, the winery struggled. There weren’t many connoisseurs of Pinot Noir or Syrah in Pahrump.

Financial difficulties forced the original owners to put the winery on the market in 2003.

Gretchen and Bill Loken were living in Scottsdale, Ariz., where she was a special education teacher and he was a real estate agent.

Bill spotted an ad for the winery. “We were looking for a change,” he said. “The winery was like a big magnet, drawing us.”

The Lokens say business has doubled since they took over and is up 12% over last year.

Pahrump has been growing too.

When the winery opened in 1990, 7,000 people lived here. But as Las Vegas boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s, Pahrump’s population ballooned to nearly 38,000.

When the Lokens bought the business, they knew nothing about making wine. In fact, they didn’t particularly like drinking it.

But they’ve spent the last several years teaching themselves to become master vintners, with Gretchen earning a certificate in wine-making from UC Davis.

Most of the 10,000 cases of wine the Lokens bottle annually are made with grapes imported from more fertile fields of California and Oregon, but they have also begun adding grapes grown in their own vineyard and grapes from several nearby farms. This year, they released the first-ever batch of wine made entirely with Nevada-grown grapes. The wine, an oak-flavored Zinfandel, won a gold medal at the 2009 Pacific Rim International Wine Competition.

While at UC Davis, Gretchen said, she learned how to grow grapes in a hot climate. One trick: Put the plants close together so they shade each other.

The Nevada desert has flung challenges at Pahrump Valley Winery that vintners probably don’t have to deal with in Marin or Bordeaux. In the mid-1990s, the vineyard was trampled by a herd of wild horses.