Before we met, I was calling him the King of Texas Vines. One of the first to plant grapes since Prohibition and the first to win a medal in California with the wine he made from those grapes, he now advises on the majority of new vineyards in north Texas. He lost his vineyard due to economic stresses from a national excise tax, and now shares his expertise with others, working hard to put Texas wine on the map. Chances are, if you’ve had a Texas wine made from delicious High Plains fruit, Bobby is the one who decided at what angle to plant that vineyard, the row spacing and advised on the varieties, then helped those vines grow into maturity.
But after spending a day with him, I now think of him more as a symphony conductor.
There are a few reasons. One, his hands seldom stay on the steering wheel as he drives, gesturing openly instead, to make his point. His facial expressions are no less lively. And when he laughs, he maintains eye contact with you, drawing you into the joke. There’s no escaping Bobby’s warmth and enthusiasm.
And second, nearly every time his phone rings (playing a “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” ringtone) there is someone on the other end asking his opinion about some aspect of their planting, which he fields with the wisdom that only comes from years of experience. He took me around to visit farmers in Brownfield, Texas and throughout our conversations, they would gently ask his advice on when to add inputs, how to train the vines, and what varieties to plant, then carefully listen to his answers. I got the sense that he was orchestrating behind the scenes of the Texas wine industry, helping farmers grow the good and healthy fruit that provides the basis for our finest wines.
He and his wife Jennifer graciously invited me for dinner in their earthen home. We had only Texas wine, made with the grapes he helped advise on and talked about when they were picked and who made the wine. I had never felt so close to a meal before. Then at the end as we moved to the cheese plate, Bobby disappeared from the table and returned with a bottle of his 1983 Pheasant Ridge Cabernet, the first Texas wine to win an award in California in 1986. I joked that he was like Jesus, saving the best wine for last.
And sure enough, it was beautiful, truly award winning. Natural, sweet oxidation on the nose, but the color was solid garnet with very little rim variation. Nearly 30 years old and it still looked young. The flavors were layered and the finish held an Old World style structure; it had many, many years left to mature. As we complimented him, my exuberant host became quiet, modest, humble. He explained in low tones his decisions around the wine: when he chose to harvest, how he aged it and why the tannins were so outstanding. I was touched to see someone so certain of his knowledge, as I had witnessed all day in the field, become gentle in front of his art. The conversation continued on to their early years in the wine industry, spending time with the top California wine makers, the way Jennifer won a blind tasting against them because she was familiar with all the varieties planted in Bobby’s experimental rows, and all the characters they met; I was highly entertained, but couldn’t shake the realization that I was sipping on a real piece of Texas history, in front of its creator, and what an honor that was.
A friend of mine once told me that the way to maintain satisfaction in a skill you’ve honed is to become a consultant and pass that knowledge onto others. I agree and I hope that is the case here. There is an awful lot of wisdom and work going into making some of Texas’ finest wines possible, starting from the ground up.
Thank you, Bobby “Grape” Cox, for all you do.