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

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faces of the next generation

Some faces of the new generation of Texas Wine:

Nolan Newsom in his new Mouvedre vineyard, 2 acres and 1/4 mile long. Poised to take on the tradition of beautiful High Plains fruit. Today he will help host and educate at Newsom Grape Day in Plains, Texas, one of the biggest gatherings of grape growers in the state.

J.P. St. Charles, barista at Times Ten Cellars, understudy at Inwood Estates Winery, determined future winemaker. Just planted his first vines in east Texas. His response to a question about the next generation of Texas wine?- “Oh look out, it’s coming.”

Grayson Davies of Arché. First graduate of Texas Tech University's four year viticulture and enology program and new winemaker with his family's vineyard and winery.

Evan McKibben and his father Gary McKibben (and Buddy the dog) at Red Caboose Winery and Vineyard. Evan won one of the precious few awards at the Jefferson Cup last year, the only winery in Texas to do so.

Rachel Cook with her mentor, winemaker and nuclear physicist, Les Constable at Brushy Creek Vineyards where she is now winemaker and vineyard manager. Two great minds pushing the envelope on Texas wine.

On right: John Rivenburgh (director of wine and vine ninja) with his father-in-law, Robert Young at Bending Branch Winery. Two great experimenters dedicated to growing organic grapes and building a sustainable family business based on clean, quality, serious Texas wines.

Dave Reilly, winemaker at Duchman Family Winery, smiling as usual. Ask him about his craft though, and it's no joke. He is set to blow the doors off Texas wine.

Miles Elsey, cellar hand and assistant winemaker at Duchman Family Winery, passionate student of the industry.

Craig Pinkley relaxing in one of the many beautiful spots at his Pilot Knob Vineyards and Winery. Craig believes in running a family friendly winery, dedicated to bringing people together to enjoy the place and each other.

scenes from the North Texas wine trails

The roads of North Texas are shockingly beautiful.  Dallas/ Ft. Worth metroplex, you have a  treasure in your backyard: charming escapes from the city, both in its limits and in the vast rolling countryside that spans out in all directions from the twisted highways and fast moving traffic.  There were roads in Northeast Texas so sparsely traveled, I didn’t see a vehicle for 20 minutes at a time.  And the scenes were so breathtaking, I nearly ran my car off the road on several occasions (on the drive to Sugar Ridge Winery, I actually did… just a little).  Varying shades of green, from the deep darks of pine, to the bright, nearly neon shoots of spring; patches of blue from our State flower, waving in the wind; entire meadows of yellow mustard flowers, so tall they look like childhood-fantasy clouds, hovering above the lush grass.  Faded red barns and old ranch houses, spotted cattle and horses that race cars alongside their cedar fences.  Below are a few scenes from these drives, but photos cannot do the beauty justice.  It is something to be experienced.

Texans, don’t miss the opportunity to explore these wine trails.  They are much more than you think.

wildflower seasondirt road excursion on the way to Collin Oaks Winery

trees starting bloom at Brushy Creek

enchanting bridge on property of Collin Oaks Winerygood taco trucks are everywhere. by suggestion of Rachel Cook at Brushy Creek

sunset over Wales Manor vineyards

view from the new tasting room at Blue Ostrich Vineyard and Winery

endless beautiful empty roads

on the way to Sweet Dreams Winery