e’re driving through wine country, tooling down a numbered road containing the numerals two and nine. My wife and I spent the previous two days in the city, eating well and drinking even better – its cocktail scene contains palpable seductive power few cities I’ve seen approach. Today’s a new day, however, and it finds us a little over an hour away from the municipal fun. It’s around 11:00 a.m. and our hearty breakfast has settled, providing us the base we need for an afternoon of sipping reds, whites and rosés. However, the road we’re on isn’t the familiar California State Route 29 that slices through the heart of Napa. It’s U.S. Highway 290, and it’s cutting west of Austin to an area a few miles outside the town of Fredericksburg. We’re in Texas Hill Country, son, and Shakey Graves just blasted through the radio, almost as if to welcome us. We have a half-dozen wineries on our agenda, and we’re eager to see what wines the Lone Star State has to offer.
Yes, Texas wine is a thing. It has been since the 1970s, although it didn’t really explode until the mid-2000s. The region we’re cutting through, Texas Hill Country, is its anchor. Its hub rests some 90 minutes west of Austin, in the city of Fredericksburg, but its spokes extend to smaller towns like Hye and Stonewall. The outlaw country mini-Mecca of Luckenbach, Texas is about 15 minutes southeast of Fredericksburg, although Waylon and Willie and the boys haven’t cleared space for a tasting room just yet. The region is a gently rolling contradiction. It’s the second most-visited appellation in the United States behind Napa, but nobody outside of the state and perhaps sections of the lower Midwest and the South seems to know it’s here. This is proved countless times before our trip. I tell friends and colleagues that I’m checking out the Texas wine scene, and they mostly respond with, “There’s a Texas wine scene?” Eventually, I add a line about drinking in Austin just to lessen the confusion.
I’m not exactly a veteran imbiber of Texas juice, either. I’d vaguely heard about the region, but my first real exposure came last year by way of New York City of all places. I went to an industry event featuring Texas Hill Country wine in the Chelsea District, purely drawn in by the novelty. A few sips in and the novelty morphed into intrigue. I liked what I tasted, and I needed to find out more. I also needed to find out if my impression was simply a byproduct of time and space – a Californian drinking Texas wines in NYC makes for a funky algorithm. My head’s been stuffed with this question for months. Fortunately, it’s about to get answered.
Re-Discovering Texas Wine
“You want to see the bottling process?”
We’re asked this question not too long after we arrive at Ron Yates Wines, our first stop of the day. The answer is obvious. We climb aboard a red, weather-beaten cart with the winery’s tasting manager, Dan Cook, who drives us to the property’s 6,000 square-foot barrel room. We walk right past the massive facility’s impressive barrel-stacked racks and are led outside to its back area, where a mobile bottling unit works with proper autonomous precision. Seeing the step of the harvest in action diffuses the novelty of Texas wines. This is a reverent process fit for any region.
We shimmy out of the bottling unit – it’s a tight squeeze – and are greeted by Yates. With his long hair and shaggy beard, he looks like a cross between Abbey Road-era John Lennon and a Followill brother. It’s an appropriate look; Yates started a record label back in the day before diving into the world of viticulture. It’s also one that masks a deep knowledge for wine and terroir, an acumen he says was sparked by living in Spain in the late ‘90s and discovering that “Tempranillo was cheaper than water.” The dichotomy fully fleshes out in the tasting room, where bottles of his eponymous venue stand next to selections from his other winery, Spicewood Vineyards. Discussions on the influence Spain’s Ribera del Duero has on his Tempranillo and the possibilities of using ancient amphora fermentation hammer home his passion as much as the wines. During our conversation, it clicks: Yates and Spicewood were the first wines we tasted in New York. They were the catalyst for this whole adventure. By the time we delight in the pops of brioche bun bursting from Yates’ 2015 Viognier, I sense history repeating.
Texas High Plains Drifters
We tend to think of Texas as being a hot, flat place. It is hot as advertised in the summer – the daytime mercury doesn’t dip below 94 degrees the week we’re in the state. Texas vintners are keen to this issue. “If you’re stupid enough to grow grapes in Texas, you get to deal with the heat,” Yates says.
This “stupidity” leads to smart choices. Their harvest window runs a few weeks ahead of Napa’s typical time frame to stay ahead of the state’s peak meteorological brutality. There’s also not a ton of vines dotting Texas Hill Country, especially compared to Napa. Some are scattered about, and when we do see them, they make for the same stunning visuals as they do in other appellations. But they aren’t the star vines in the Lone Star State. This becomes clear throughout our trip, as every winery we visit eventually works the state’s High Plains AVA (American Viticultural Appellation) into their respective narrative.
To understand the High Plains AVA, you have to jettison the notion of Texas being flatter than the soda your kid opened a week ago and forgot to finish. Located in the Texas panhandle, this appellation averages about 3,500 feet in elevation. This height takes the edge off the temperatures, and also allows for cooling winds to gently coddle the fruit. There’s not a whole lot of rainfall that happens up here, but the grape growers work around this by tapping into the natural subterranean Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation. The combination of terroir and farming skill makes the High Plains vital to the success of Texas wines; roughly 80 percent of the grapes used come from this area.
This doesn’t mean problems don’t arise. Freezing winter conditions and freak downpours can and do happen, which can produce vintage-hindering crop damage. Texas vintners are well aware the specter of potentially bad juju lurks with every harvest, and they’ve grown to handle such adversity with tremendous resolve. “You gotta embrace what Mother Nature gives you,” explains Duncan McNabb, winemaker of Lewis Wines. “When she throws a big right hook at you, and you’re still standing, that tells you something.”
McNabb wears a bright pink shirt when we drop by Lewis Wines for our next round of tasting, the words “Drink Texas Pink” scrawled on the fabric in thick black letters. It sets the appropriate tone for our session, as we work our way through several rosé iterations while John Coltrane plays overhead. The vibe is completely chill. It’s an ambiance that’s almost scientifically calibrated.
There may be a reason for this. McNabb was a chemist who got into winemaking as a way to challenge his skill set. His lab-coated background radiates as he dives into the minutiae of winemaking Our conversation routinely veers into talk of microclimate and granite schist during the tastings. There’s talk about the harsh realities of Texas viticulture, like how 2013’s relentlessness brought one freeze after another, but that’s minor chatter. There’s much more excited buzz about the future, especially as vintners become more aware of the capabilities of Texas terroir. As he pours us another rosé from his arsenal, a 2017 Tempranillo blend this time, he reiterates his commitment to capturing that potential in his handiwork. “I want to create a sense of place with our wines,” he says. “I want you to taste Texas.”
The War of the Rosés: Texas vs. California
In my opinion, Texas rosés are better than California rosés.
That doesn’t mean all California rosés are bad. You can find some good ones on the market. You can even find some really good ones on occasion. Based on what we sampled, however, I have to say the Lone Star State is running circles around Cali in the rosé department. They aren’t as good as French wines – that would be asking a whole lot – but most people around here aren’t in competition with other regions. They’re concerned with making the best wines Texas terroir can produce. It just so happens when it comes to rosés, they’re kicking California’s butt.
A bold statement, sure, but it’s one defensible on two points. Firstly, Texas rosés aren’t cloyingly sweet sugar bombs like a lot of the rosés produced in California. They have nuanced, complex flavors that don’t have to squirm their way through a candy-like boundary. At the same time, they share enough characteristics that make them unmistakably rosé. The hues run the gamut from pink to a faded blur between orange and red, and they drink refreshingly.
This correlates to the second defense: Texas rosés are great pairing wines. Texas vintners realize they have a conundrum. They pretty much keep their distribution within the state, and they’re serious about making wines with depth. At the same time, Texas is hotter than hell half of the year. Go to a city like Houston, or even worse, Galveston, and the humidity jumps past oppressive and lands into the realm of cruelty. But Texans are a hardy breed, and they’ve adapted to the climate. Go through Austin, for example, and you’ll find copious amounts of outdoor seating being used even when the heat index pushes past triple digits. If these people are wine drinkers, it stands to reason they’d want to enjoy something refreshing. At the same time, if they’re chilling on a restaurant patio under the glow of strung lights, they may want something that can pair up well with the brisket or rib-eye they ordered. This is what makes Texas rosés so remarkable. They’re able to provide the refreshment needed to hang in the state’s harsh outdoor conditions, but they also provide the depth wine drinkers crave at dinnertime. This saves them from the peril of gulping down an inky purple Cabernet Sauvignon when the top of their head feels aflame. It’s not too difficult to imagine the rosés working better in this capacity than their California counterparts, both here and in other parts of the country.
Texas Hill Country Funk
The William Chris Wines 2017 Petillant Naturel Rosé, or Pet-Nat, might be the weirdest wine I’ve ever tasted. We end up buying two bottles from our pourer, Eva, at the end of our visit, fully aware they have to be enjoyed before our flight back to Los Angeles some 96 hours later. Consider this an endorsement. If you need a bigger push, Forbes and Food & Wine gave Pet-Nat serious props last year.
Pet-Nat is a naturally sparkling rosé primarily made from Merlot, Mourvedre and Malbec that’s bottled before primary fermentation, with no added sugars or yeasts. That’s the technical description. The experience of drinking this orange-ish pink devil is akin to my seven-year-old self seeing “Yellow Submarine” for the first time. I couldn’t make heads or tails of its attack on my senses, but I loved it nonetheless. It’s like a rosé transformed into a cider. We occasionally look up from our tasters to periodically gaze out of the window, onto the property’s gently rolling hillsides spiked with rows of bright green vines. It’s the prettiest view we have from any tasting room, but the Pet-Nat usurps our attention.
Pulling off a wine this wild usually speaks about someone that knows what they’re doing. The Pet-Nat is no exception. William “Bill” Blackmon, the William of William Chris, has been growing grapes in the High Plains AVA since the late 1970s. The “Chris” in this equation, Chris Brundrett, carries a reputation for being one of Texas’ viticultural rock stars. Together, their mission statement is all about making wines that celebrate the possibilities of Texas agriculture. We bought two bottles of their wine. Mission accomplished.
Lone Star Experimentation
We arrive at Pedernales Cellars in the late afternoon. The satiating power of the morning’s mighty breakfast tacos are nearly gone. We are greeted by Marissa Contreras, the winery’s Marketing Manager. We’re also greeted with a beautiful cheese and charcuterie plate. “I saw your itinerary you had planned out today,” she says. “So I decided you needed something to snack on.” We’re incredibly grateful.
The snacks reset our palates as Contreras fills us in on Pedernales’ early 1990s origins. They began by planting Bordeaux varietals, but eventually shifted gears to incorporate Spanish, Portuguese and Italian grapes. Her story and the accompanying sips reinforce what’s perhaps the greatest lesson from Texas Hill Country. The vintners here are willing to listen to the terroir and give into its demands, as opposed to growing an ill-fitting grape for the sake of producing a specific varietal. This willingness occasionally leads to a trial-and-error process that Contreras admits isn’t easy. “The extreme weather conditions alone help you figure out whether or not you’re really dedicated to making wine,” she says.
It can also lead to some funky experimentation. Contreras pours us what she calls a “non-traditional blend.” She’s not kidding – it’s a melange of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre. It’s a wine that may make a purist or a hardcore A.O.C. devotee spontaneously combust. I’ll admit that it feels a little deviant to taste something so unorthodox. Then I remember my favorite Frank Zappa quote, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” Words to live by, especially if you’re not hamstrung by stringent rules.
Connecting Texas and California Wines
We show up at our next stop, 4.0 Cellars, and we’re shuffled past the tasting counter. This heightens my curiosity, which is saying something in this case. I’ve been intrigued by this stop since we finalized our itinerary, because it’s not a winery in the traditional sense. Rather, the venue is a viticultural aggregator featuring three different wineries, with a dash of fancy foods thrown in for good measure. We didn’t even so much as pause at the counter. Something’s afoot.
We’re led through double wood-framed glass doors and into a conference room, and all is revealed. We not only have wines to taste, but cheeses to pair. At one end of the table sits Carl Hudson, 4.0 Cellars’ wine educator. Gregarious, fast-talking and passionate, it doesn’t take long for him to snuff out any chance of pretentiousness from developing. The fact that he holds a doctorate in chemistry, worked in the petroleum industry, and helped pioneer the viticultural scene in New Jersey (!) certainly keeps things too lively for extended pinkies.
We work our way through five wine and cheese pairings, featuring a trio of wineries: Brennan Vineyards; Lost Oak Winery; and McPherson Cellars. The wines cut a wide swath of influence and intrigue and they pair terrifically with the cheese, but the McPherson selections particularly draws my interest. The man behind it, Kim McPherson, possesses a Texas wine legend big enough to cajole collaborative work from the likes of ex-Opus One and Orin Swift Vineyards winemaker Dave Phinney. In other words, he’s no slouch. Hudson really reels me in at the end of his McPherson spiel. “Kim’s little brother Jon is a winemaker out in Temecula,” he informs me. “He’s at a winery called South Coast Winery.”
Well, then. I know Jon has skills, too. I’m a sucker for his Ruby Cuvee. It pairs well with Thanksgiving. Not a particular dish, mind you. The whole damn meal. It forces me to ponder what I suppose is an inevitable ponderance if one lives in Southern California: Texas Hill Country and Temecula share quite a few similarities. They’re off-the-beaten-path wine regions. They’re around the same age, although Temecula’s slightly older. They both grow a lot of the same grapes. They’re both home to award-winning wineries. Hell, they both have a McPherson!
Why Can’t I Find Texas Wines?
If you want to dig into Texas wines, you’re going to have to book a trip to Texas.
For now, this is the unfortunate reality of a wine region with seemingly so much upside. The issue is the grapes – or lack thereof. Texas Hill Country continues to grow, but the acreage of planted vines has not kept up with the increasing demand. There’s simply not enough fruit being produced to push label distribution beyond the Lone Star State’s expansive borders. The few that do escape the state don’t head west.
Then there’s the weather. The vines of the Texas High Plains AVA live under the threat of getting rag-dolled by Mother Nature every year. Heat isn’t the enemy here. Consistently warm temperatures can shrink the berries, which can make them more intense and concentrated. Since Texas vintners tend to plant heat-resistant grapes and harvest early before temperatures truly get out of hand, it’s not really that much of a crop-killer. The true meteorological point of contention around these parts is the late winter and early spring, when temperatures can suddenly drop to below freezing. This could have devastating effects to a wine’s harvest and production. “In 2013, our vineyards were hit with eight different freezes in a six-week span,” McNabb says. “It ended up wiping out 75 percent of our crop.”
The wineries don’t necessarily want to perpetuate a secret. While most of the people we talk to tell us how eager they are to share their handiwork with the masses, they’re cognizant of their current limitations. They’re also well aware of the potential hell they may catch elsewhere if they start producing quantity over quality. For now, they’re content with working within the rulebook as written by the earth and sky.
A Texas Wine Legend
It takes us a few minutes to find Wedding Oak Winery’s Fredericksburg’s tasting room. We found the property and parked the car, but all we see when we approach the lot’s main building is potted flowers and assorted lawn decor. We’re perplexed, then we see an arrow. Turns out to get to the tasting room, you need to walk through the Wildflower Farm’s garden shop before you can imbibe. It’s a quirky arrangement, but this is also the sixth and final winery we’ve stopped at today. Quirky provides energy.
When we emerge, we’re greeted by Penny Adams, Wedding Oak’s director of winemaking. She explains the tasting room she leads us to is just that – a tasting room. Wedding Oak’s main property is in San Saba, about an hour north of Fredericksburg. This is fine. The wines are here, being poured by Wedding Oak’s Assistant Winemaker Seth Urbanek. So is a massive plate of cheese and charcuterie in the center of a long, rustic table.
Texas wine and its evolution owe a tremendous debt to Penny Adams. She’s been involved in the Texas wine industry since the late ‘70s. She’s also the first woman to operate a vineyard in Texas, a designation she earned back in 1981. She’s spent more than a decade teaching aspiring vintners how to understand Texas terroir at two different colleges. She’s well-qualified to discuss how the Texas wine scene has matured in the last four decades, and the wines we taste reflect this astuteness; Albarino, Viognier and Dolcetto. The wines are complex, refreshing and Texan to the bone. She doesn’t dwell on the past, however. She’s too excited about what’s to come. “The young people in the industry have brought the energy to sustain and grow Texas wine,” she says. “This energy has caused a shift in the reason people visit here. It’s gone from visiting the beauty of Texas Hill Country to coming here with a purpose. People want to learn about things like the terroir and the growing season. It’s given all of us a great opportunity to educate.” Spoken like a true teacher. Or a pioneer, if you will.
Is there a better way to end the week than with a Gold medal wine, and the Golden Gate Bridge? Thank You, @sfchronicle! We’ll be pouring the CA red, as well as the CA white, OR & WA at the 2017 SFCWC public tasting at Fort Mason on February 18th! See you there! 🏅🏆🏅 . . . #davephinney #wine #vino #winetasting #winelife #sanfranciscochroniclewinecompetition #davephinneywines #locationswine #locations #goldmedal
Texas Wine: Coming to a Location(s) Near You?
When Dave Phinney is interested in your wine region, you know you’re doing something right. In addition to his work with Opus One and being the guy that created The Prisoner for Orin Swift Vineyards back in the day, Phinney is the brainchild behind Locations. You’ve seen these bottles if you’ve set foot in a wine shop. They’re the ones whose labels look like the identifying country stickers you occasionally see slapped in a car’s back corner window. The letters on the symbols make sense. You got CA for California, F for France, I for Italy, and so on. In 2015, a wine with a big ol’ TX sticker hit the shelves.
Locations Texas is the product of Phinney’s collaborative work with Kim McPherson. Billed as “Texas Red Wine,” it’s a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Carignan, with a smattering of other Bordeaux varietals tossed in for good measure. For people that are still scratching their head over the whole Texas wine thing, Phinney’s drinkable endorsement may be considered a safe foray into the unknown, particularly if they’ve dug his other wines.
There’s an air of importance around Locations Texas. Phinney’s involvement helps push this vibe, but not as much as its market presence. This wine’s nationwide, which never happens with Texas wines ever.. It’s not easy to find – a poke around Southern California’s retail market scene reveals its availability is roughly south of random – but it’s around. This availability, scant as it may be, makes it feel like it could be a sign of things to come, like the scout that charts a territory before the rest of the army arrives. One can only hope it ends up being predictive.
The Future of Texas Wines
It’s a new day, and we’re checked out of Austin. We’re headed to Houston to visit some family and friends, but before we make the trek east, we’re rolling slightly southwest. We have one more winery to hit: Duchman Family Winery. We’re blown away on sight. The previous day, the properties we visited were lovely with a distinct rustic undercurrent. You were in wine country, but you also knew you were in Texas. Duchman’s property is different – way different. You can pluck their Tuscan villa from its foundations and drop it right into Napa’s Rutherford appellation and nobody would blink an eye.
It’s not just a pretty face, either. The property’s first winemaker, the late Mark Penna, was a Texas wine pioneer and one of the first vintners to realize unorthodox grapes formed Texas Hill Country’s viticultural soul. His protege Dave Reilly, who also gained tutelage from Penny Adams back in the day, carries Penna’s tradition, but he’s not afraid to sprinkle in a touch of ambition.
“Dave’s philosophy is to not just make a good Texas wine,” states Duchman General Manager Jeff Ogle as he pours us a refreshing Trebbiano. “He wants to make wines that can hold their own on an international level.” It’s the boldest statement we hear during our experience, but it worked – we end up buying a bottle of the 2016 Vermentino.
Ogle mentions that there is still a lot they don’t know about Texas. The appellations are young and aren’t well defined yet. There is still plenty of exploration left to do in various parts of the state. This isn’t daunting for them, though. It’s exciting as hell. Besides, what Duchman knows about Texas terroir so far is pretty damn good. Until all is revealed, though, there are still some constants. Like barbecue, for example. “A lot of our wines pair very well with barbecue,” Ogle says. “You really can’t get more Texan than that.”
Now that you know about Texas Hill Country, the next step is to make your way out there and give them a try.
Ron Yates Wines 2015 Viognier
An aromatic punch of brioche bun segues to bright stone fruit, apricot and tangerine notes on the palate. Bright, elegant finish.
Lewis Wines 2017 Round Mountain Rosé
Blend of primarily Touriga Nacional and Tempranillo. Watermelon and cantaloupe on the A winenose. Ripe red fruit underscored by fine minerality, giving the label balance and depth.
William Chris Vineyards 2016 Petillant Naturel
Bright red fruit tickle the nose before hitting the palate with an acidity-driven attack of citrus and stone fruit. Wine that drinks like a cider.
Pedernales Cellars 2015 Kuhlken Vineyards Reserve
Red blend. Sensuous red fruit transitions from nose to palate amid a velvety smooth mouthfeel. Silky finish. Delicious.
McPherson Cellars 2015 Cinsault
Light body. Soft notes of red fruit, plum and a touch of cream glide along the palate. Refreshing, approachable and ready to drink.
Wedding Oak 2016 Rosé de Dolcetto
Fresh red fruit aromas with a hint of pepper and minerality. Fresh strawberry balanced by deep cranberry before finishing softly. A rosé to pair with Texas barbecue.
Duchman Family Winery 2016 Duchman Family Vermentino
Bright pops of tropical fruit and citrus seamlessly transition from nose to palate. Crisp acidity. Balanced. Ideal for warm weather.