Indian Springs Winery
Sierra Foothills AVA
It’s just a matter of time before mainstream wine consumers discover Nevada county wines. No, Nevada county is not in the state of Nevada. Yes, it is a county in California located in the Sierra Foothills a few counties northeast of Napa. Dennis Ball, owner of Indian Springs Vineyard, the largest in Nevada county, can tell you that the wineries in those other, more famous counties have already discovered the high caliber of grapes coming out of this area. They’re buying it to use in their own wines!
Dennis Ball looked all over northern California for a place to start a grape farming enterprise before buying his 500 acre parcel in 1982. The central valley was just not appealing to him and the Napa / Sonoma land prices didn’t make much sense. During a visit to Dennis’ in-laws in Nevada county, he met a family friend who coaxed him to look at some property nearby. The friend led him to a piece of land that was up for sale just off Indian Springs Road. The acreage was being used as cattle grazing land and boasted of beautiful rolling hills dotted with tall pines and sturdy oak trees. His interest sparked, he researched the microclimate, tested the soils, checked the water supplies, had aerial surveys taken—everything was perfect for planting vineyards.
The rocky, hilly, grazing land had never been cleared before, so the vineyard preparation that lay ahead was a formidable task. That single challenge alone may have kept others from attempting to farm the land prior to Dennis arriving on the scene. As a former owner of a heavy construction company, Dennis met the challenge with relative ease.
He began to plant in 1984 with eight varietals including Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot among others. Being new to farming grapes, he secured the helpful expertise of other growers in the area. But he was largely on his own to begin mastering the trade. “We looked at what the foothill wineries were producing and began with those varietals. It’s been a tremendous learning curve,” says Dennis.
By the time the vineyards began producing in 1986, a snag had developed in the plan. The wholesale grape market had begun to collapse due to a glut in the market place. Successive bumper crops had led to an overabundance of fruit causing grape prices to collapse. “We speculated at the wrong time,” recalls Dennis. “And as a new, unproved grower, it was particularly tough to get a foothold into the market,” he adds.
Discouraged but far from giving up, the Balls took their show on the road. They pressed samples of all their grape varieties and began calling on wineries to try their fruit. Their ploy was successful in securing contracts for the upcoming 1987 vintage. One contract led to another, and soon their Indian Springs fruit had developed a solid reputation in the industry. “Reputation is a big part of this business,” says Dennis Ball. “We proved that this area can produce high quality grapes,” he adds.
“We more or less backed into the winery business,” says Dennis. “Our grapes up till then had always been blended with other wineries’ wines. We didn’t really know how good the grapes were,” he revealed. Looking for expert opinions, he met one day with well known winemaker, Jed Steele, of Kendall-Jackson fame. Impressed with the quality of the fruit, Steele agreed to oversee the winemaking efforts. “We wanted to diversify our risk,” says Dennis. “It’s also kind of a final validation that we made the right decisions and that we’re doing things the way they should be done.”
The first Indian Springs commercial wines hit the market in 1990, releasing 600 cases of 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, 1989 Chardonnay and 1989 Sauvignon Blanc. Today, thanks to an impressive reputation for making great wine, production has increased to over 16,000 cases of 10 different wines. “The market will dictate how much wine we’ll eventually produce under the Indian Springs label,” says Dennis.
“We could support a 35,000 to 40,000 case operation,” mentions Dennis. “But our desire is not to get that big. Our approach is to further establish ourselves, see how we do, and remain market driven,” he reveals. So in the meantime Dennis and his partners, daughter Karen and son David, will continue selling most of the crop from their 252 acres of vineyards to other wineries. Which means only a small handful of lucky wine enthusiasts will enjoy the small production of Indian Springs wines.
When Dennis Ball and family decided to locate their grape farming operation in Nevada county in 1982, it signaled a solid return of the area’s wine grape growing industry. The Sierra foothills were booming with over 100 small vineyards and wineries prior to Prohibition. What Prohibition didn’t wipe out, phyloxera did, and the wine industry disappeared. In the 1970s local grape growing was resurrected in the area with the arrival of a new five-acre vineyard. Since that time, the Sierra foothills have slowly re-emerged as an important wine producing area. With the Ball family vineyard addition in the early 1980s, the area’s grape growing scene took a giant leap forward by establishing the county’s biggest vineyard to date.
Dennis was born in Berkeley and grew up in Contra Costa county’s East Bay area, south of San Francisco. He stayed close to home during college, attending nearby Menlo Business College. His father, Gordon Ball, was a heavy construction engineer, whose company built many of the Hawaii and California highways. After his schooling, Dennis went to work for his Dad learning the construction business. In 1968 the business was sold to the Dillingham Corporation of Hawaii. ‘I think they got tired of us coming over to the islands and taking away their business!” says Dennis.
Three years later Dennis and his brother started their own heavy construction company, specializing in highways, bridges, tunnels and water-related projects such as canals. Their successful projects throughout the west soon turned a small family business into a large corporate entity. Not really keen on perpetuating the large company environment, Dennis sold his interest in 1980.
Dennis wanted to get into agriculture. His first thought was to grow walnuts. After all, as he was growing up, his father had owned a walnut farm and cattle ranch—at least he knew what he would be getting into. But a friend who was a grape grower suggested he look into vineyards instead. And the more he looked, the more enthralled he became with the idea.
The problem was finding a suitable site. It seemed that all the vineyards for sale were flawed in some fashion or another. The last thing he wanted to do was to inherit someone else’s problem. That’s when his attention turned to Nevada county. His in-laws had just purchased property there in 1982. They asked him to come up to engineer a road on their new land, which he obligingly did. There he discovered the Indian Springs land where he now lives and grows his grapes.
The Indian Springs operation is a family affair. His daughter Karen is in charge of marketing, her husband, Ron Swink, heads up the sales efforts. Dennis’ son David has worked off and on at the winery but is currently in the food and beverage industry in San Francisco. ‘A lot of family pride goes into our wines,” beams Dennis. ‘We’re learning more each year and having fun too!”