Get a taste of Las Vegas’ first winery

Photo: Christopher DeVargas

As the young Zinfandel blooms on your tongue, Ryan Duncan will tell you about the grape’s unpronounceable relative in Croatia, and that his beloved Sancerre’s minerality lands like lime licked off granite. From malolactic fermentation to diurnal shifts, his sommelier muscle will just keep twitching. Until you ask about the first wine so delicious it made him close his eyes.

“Beringer Private Reserve, 1986. I didn’t know enough to know why it was so good, but I knew it was good,” he says, tasting the memory. “It was amazing.”

That’s been the widespread gut reaction to Clark County’s first winery. After launching quietly on December 8, Vegas Valley Winery sold out its January 20 grand opening, which featured a gorgeous model with a glass of red painted between her bare breasts. To any gasping wine snobs, this is how Las Vegas does a winery.

“Part of me likes that we’re in a warehouse, because I think when people first drive in they’re going, ‘Oh my God, how good can this be?’” Patty Peters says, laughing. She and co-owner/winemaker “Big” Mike Schoenbaechler considered turning a golf course into an idyllic venue, but that would have meant uprooting their winemaking school, Grape Expectations, which Peters opened with her late husband Charlie in 2007. The school is a staple in Henderson’s Booze District. Plus, romantic vineyards are California’s thing.

“The winery’s beautiful, but only from the inside,” says Big Mike, who helped build the tasting room. He and production specialist Chad Evans hand-applied Venetian plaster walls and a layered cement floor you’d swear was wood. Evans made statement art out of old barrel staves and sleek paneling from bleached-out boards. The bar is polished stone the color of aged cork, against which the five initial releases can be picked out by color alone.

All were made with grapes from California. Big Mike explains that it will take years to cultivate vines like Pahrump’s wineries have. State law previously barred wineries from counties with populations over 100,000, but that changed in 2015, and the Grape Expectations team got started right then on licensing to plant the foundational flag in Las Vegas.

The first 1,000 cases of wine can be made with grapes from anywhere. After that, 25 percent of the fruit must be native. “[Lawmakers] didn’t want to just open the floodgates and let California roll in and put big wineries on the Strip, the money flowing right back to California. We want to build an industry from the ground up,” Big Mike says. “There have been existing wineries in the state for quite a while now, and they’ve proven that grapes can grow; they’ve proven they can make good wine from those grapes. So we just need to expand upon that.”

Duncan, who manages the tasting room, says Vegas Valley Winery is working with growers on three varietals in the Amargosa Valley, about 88 miles to the northwest. The clay soil and big swing in temperature from day to night make it ideal. There are other promising areas in our arid state, Duncan says, pointing to the burgeoning wine scenes in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. “I think it’s just really untapped.”

Big Mike has seen the lounge get busier and busier, as locals linger over cheese pizzas and charcuterie and take spontaneous tours of a rack house stacked to the ceiling with barrels.

“I really thought it would take a while to get it ramped up, to acknowledge that we’re even here,” he says. “It caught on like wildfire. … It tells me that there was a built-up demand.”

Two more reds will likely be released this year, a Barbera and Sangiovese; and a Tempranillo, Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend and Sauvignon Blanc are racked. While some of the wines will continue to be made with the best grapes from other states (or countries), the “five-year plan” is to unveil a purely Nevada line. Vegas Valley Winery has a great model in the Pahrump wine community, which has been very supportive of growing the industry.

Sales at the new winery have been strictly by-the-glass to conserve supply, but bottles will be ready in the next few months. Just don’t look for them in grocery stores. “We want to make a handcrafted product that’s small-volume and quality that we can pour our blood, sweat and tears into,” Big Mike says. “I can’t say it won’t ever happen, but it’s not what we’re striving for.”

That goes way back to the days when he and Charlie were making wine in a Tuff Shed in the Peters’ backyard. It’s where he fell in love with the process and the people—the camaraderie of wine. When Charlie died suddenly in 2012, none of his partners could imagine letting Grape Expectations die, too, so Big Mike and others stepped up to help Patty keep it going.

Standing behind the bar, she recalls her first date with Charlie, when he pulled into a McDonald’s only to whip a cheese board and chilled brut Champagne out of his trunk.

“I don’t know what happens to you after you die, but if he’s floating around he’s a happy little camper. He’d be tickled with this,” she says. “You know, I feel like I’ve got Charlie.” Not only in the bones of the operation, but in the charming wackiness of marketing chief and “Professor of Yeastology” K.J. Howe. In Evans’ dependable “brute strength.” In the way Duncan and fellow cop-turned-somm Chris Carroll can’t help nerding out. And especially in Big Mike’s focus. Without him, Peters says, the place would have folded.

She calls it a weird family. More like the perfect blend.

Swirl, sniff and sip your way through Vegas Valley Winery’s first five offerings—for $8


Grapes: Paso Robles, CA

ABV: 15.3%

Aroma: black pepper, spice

Flavor: dark berry, cherry compote, raisin, fig

Finish: floral

Duncan says: “This is just classic Paso Robles zin for me—it’s got high alcohol; it’s jammy; it’s got a lot of dried fruit notes. But it’s really ripe fruit and a really nice balance of acid and tannin.”

SYRAH, 2014

Grapes: Paso Robles, CA

ABV: 14.5%

Aroma: purple and red flowers, lavender, peppercorn, Herbs de Provence

Flavor: blackberry, plum, black olive

Finish: dark chocolate

Big Mike says: “A little bit bolder, darker. This is actually our most popular wine. It’s got good body and nice soft tannin—great balance.”


Grapes: Suisun Valley, CA

ABV: 11.6%

Aroma: orchard fruit, citrus blossoms, lemongrass

Flavor: Golden Delicious apple, pear, grapefruit, lime zest

Finish: zingy

Big Mike says: “Since we were only gonna be able to start with one dry white wine, we wanted to have something that wasn’t too acidic or crisp, more of a crowd-pleaser.”


Grapes: Suisun Valley, CA

ABV: 9.2%

Aroma: honey, white flowers

Flavor: peach, apricot, tropical notes

Finish: mineral

Duncan says: “It’s not offensively sweet, not a honey bomb, and it’s got great flavor. With a spicy Thai dish, perfect. Indian, too.”


Grapes: Suisun Valley, CA

ABV: 11.1%

Aroma: red flowers

Flavor: ripe strawberry

Finish: watermelon candy

Duncan says: “Think summertime by your pool when it’s 110 and this wine, really, really cold. Almost wine-slurpy cold. If the rosé were a little drier I’d probably drink it out of stock.”

VEGAS VALLEY WINERY Monday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday, 2-11 p.m.; Saturday, noon-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m., 7360 Eastgate Road #123, 702-806-3383, vegasvalleywinery.com

Tags: Dining, Wine
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