Texas winemakers committed to making wines that speak of Texas regions
Young Turks were members of a political movement of students and young enthusiasts in the early 20th century working toward democracy in Turkey. They were willing to break with the past to create their vision of their political future. In the Texas wine industry, changes are afoot, largely driven by an equally young movement of educated, experienced and passionate partisans with their own vision of the future.
These “Young Turks of Texas Wine” are unapologetic about being unconventional and understand the risk of failure. Yet, they are undeterred on their quest for quality wines with a true Texas character, not just a rehash of the wines of other wine-producing states or even the wines of the 1970s–80s that gave birth to our modern wine industry.
“I worked the family farm in Brownfield with my mother, father, granddad and my uncle Andy Timmons,” said Andrew Sides, manager at Lost Draw Cellars in central Fredericksburg. “By the time I was in college, I was tending Andy’s vines at Lost Draw Vineyards, whose plantings were expanding to meet the demand for Texas grapes. Later, I linked up with young winemakers that were buying his grapes. We all had a similar perspectives; this gave me the incentive to open Lost Draw Cellars.”
Sides’s compatriots are trying to increase in-state grape production so they can eliminate the use of out-of-state wine grapes in our Texas wines. As a result, they are exploring different grape varieties: reds include Tempranillo, Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Montepulciano, Aglianico and Tannat; whites are Viognier, Roussanne and Vermentino. These are grapes from warmer regions of Europe and can better handle the hot and variable Texas weather and consistently produce high-quality Texas wine.
Several of our Young Turks have wineries only a short drive east of Fredericksburg between Hye and Johnson City. They are Chris Brundrett, partner at William Chris Vineyards; Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb at Lewis Wines; and Ben Calais at Calais Winery.
Brundrett founded William Chris Vineyards with long-time grape grower Bill Blackmon. Brundrett said that at William Chris, they make 100% Texas a tenet of their business plan and, with others of the same ilk, are seeking support in Austin for what, in time, will produce laws supporting 100% Texas grapes in Texas wine.
Lewis and McNabb came together when interning for winemaker David Kulken at Pedernales Cellars in Stonewall. Small plans to make just enough wine for family and friends took a turn after they shared some of it with Brundrett. According to Lewis, “Chris told us it was good and that we should start a ‘real’ winery that’s now Lewis Wines.” Their goal is what McNabb called “making high-quality Texas wines over a range of prices in ‘value’ to ‘premium’ categories.” To do this, rather than focus on particular grapes, Lewis and McNabb try to stay flexible—looking across the state for their line of dry, minerally rosés, dry whites made from Chenin Blanc and Viognier, and a light semisparkling blend made with Texas hybrid Blanc Du Bois grapes.
Frenchman Ben Calais brought his Calais Winery to the Hill Country from Dallas after working several harvests at French wineries. With his Texas winery now in its 10th season, Calais is gaining focus. “I see my future in combining Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Cab Franc with heavy hitters like Petit Sirah and Tannat,” he said. “In addition, I’m going for specific vineyards with elevation [higher than 3,000 feet] like around Fort Davis and the Texas high plains where Bordeaux varieties have shown they can make world-class wines.”
In Mason County, just a short hop west from Fredericksburg, there’s Brock Estes. His family goes back six generations in Mason, where he has two passion-filled wine ventures going. “My Dank Wines project is a brand of easy-drinking blends aimed at millennials,” he said, “but with Fly Gap I’m operating on a shoestring budget and a little on the fringe.
I can take time to explore my wine style with Fly Gap. To me, while style may only be 10% of the winemaking process, I feel it’s the most important 10%.” Estes’s approach is to extract in his wine as much from the land and its terroir as possible, even in fermentation.
Said Rae Wilson (dandypink.com), a young Austin wine business professional, “I came to Texas with experience in restaurants and wine study in California but primarily to help a friend, but found a need for consulting services from wineries in helping them sort out market strategies.” Her feeling is that a lot of wineries make too many wines and spend too much time apologizing for what Texas isn’t rather than embracing what Texas is. Her creative spark is finding wine styles that make sense for Texas from both grower and consumer perspectives.
Wilson said: “I came up with my personal brand, Dandy Rosé. I wanted to show Texas winemakers a wine like this is the perfect entry point into the marketplace. Rosé’s are simple, but you can fuss over them if you want. They are a perfect fit for the climate and lifestyle in Texas and they can be made from a range of red grape varieties that grow well here.”
Looking to Galveston County, Tiffany Farrell is the winemaker at Haak Vineyards. While a Texas A&M graduate in microbiology, she later found her future in winemaking by working harvests at California’s historic Weibel Family Vineyards and J Vineyards in Sonoma. After graduate school at Boise State and some experience in Idaho’s Snake River wine region, she recalled, “It was time to find a job. While I was drawn to California, my heart was in Texas. When I saw Raymond Haak’s posting on winejobs.com, I said, ‘I want that job!’”
Having just started at Haak, Farrell admitted to being a little overwhelmed. Farrell said, “The geography of the Texas’s wine industry is impressive. For example, take the 600-mile trek grapes make from high plains vineyards to our crush pad in Santa Fe.” She also acknowledged the diversity of grape varieties that grow here is challenging for a winemaker. “I’m blown away with the Texas wines I’ve tasted and eventually want my Texas wines to be recognized from coast-to-coast,” she said, “especially when I go out to visit my friends and colleagues in California.”
In Tyler, Michael McClendon, who earned a degree in biology, took a winemaking internship at Kiepersol’s 63-acre vineyard and estate winery and discovered his career path. “I entered the Texas wine industry and immediately started harvest and crush, worked long hours and learned as much as I could,” he said. “I was driven by my appreciation for the winemaking legacy here.”
The Kiepersol legacy came from its founders, Marnelle Durrett and her father, Pierre de Wit, who proved many people in the Texas wine industry wrong by showing that they were good enough ‘farmers’ to establish a Bordeaux-centric winery on the outskirts of Tyler. McClendon said, “I particularly want to build greater awareness of our region in northeast Texas—its wine quality and reputation. While working with Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, I’m also excited by what Albariño and Mediterranean grapes might achieve in our area. I’ve already started helping other wineries around us optimize their vineyard and wine production.”
In Celina north of Dallas, Eden Hill Vineyards winemaker Chris Hornbaker started early with family experience in growing things: vineyards and wineries from his mother, whom he calls “a California girl,” and his dad, a farmer from Kansas. Before going off to Grayson College to study winemaking, Chris helped plant the family’s Eden Hill Vineyard. “With little experience available in our part of Texas, we initially chose hybrid grapes [Cynthiana and Blanc Du Bois],” he said. “But then we tapped into the longtime north Texas winemaking legend Bobby Smith and got a recommendation for Tempranillo.”
Hornbaker also said, “My job as winemaker at Eden Hill Vineyards is a perfect fit for me. It’s demanding as we are growing rapidly with a new winery scheduled to open this year. I’m searching the state with the 100% Texas goal in mind for what could be our leading grape varieties. We are having good results with reds like Montepulciano and Aglianico and whites like Roussanne and Marsanne, and we have found the latter two varieties make seriously good sparkling wines, too.”
These Young Turks are representative of many more now in Texas out searching for the high-quality wines of tomorrow. They feel they can make an impact with a combination of youthful grit, fearless determination and the likelihood of having possibly 30 vintages in front of them, which is time enough to craft the future.