Pontotoc, a picture story

There is a new cordon of the Texas wine country developing in the northern Hill Country, based around the tiny town of Pontotoc.

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Over ten years ago, Carl Money bought the 1800’s buildings in downtown Pontotoc, as well as an old German farmhouse behind the strip.  He envisioned it as the place for a family he didn’t have yet.  Now that he and his wife, Frances Money, are expecting their third child, that dream is taking flight.

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His uncle, Ronnie Money, has been meticulously tending their acres of Tempranillo and maintaining the property for all those years, producing incredible fruit for their wines.  IMG_3304

Carl now plans to convert the downtown strip into three tasting rooms and an active theater for movies, live music and theatrical performances.

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By gracious invitation, a few of us had the opportunity to tour the property, meet the people, and spend an incredible weekend in this place.  I traveled out with three wine women of the Austin wine scene, Alissa LeenherJessica Dupuy and Denise Clarke.

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We made a few stops along the way at William Chris Vineyards,

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Hilmy Cellars, 4.0 Cellars

4.0smalland Sandstone Cellars in Mason, Texas where Don Pullum, winemaker at Pontotoc Vineyards also spins his craft.

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We met with owners of Sandstone Cellars, Scott and Manny, tasted through the wines and visited their new wine bar, next to the winery.

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Upon arriving in Pontotoc, we were warmly welcomed by Don, Ronnie, Carl, his beautiful wife Frances and their two children,

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and were joined by San Antonio Express writer Jennifer McInnis, her partner and two Texas State theater professors.  After sipping some 2011 Estate Tempranillo out of mason jars and munching on appetizers, we began a tour.  We saw each of the future tasting rooms.  One will be for for Pontotoc Vineyards.  One is slotted for Akashic Vineyard Winery, soon to be pouring wine made from grapes of Don Pullum’s Akashic Vineyard and other nearby growers.  He will be the winemaker there too, of course.  I asked where the word Akashic originated and he said it is the Buddhist term for “nature’s memory” and the perfect metaphor for wine.

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The third tasting room is for Alphonse Dotson and Martha Cervantes of Certenberg Vineyards.  The winery will be named Dotson and Cervantes.

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On our tour, Ronnie explained the vineyards to us,

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Carl showed the buildings and shared his plans for their future

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and Don let us taste from the barrels and tanks, explaining each vintages characteristics and blending wine on the spot.

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We learned that Carl’s dream for the property was one of celebration and education.  The house is naturally designed for entertainment and the firepit in the yard calls for camaraderie.  He said his vision is for people to come and thoroughly enjoy themselves.  If they’ve had too much to drink, they can grab a Mexican blanket from the theater and curl up on the tasting room floor for the night, or go pitch a tent in the vineyards.  He wants people to enjoy the vibe and atmosphere as much as he does.  Not a hard thing to do.

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He also wants Pontotoc to be a center for education, true to the town’s roots.  Out of the handful of streets in town, one is named College, for the crumbled university that faces the downtown strip.

universitysmallCarl hopes to revive that tradition with viticulture and enology classes.  He is currently working with Ed Hellman on curriculum for the Texas Viticulture Certificate Program based out of Fredericksburg and wants to extend some of those opportunities into Pontotoc.

After our touring, Don Pullum created an incredible seafood stew, shared with side dishes brought by all.

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We sat at a long table in the middle of soon-to-be Pontotoc Winery tasting room saying grace, sharing stories, making friends and giving cheers.  The possibility off the place rang off its earthen walls.

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I was so moved by the town, the idea and the spirit, I returned a day later to learn how to filter wine with Don, Ronnie and the cellar helper Justin.  But that’s another story.

Best of luck to you, Pontotoc!  Your future is bright.

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Snow on the High Plains

There are late freezes, and there are late Freezes.  Unfortunately, the High Plains experienced the latter this week, with temperatures in the 20’s and snow on the vines.  Its impact is still unknown, but it could mean a challenging year for Texas grapes and Texas wine.  According to Betty Bingham of Bingham Family Vineyards, the extent of damage is related to the location of the vineyard, the variety, timing of pruning, and even the rootstock.  There’s a wide range of estimates for crop damage across all High Plains vineyards, from 0% to 80%, dependent on all these variables, but truth is these are just estimates.  Still-tight buds can be unaffected and many vines see a secondary budding.  Several other wine regions around the world like Burgundy, all throughout Germany and even Australia fear the frost and look secondary and tertiary budbreak for a good crop replacement.  As Betty says, “We really won’t know for two more weeks. Then again we won’t ‘really’ know till next August and September.”

This news reminded me of one of my first interviews with a Texas winemaker while working on a different project.  He told me that every month of the growing season he is on his knees for something different: please no late frost in April, please no hail in May, please no drought in June, please no rain at harvest.  Growing grapes in Texas is one of the most difficult agricultural endeavors one can undertake, and it requires a lot of monitoring, experimenting, collaborating and intelligence to be successful.  As we sit here, there are people all over the world researching how to delay budbreak, how to fight or prevent Pierce’s disease, how to optimize a variety’s potential through rootstock, how to prepare for and recover from Mother Nature’s whims.

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Photo courtesy of Dusty Timmons.

Texas is very much like Europe, constantly reconsidering strategy and looking for ways to maximize the elements.  That’s the reason vintages are so important for world class wines like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and Port: every year is so different.  California, for the most part, sees relatively stable weather conditions and is at less risk for extremes, but our wine growers are always on their toes, readjusting, learning new techniques, trying new approaches.  Several vineyard owners told me how they would be out the middle of the night, just walking through the vines, measuring, observing, worrying.  One winemaker and vineyard manager in the Hill Country told me he had a late night vision of setting a small grass fire under the vines, just to keep them warm.  I have no doubt they will find ways to make the best of this freeze as well and will come out of this season even more prepared for the next.

So “Thank you” to these obsessed, intelligent, passionate folks- for working so hard to put good wine in our cups.  Cheers!  And blessings.

– Margaret Shugart

TWGGA Legislative Session

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Last Tuesday members of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association met in Austin to talk with their legislators about matters closest to them and to the Texas wine industry.  I visited the educational tasting room in the evening to hug friends and catch up on some important happenings in the business.  It was a joy to see Betty and Cliff Bingham and to chat with Bobby Cox, all down from Lubbock.  I also had the opportunity to meet some legends face-to-face, like Carl Money of Pontotoc Vineyards and Ed Hellman, a professor of viticulture for Texas Tech and Texas A&M programs.  And I learned a few great things:

1) The Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University and Texas AgriLife Extension are working together to devleop a Texas Viticulture Certificate Program based in Fredericksburg.  It is a two year curriculum covering grapevine biology, site assessment and vineyard development, vine nutrition and water management, disease, insect and weed management, and canopy and crop load management.  There will be hands-on vineyard practices, including planting the first test vineyard in April of this year.  Classes will be held in the ACC building just east of Fredricksburg and are now accepting students for courses starting in June: http://winegrapes.ttu.edu/viticulturecertificate.html.

2) The Binghams will be opening their own custom-crush and wine making facility.  They’ve dedicated the site and Betty received news that evening that plans to lay cement were underway.  It will be a way for the family to use any overflow of harvest and also to provide higher quality product to wineries outside of the High Plains.  They will be able to immediately select, destem and press grapes on site, then send refrigerated juice to buyers.  Much like Texas Custom Wine Works, a crush facility designed by Dusty Timmons, Mike Sipowicz, Jet Wilmeth, and Steve Talcott, the facility will be paired with a wine making operation as well.  (As a kicker- Bobby Cox will be their wine maker!)  And much like Texas Custom Wine Works, people are excited about the prospect of pressing and refrigerating juice before fermentation begins, and a fresh base for higher quality wine.  With Bending Branch Winery discussing a mobile crush unit that would provide similar opportunities to growers around the state, it’s an exciting trend for the industry overall.

3) Carl Money, owner of a series of buildings in downtown Mason, will be re-appropriating several spaces for wineries: his Pontotoc Vineyards, Don Pullum’s Sandstone Cellars, and a winery by Alphonse and Martha Dotson of Certenberg Vineyards.  That’s three great wineries in the heart of the “Sonoma of Texas,” sure to draw visitors to the area.

4) And in the vein of combining wineries, another facility is set to open in the 290 corridor.  Called Six Shooter Cellars, it is a collaboration of Cross Timbers Winery out of Grapevine, Texas, Yepez Vineyard out of southeast Texas, and four others that remain a secret.  (Could one be Arché since the man who makes ceramics from their grapevine ashes, Michael Obranovich, will be represented at Six Shooter…?)  Final approval for the business just went through, and the facility could be up and running by the end of next month.

Four very exciting announcements for the industry!  And I am happy to report that all were optimistic about their legislative visits, saying the representatives listened well and understood the proposals, a far cry from the way such meetings used to go.  A great sign as the Texas wine trail barrels on.

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sustainability in Texas Wineries: Red Caboose Winery and Vineyards

This is the first of a series highlighting sustainable practices in Texas wineries and vineyards.

In addition to be centers for locavore culture and community awareness, many Texas wineries are dedicated to being environmentally conscious and practicing sustainability in creative ways.  With wine as both a farming and production venture, these practices have a multi-level impact and deserve a little applause.

We start with Red Caboose Winery and Vineyards because owner Gary McKibben has had an expansive influence on the industry, and he and his son Evan McKibben (winemaker), have taken sustainable practices very seriously in their own winery and vineyards.

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In addition to owning Red Caboose Wineries in Meridian and Clifton, Gary is an architect for a Dallas firm specializing in sustainable design.  The firm designed both Red Caboose buildings, as well as the buildings for Flat Creek Estate, Pedernales Cellars, Brennan Vineyards, Retreat Hill Winery and Vineyard, Texas Legato Winery, and La Bodega in Terminal D at DFW Airport.

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In their winery and vineyard at Meridian, they are using a variety of green technologies.  In the building, they source all their energy from solar panels (and actually generate enough energy to give back to the grid) and use geothermal cooling  for all their refrigeration and chilling needs.  They use sustainable building materials and recycle everything possible from both locations.  And for their corks, they buy composite with caps. The ends are solid and the middle cylinders are pieced together recycled corks.  They work just as well and make good use of what would be otherwise wasted materials.

Evan’s winemaking reflects a similar sentiment and dedication to the natural process: no ionization, no filtration, no computerized gadgets.  The wine is racked and moved through hoses and gravity.  This is in part to cut down on electricity use, and in part a commitment to original wine making practices. They are dedicated to quality over quantity and let the wine develop naturally from its vineyard beginnings, aging it in barrel and bottle as long as it needs.

In their vineyards, they source irrigation water from a rainwater catchment system and do not use pesticides.  They prune clusters to allow the remaining grapes to develop their own natural intensity and quality, and all fruit is hand-havested.  As Evan says, “We grow wine.” The same principles apply to any fruit they buy from outside sources.

How does all of this show in the bottle?  Splendidly.  Their 2008 Tempranillo/ Cabernet Sauvignon blend was one of the 22 Jefferson Cup winners (out of 499 entries) in 2011.  Their Red Ranger Tempranillo blend, 2010 Syrah/Malbec, non-vintage Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Blanc du Bois have also picked up awards as well.  You can find these, and their other stellar wines at these restaurants and retail outlets.

For more information on Red Caboose Winery and Vineyards sustainable design, visit their webpage or visit them in person at their Meridian and Clifton locations.

– Margaret Shugart

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Bill Blackman of William Chris Winery

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The first in a series of many videos aimed at outlining some of the vivid history of Texas wine. Whenever we get a chance to film the winemakers, farmers and other folks who have been important to this business we love so much, we’ll do it, hopefully creating some primary source historical records, or at least some damn good tall tales.

Here, we talk to Bill (William) Blackman of William Chris Winery. The winery resides in tiny Hye, Texas, about halfway between Johnson City and Stonewall. There, long time grape growers Bill Blackman and Chris Brundrett decided to build their dream winery and show the world that they had talents beyond farming.The conversation is far reaching, from which of Joe Ely’s bands rocked the hardest to the correct temperature for drinking a Texas red wine.

Tannat is hot

This is certainly my favorite new-to-Texas variety.  Maybe because it is so suited to our climate (and, I would argue, even more so than to its original home).  Or perhaps because it is intriguingly flexible, transforming itself through various fermentation methods.  Or maybe it is so exciting because it offers Texas winemakers a tool with which to create deep, heavy reds.  In any case, my heart flutters a little each time it’s mentioned, curious about what might be possible as different growers, and different winemakers, try their hand at its potential.

Originally from the Madiran AOC in Southwestern France, Basque Country, it goes by the same name as the appellation.  In this region, the tannins of Tannat can come out in full strength, overpowering many of the other grape’s characteristics.  Because of this, it is often blended with other varieties, like Cabernet Franc.  It was here, and because of Tannat, that micro-oxygenation was invented as a technique to help round out the wine and soften its tannic structure.  In Uruguay, it is called Harriague and is now considered the national grape.  Still powerful on the vine, wine makers employ various types of fermentation practices to soften its gripping finish, including shortened exposure to the skins and numerous pips, which account for much of its tannic nature.  But in Texas, this characteristic celebrated and provides great possibility for flexibility.

Applause to the sun and heat for naturally softening the tannins on the vine.

Usually a drawback when it comes to growing grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, this phenomenon enables Texas winemakers to play with Tannat’s more delicate qualities, its undertones of raspberry, chocolate and subtle red floral notes.  Throughout this year’s research, I encountered three Texas wineries that were investing in Tannat, dedicated to discovering its potential.

The first is Westcave Cellars, where my eyes were opened.  Allan Fetty, part-owner, vineyard manager and winemaker at Westcave is focused on creating clean, balanced, heavy red wines, and had the foresight to plant Tannat in their vineyard.  I tried their Estate Tannat blended with 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and couldn’t believe its weight on the palate and grip on the finish.  It had marvelous complexity of cherries and red plum, highlighted by a slight herbaceous quality.   A perfect steak wine.  You don’t meet many Texas reds like this.  I am sad to report it has already sold out.  But his 2011 is currently aging, and gives the Texas wine drinker something to look forward to.

The second was with Les Constable and Rachel Cook at Brushy Creek.  Les, the ever experimenter, is moving forward slowly with the grape.  He believes in discovering what a varietal can “bring to the party,” unaided, and ages them all unoaked first.  His unoaked Tannat is now blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo in their Three Friends wine, adding weight and structure.  And Rachel is currently playing with it in French oak, testing its flexibility.  I tried some, thieved from the barrel, and was delighted by its more gentle underpinnings of dried red fruit, melded with hints of vanilla from the toast.  It will easily be a stand-alone varietal.  I believe it’s one of the grapes that will truly showcase Rachel’s natural talents.

And the last, and perhaps most known for Tannat, is Bending Branch Winery.  Here John Rivenburgh and his father-in-law Robert Young, are exploring various techniques of both growing and fermenting the variety.  In the vineyard, John is head-training the vines, growing them without wires, encouraging the canopy into a goblet shape.

Like Mouvedre, Tannat’s cordons, or branches, naturally grow upward and are a perfect candidate for this Roman method.  And in the winery, they are playing with two styles of fermentation.  The first is just called “Regular Fermentation” and is denoted by “RF” on the bottle.

The juice sits with the skins and seeds until fermentation is complete, then the wine is placed in barrels to age.  The second is “Extended Maceration,” marked with “EM” on the label.  This technique involves keeping the Tannat on its skins and pips 30 days after fermentation is complete, followed, then by barrel aging.  Side by side, these bottles taste very different.  Regular fermentation results in a very masculine wine- rich, deep, tannic, heavy in the mouth.  And extended maceration brings out the grapes’ feminine qualities- the floral notes, soft vanilla and hints of raspberry.  I had to taste them repeatedly, amazed by the comparison.   

There’s more to come.  Barking Rocks Winery and Red Caboose Winery and Vineyard are planting Tannat, as well as Vijay Reddy and a handful of other High Plains growers.  Another grand step in the discovery of Texas terrior, this grape is worth watching.

Margaret Shugart

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