By Bev Stenehjem
“When most people think about Reno, they imagine lizards and cactus; rarely thinking of wine. I want people to know that dry climates and viticulture are not mutually exclusive,” says Wade Johnston, the winemaker and co-owner of Basin and Range Cellars, the only winery in all of Nevada that uses 100 percent Nevada grapes in the making of their wines.
The first thing you notice about Johnston is his youthful good looks. But soon, his wealth of knowledge about a variety of topics, especially wine, become top of mind as he explains the meaning of his winery’s name, “Basin and Range.”
“In college, I majored in geology and am a geologist by training,” he said.
Johnston becomes animated as he uses his hands to demonstrate how tectonic plates have been at work for centuries, pulling Nevada to the west, creating a repeating series of valleys (basins) and mountains (ranges) which run north to south, from Idaho to Mexico. “Nevada is the heart of the Basin and Range and that geologic architecture is best represented here,” said Johnston.
Born and raised in Arkansas, Johnston is friendly and down-to-earth, quickly putting me to ease. He explained how he went from geologist to winemaker.
“I was about 17 years old the first time I tried making beer at home. By the time I was 20, I had extrapolated the same principles of fermenting beer to the making of wine.”
After attending college in Colorado, in 2011 Johnston moved to Reno to work in gold exploration.
“Back then, although commercial wineries were illegal in Nevada, I was within driving distance to all the great wines of El Dorado County, Napa and Sonoma. It was sensory overload!”
“I continued making wines here at home in Reno; knocking on doors of vineyards, looking for fruit,” he said. “Then in 2015, when the gold industry slowed, I had the opportunity to work the harvest at Easton-Terre Rouge in Amador County. Bill Easton, a titan of a winemaker, and his assistant winemaker taught me a great deal.”
The moon and the stars aligned at the end of 2015, when a group of determined citizens repealed the laws in Washoe and Clark counties – making it legal for commercial wineries to do business.
“Assembly Bill 4 passing was a windfall for my dream of running a commercial winery here,” Johnston explained. “I felt good about my technical wine making knowledge, I had just learned about scaling wine making to commercial proportions and Reno, being a major metropolitan area with many of the elements needed for viticulture; it felt like everything was falling into place.”
After securing the largest vineyard in the state to supply him with grapes, Johnston soon became one of the first to open a winery in Reno’s brand new wine market.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Teaming up with Joe Bernardo, UNR’s vineyard manager for over 20 years, Johnston opened up Basin and Range Cellars in 2018.
“Joe primarily manages the 5,200 vines on our ten-acre vineyard in Minden and has more experience with vineyards in Northern Nevada and running them organically than anyone around.”
Most people are usually surprised to learn that wine grapes not only grow, but thrive here in Nevada. Johnston, quick to explain said, “The general lack of cloud cover during the growing season—most of our approximately 8 inches in precipitation falls during the winter—provides a lot of sunshine/growing degree days, which is exactly what wine grapes want. Even though we’re the highest elevation commercial vineyard in the U.S., which means cooler temps, we get enough sunshine for us to make a late-harvest wine. That wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t in the rain shadow of the Sierra with the lack of clouds and abundance of sun.”
Only Nevada-grown grapes, farmed organically, go into Johnston’s wines.
“We are a true estate winery so we do the entire process ourselves—from growing the grapes to bottling the wines, farm-to-table, we are a hyper-local winery. Our goal is to use low intervention farming, low intervention wine making practices and generally make the most honest wines we can. You would be surprised how many wineries just make wines from others’ juice, or even put their label on finished bottles that they purchased.”
All of the Basin and Range Cellars wines are produced from unique, French-American hybrid varietals. Most of us have never heard or tasted these uncommon varietals such as La Crosse, St. Croix and Frontenac, which thrive in northern Nevada.
The wine tasting menu offers a white, a rosé, two reds and a late harvest dessert wine.
“Utilizing four varietals to make six different kinds of wine, we make as many interesting wines as possible with what’s in the vineyard,” Johnston asserts.
The white varietal, La Crosse, is light and bright with floral perfumes and lemon flavors, reminiscent of a Pinot Grigio. The St. Croix, a red comparable to a Chilean Cabernet, is fruity with well-balanced acidity. The other red, Frontenac, akin to a Malbec, is loaded with blackberry, peppercorn and round tannins. Their rosé, also made from Frontenac is dry and silky with notes of strawberry and violets, perfect for summer sipping. The Brianna grape makes their late harvest wine—a silky honey pot of pineapple, candied mango and caramel—a dessert lover’s dream.
In addition, the winery offers an uncommon, but increasingly popular option: a Pétillant Naturel – translating from French to “natural sparkling.” Pét-nat, as it’s called by people-in-the-know, is a light, fizzy wine; appearing cloudy and bottled under a crown cap (like beer), rather than a cork. Generally low in alcohol – at Basin and Range, theirs comes in at 11.5 percent and is an easy-drinking, fun wine.
Johnston sums it up by saying, “We have a wide range of wines in our catalogue, so we have something for everyone, but our target demographic is a more adventurous wine drinker seeking stuff being made in neat places off the beaten path.”
To experience these wonderful and unique wines, visit Basin and Range Cellars at 415 East Fourth Street. It’s guaranteed you’ll never think of lizards and cactus again. And, if you’re lucky, you might even get a crash course in geology.
Temporary hours during COVID-19 restrictions: Basin and Range Cellars is open for business with curbside pick-up or shipping is available, Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. by ordering wines from their website at www.basinandrangecellars.com. Also available for shipping.
Bev recently moved to Reno from the Bay Area where she finished out a career in Human Resources and, as a side gig, wrote about the local wineries there in a weekly wine column. She also published a historical photo book, The Wineries of Santa Clara Valley. A self-described wine enthusiast, Bev enjoys discovering the people behind the wine, becoming friends and celebrating good times. Bev is a member of Nevada Vines and Wines and is excited to explore and share Reno’s budding wine industry with our readers.