relationships

Yes, growing grapes is farming, and most people I have met farmed other crops before they took up a vineyard.  But there’s something very different about this sort of agriculture and its product, and certainly something special about it in Texas.  In one word: relationships.

I recently attended a grape growers meal held by Becker Vineyards.  They invited all the people who grow their grapes to dinner, then paired single vineyard wines with each course.  As the food came to the table, the grape growers from that specific vineyard were asked to stand and share something about that year’s harvest, or about that particular grape, or a story.  It was so intimate.

Jet Wilmeth with his single vineyard Lone Oak cabernet

Touring the different vineyards in Lubbock, it began to dawn on me how different growing wine grapes is from growing, say, cucumbers, which many of the farmers in that region have done.  For one, as Jet Wilmeth of Diamante Doble Vineyards described with his previous cucumbers, much of the crop (the “imperfect” fruit) is left to rot or thrown away.  The farmer has very little say in his harvest.  And second, those cucumbers (or pumpkins or cotton) go into the market and the farmer seldom sees the final product, and certainly does not receive credit for it.

But with grapes, and especially in Texas, it is very different.  The farmer, in essence, creates a paint of sorts and turns it over to the winemaker/ artist.  The winemaker then creates a piece of art and hands it back to the farmer (and sells it en masse) in the form of a bottle.  Oftentimes the vineyard is placed on the label, giving the farmer direct credit.  This became clear sharing a lunch with the Bingham Family as they served wines made soley from their grapes.  Or at a dinner with the Newsoms, Canadas and Wilmeths, each family providing a bottle of wine from their soil.  The relationships between the drink and the earth, and between the farmer and the winemaker, were clear as day.

VJ Reddy and Bobby Cox standing in front of Reddy Vineyards

My favorite moment of this Becker dinner came when VJ Reddy stood to explain the Viognier made from his grapes.  He talked about how old the vines were and how, this whole time, he had hoped for someone to make the grapes into their true expression of wine.  And how the Beckers had finally done this.  He expressed his gratitude and thanked the Beckers directly, to which they quickly and emphatically replied, “No, thank YOU.”

This doesn’t happen with peanuts or pumpkins.  I’d dare to say it’s something better.

Bobby Grape

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.

Bobby showing a 7 foot spacing between rows.

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.

Cliff Bingham and Bobby discussing the vines.

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.

Bobby and Vijay Reddy, standing in front of Vijay's vineyard, one of the largest in the state.

Bobby and Vijay Reddy, standing in front of Vijay's vineyard, one of the largest in the state.

Wes Marshall in the Hill Country

Click here to read what Wes Marshall has to say about William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, Woodrose Winery, the new Messina Hof Hill Country tasting room and Spicewood Vineyards, all making “Sancerre-ly Impressive Texas Wine.”

Best Friends

Do you have a pet?  Or are you in love with someone else’s?

If so, I bet you feel about yours the way I do about mine: this is the cutest creature on Earth.

And good for us, because Zin Valle Vineyards has a way for folks to show off their favorite animals.

Every year in late October, they support the Humane Society of El Paso with a fundraiser and auction off “Man’s Best Friend Merlot”.  The highest bidder wins the chance to put their pet’s portrait, as painted by local artist Robert Carlson, on the next year’s label.  All funds from the auction, plus a portion of the bottle sales throughout the year, goes to finding local pets good homes.

Maxine

They continue the charity into November by hosting a run benefitting the Humane Society called the “Grape Race“.  There is an 8K category and a 1 mile walk, followed by a catered dinner and live music, a great community event.

Zin Valle is an excellent example of the ways Texas wineries and vineyards give to their local communities and benefit this great state as a whole, and they are only one of many.  Lightcatcher Winery donates Wine Tasting Certificates to local auction events.  Spicewood Vineyards hosts a Half Marathon and 10K in December to benefit “Toys for Tots”.  The Austin Wine and Music Festival is the collaborative effort of many wineries, raising money for “Operation FINALLY HOME,” a charity that raises money for custom-made, mortgage-free homes for wounded and disabled veterans.  And coming up soon, Singing Waters Vineyards will be hosting “Cherish the Children” in conjunction with St. Boniface Episcopal school in Comfort on February 9-12th, an art show and benefit (visit their page for more information).

This is just a tiny sample.  Almost every winery donates to charity and most contribute to various causes throughout the year, giving directly back to their local community, supporting those who need it.

One of the many, many ways spending your money at a local winery not only supports local business, but the community as a whole, creating close ties and keeping money at home.