education in Texas tasting rooms

After finishing this edition’s tour of Texas wineries, I have headed to France for the summer to lead cycling trips with an active touring company.  Luckily and blissfully, this assignment starts in Provence and the Southern Rhône where we travel through Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Beames-de-Venise, as well as lesser known Rhône Villages and parts of Ventoux.

I won’t write much about France in this venue because this blog is about Texas and the people we meet with the book, but I would like to take note of my first visit to the wineries in the region and here’s why: they are not so different from Texas.  In fact, it was drinking wine at tasting rooms in Texas that helped me understand what is happening here, more so even than if I had spent this time in Napa Valley, or maybe anywhere else in the United States.  The more I learn, the more I believe Texas is, quite simply, more like Europe than anywhere else in the country (and for many more reasons than just the varieties grown).

The steward of the first tasting room I entered in Gigondas sorted through my strangely accented French to offer an English interaction, which was fortunate because his bi-lingual wine terminology was much better than mine.  I asked a lot of questions, similar to ones I ask when meeting with Texas wine makers and grape growers, and he was just as eager to talk about it as anyone.

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I was shown maps of microclimates, given explanations of terroir and blending techniques across different vineyards, enlightened on different vine training techniques that echoed what I learned at home.  For example, here in the Rhône, Mouvedre is head-trained (a Roman technique where vines are taught to grow upward with no wires, so that they look like goblets) because its cordons naturally reaches toward the sky and because the technique produces better fruit… just like Tannat, also head-trained by Bending Branch Winery.

Head trained Mourvedre in Gigondas, France

John Rivenburgh explains head trained Tannat vines and Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas

The education I received from wise Texas wine folk like Bobby Cox helped me understand why blending grapes from various microclimates adds layers of complexity to a wine.  And pioneers like Les Constable at Brushy Creek Vineyards and Winery helped me understand why setting up a vine library is a good start to a vineyard, or even something to maintain for the entire life of someone’s estate.

And when the wine steward and I got more comfortable, he tested me on a white blend in which I identified 2 of the three grapes (Viognier and Roussane, missing Grenache Blanc) because these grapes are little rockstars in our state and I have tasted very true renderings of their character by our own wine makers.

I am not saying this to brag on myself.  Anyone could do this.  I am saying this to point out something marvelous about Texas tasting rooms: they are educational venues, opening visitors to world wines.  As the pioneering minds of the Texas wine industry are broadening their plantings past the big California three (Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay) and honing in on what this climate and soil can best support, we are being exposed to a vast array of varieties somewhat novel to the American palate, and pronunciation: Tempranillo (think Spanish- does not rhyme with armadillo), Mourvedre, Tinta Cao, Carignane, Cinsault, Vermentino, Albariño, Aliagnico, Dolcetto, etc.  They are beginning to increase in popularity and notoriety because they grow well here and show beautifully from our soil.   And because of this happy trend, Texas tasting rooms are putting them into people’s mouths, both to drink and to say.  This, I believe, is educating our visitors to a much wider world of taste and understanding, tapping Texas wine tourists into a global market, in a way I don’t think even most of California can do.

At the end of my lovely visit with this Gigondas winery, I explained that I was from Texas and interested in wine there, too.  The steward said he had actually met several Texans who visited his tasting room, and that they knew quite a bit about the Gigondas varieties.  Perhaps they studied on their own, but I like to think they had exposure to local renditions as well, and took that knowledge abroad to explore the grapes further.

So my challenge to you, good drinker, is to visit a local winery or two and go for the grape variety you’ve never heard of, then ask your wine stewardess a little about its background.  It’ll take you on a journey around the world through your taste buds.  I think you’ll be delighted at how much there is to learn here at home.

Margaret Shugart

Certenberg Vineyards

For my last stop to vineyards and wineries in Texas before leaving for France, I took the good advice of Wes and met Alphonse and Martha Dotson of Certenberg Vineyard in Voca, Texas.  And good advice it was indeed.

Martha met me by my car with her big, beautiful smile and after a few minutes of chatting, asked if I might be interested in a traditional Guadalajara beef stew she planned to heat up for lunch.  Absolutely and without a doubt.

She welcomed me into their house and Alphonse came to the kitchen.  I was struck first by his charm, then his laid back, centered presence.  He called me “young lady” and offered me a seat.  I took furious notes as they shared the story of how life took them to their present location, grape varieties and the making of their first wine, Dotson-Cervantes “Gotas de Oro”, meaning “Drops of Gold.”  (More on this wine later).

While I can’t share their entire story here- you’ll find it in the book- I will say I was most struck by their faith- in God, and in a higher wisdom to guide them.  They, like just about all vine growers in Texas, have experienced some rough times.  I do believe grape growing in this state is one of the greatest gambles a person can take.  But instead of seeing those trials in a negative light, they both spend their energy looking for lessons, ways to grow and benefit from the challenges.  And continue to tune into their intuitions and blessings for direction.  As we lingered over Martha’s delicious stew: broth cooked from the bone and filled with root vegetables, greens, spices, chunks of tender meat and whole corn on the cob, all topped with fresh cilantro, sliced avocado and squeezed lime, I just enjoyed watching them interact, clearly still in love after 29 years together.  They affirmed each other across the table, helping one another complete stories and laughing at the times they’ve had together.  In all my experience, I’ve learned this kind of love always leads to good things.

And that brings us to “Gotas de Oro”.  They wanted a sweet wine that could expand past just dessert, and decided on a muscat canneli with a little chardonnay blended in.  Many people told them that you don’t blend chardonnay into anything; you blend other varieties into chardonnay.  But Ed Auler, the winemaker, agreed and their collaboration produced a very well balanced bottle.  I tried it at Fall Creek Vineyards the week before and was carried away with its citrus sweetness, finished off with a touch of cream, the malolactic brought by the chardonnay.  Its balanced acidity held up to our tiramisu and the finish was long and delightful.  It was perfect for dessert, but if given the chance, I could’ve easily enjoyed the whole bottle by itself.

Interested in trying it yourself?  It will be featured Mother’s Day through July 4th at all Mandola’s Markets around Austin, and their Trattoria Lisina in Driftwood, Texas.  Test the tiramisu pairing, drink it after the meal, or enjoy throughout the experience.

Or head out to Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow, Texas where you can try and buy “Gotas de Oro”, as well as several other wines made from Certenberg Vineyard grapes.

Margaret Shugart

coming around the Bend with the Kentucky Derby

Like to double up your holidays?  If Cinco di Mayo isn’t enough for you, or you’d prefer to celebrate the day with a different alcohol, head out on out to Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas.  They’ll be living up the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps and all.

I wish I could tell you the secret of how they are making them, but was sworn to silence.  I can reveal that they are called “Single Barrel Blanc Mint Juleps” and are made from high quality Texas wine, sent through a special aging process and muddled with fresh mint.  From the description, it seems there is not another beverage like it on the planet.

In addition to this incredible concoction, there will be traditional hot brown sandwiches, real-time Derby viewing, a hat contest, speciality hat vendors, and horseshoe contests.  This is a family event and all are welcome.

It’s a beautiful day to get out into the Hill Country and the Derby party runs from 11am to 6pm, leaving you plenty of time to make it back home to Cinco di Mayo the night away!

For all the information, visit http://bendingbranchwinery.com/calendar/050512-2nd-annual-kentucky-derby-party

The family of Bending Branch: Robert and Brenda Young, Alison and John Rivenburgh and their children. Photo by Phil Hammel of Hammel Photography.