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Monty Dixon is the owner and winemaker of Bar Z Winery located in Canyon, north of Lubbock. It may be a drive from Lubbock and the rest of Texas, but it is worth is as Monty produces excellent 100% Texas wines. We are fortunate to present Monty Dixon as this month’s winemaker profile.
What did you do before becoming a winemaker (if anything)?
My family is in the cattle business, agriculture, farming, and ranching, and I rode a horse most days.
What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
First off, it’s convincing other people we actually have wine in Texas. I think one of the biggest challenges is making people believe in Texas wines, that we have overcome a lot of obstacles, and we have as good a quality as you can find out there.
Is winemaking an art or a science or both?
Both. The art of it is tasting it, and you’re having to in your mind understand what’s going on and where things are at, and what you may or may not need to do to it. It’s like lobbing a rock. You throw the rock and it’s going to take it three, four, or five years to land. If you want it to hit on a certain mark, that’s winemaking.
What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
Wine and food.
If you didn’t make wine, what would you do?
I’d probably be on a horse every day.
What first attracted you to winemaking and how long have you been doing it?
The original attraction was a friend of mine and I when we were quite young, began making wine because we found they wouldn’t sell us any beer. It may have been lousy, but it had alcohol in it. We were 12 or 13 when we started with our wine project.
What is the most common question you are asked as a winemaker?
At the winery, no matter how busy I look, no matter what’s going on, there’s always that person that thinks that you have all the time in the world, and they ask, “So, how did you get into this? How did you get into the wine business? What made you do it?”
I could be running through the building with my arms on fire, and someone’s going to stop me and ask me that question. That’s a very common question.
Another one is, “What part of California do you get your grapes from?”
After a long day in the winery or vineyard, what do you do?
Hopefully go to bed.
What’s the greatest part about being a winemaker?
Watching the wines evolve. It starts out with a grape, watching them evolve, and go to the finished product. But the best part is when people drink them, and you see their face as they derive enjoyment from them. Especially, the surprised look on people who don’t know about Texas wines, and they’re shocked how good they are. That’s the best part, converting people to go, “Ah-ha. Hey, these wines don’t suck.”
What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?
I guess it’s evolved over the years. Initially, it was of course, I just wanted to make good wines. But now it is to show the world that Texas can be a world class winemaking and growing state.
Anything else you would like to add?
To the outside world, we’re still just a couple paragraphs in a wine book, so we haven’t gained a lot of progress in that regard. But I do appreciate it when I see outside interest from those people whose opinions matter.
Disclosure: Texas Wine Lover was invited to the event for the purposes of this press coverage. However, all opinions, experiences, and photographs are entirely our own.
Sandro DiSanto and Trigg Watson
How long has it been since you watched a magic show? I must admit that it had been many years since I had watched a magician dazzle an audience. After attending Trigg Watson’s Wine and Magic show at Dallas’s Checkered Past Winery, I am once again a believer in winery-based magic.
Located in the South Side on Lamar area of Dallas, Checkered Past Winery hosts a monthly magic night, and I attended the early show on Saturday. Checkered Past is a casual, urban environment that has a full lineup of events each week. On Saturday, co-owner Sandro DiSanto welcomed guests to the warm industrial space where the stage was set for the sold-out show. The most prominent piece on the modern art-filled walls is a list of house rules. The rules make clear that Checkered Past Winery is a friendly place with few pretenses.
The wine list features Texas wines from Checkered Past Winery’s own labels, and also wines from McPherson, Messina Hof, 5 Points, and more. The wine list highlights Texas wines by listing them under the heading “Wines From our Friends.” Wines from other states and countries are listed under the “Wines from Our Guests” category. We enjoyed flights of Checkered Past wines (4 for $20), made in Texas from Texas grapes. I selected the Albariño, Sangiovese, Red Blend, and Malbec. Other Checkered Past Winery selections included Viognier, Syrah, and Sweet Red. The Tempranillo was sold out, but hopefully the new release will be available soon. These wines were the perfect complement to an artfully presented charcuterie board, roasted mixed nuts, and tasty flatbread. The menu has a large selection of appetizer and small plate choices. Everything we tried was delicious.
Magician Trigg Watson arrived in Dallas to attend college at SMU. While he still makes Dallas his home, Trigg is often off seeing the world as a cruise ship entertainer and performing at corporate and private events. He has been recognized with high scores at international magic competitions and featured on television. Trigg’s delightful show was fun, creative, and unique. He is a modern magician, and his show often relied on technology. From using a small video recorder to magnify his illusions to utilizing his Amazon phone app to deliver a punch line, Trigg’s show was current and fresh. The illusions were truly impressive. After the show, I spoke with a guest who had been on the stage during one simply perplexing stunt. He was still marveling about how Trigg had fooled us all.
Trigg has a charming stage presence, and he had no trouble eliciting laughs from the crowd. The guests who were called onto the stage created some of the most humorous moments of the night. Trigg treated each of these brave folks kindly, and he seemed genuinely delighted to meet attendees both during and after the show.
If you are looking for a fun night out that involves laughter, magic, wine, and food, look no further! Trigg’s magic will keep you spellbound, and Checkered Past Winery may just become your new favorite local wine destination.
Trigg Watson is offering a coupon code for Texas Wine Lover readers. Visit http://www.WineAndMagicDallas.com and use code “TellAFriend” to receive 10% off ticket purchases for the June 9 and July 14 shows. Shows are at 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
So, I met Sean Martin back in January of this year at the Pheasant Ridge Winery wine dinner at Grace Restaurant in downtown Fort Worth. Bobby Cox invited Shelly and me to be his and his wife, Jennifer’s, special guests and we eagerly accepted, and I took the opportunity to write about it.
When we found our seats at the long table, I found I was seated next to a young man named Sean Martin. We struck up a fun “get to know you” conversation, and I soon found out he and his father owned the vineyard that some of the Pheasant Ridge grapes were grown. That got my attention! He further explained that they were one of the oldest commercially owned vineyards in the state. Now I was intrigued! As dinner progressed, the poor guy was my dinner captive. I talked his ear off and asked him countless questions that he patiently and thoroughly answered. By the time dessert was served, I had already decided I needed to interview Sean and his father Andy about Martin’s Vineyards. When I asked Sean if that would be an acceptable idea, he was very receptive. We exchanged contact information and decided we’d connect again in person at the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association conference (TWGGA) we would all be attending in about four weeks in Irving.
Closer to TWGGA, Sean and I emailed and texted trying to make sure our meeting would take place. We finally decided on Friday about mid-day due to all of the desired sessions would have taken place the day before. I was excited for my first interview of what I was already hoping would be a series of vineyard owner interviews. I even purchased a digital recorder to capture all of the details of the interview. (Which ended up DELETING the interview and everything else I had on it when the batteries died!!)
Bobby Cox, Andy Martin
Skip ahead to Friday at the TWGGA Conference…we found a table in the conference center where we could sit and visit. I got out my prepared questions, my pen, my new recorder, and situated myself next to Andy. Before I could even thank Andy and Sean for their time, Andy started telling their story. He also brought out a photo album with a wonderful pictorial history of the vineyard from vast empty red dirt (it looked like Mars!), to luscious green mature vines with gorgeous grapes hanging.
He began by explaining how he decided to get into grape farming in the first place. When he got out of the Army after four years as an Aviation Research Psychologist, he went to Lubbock to work at the research facility. He saw a TV commercial for Italian Swiss Colony Wine. He liked the guy wearing a big hat, riding a white horse, while all the peasants were offering up baskets of grapes to him. The guy was singing “Italian Swiss Colony Wine.”
Italian Swiss Colony Wine Commercial Jingle - YouTube
He couldn’t help thinking that sounded like fun. He wanted to buy acreage on the east side of Lubbock where the dirt was a rich loam, but he couldn’t afford it, so he ended up buying 35 acres of sandy soil on the west side of Lubbock. Little did he know at the time that the grapes he wanted to plant thrived in sandy soil. When he made this purchase 40 to 45 years ago there was no Texas grape industry support. There was no Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. There was no Texas High Plains Growers Association. There were no grape growing superstores in the area. What there was had to do with cotton farming. And peanut farming. And everything else BUT grape farming. Everything he needed either had to come from California or be adapted from the other industries in the area.
Andy didn’t even have a tractor when he got started. He had to borrow a neighbor’s tractor and it only had a scraper blade that he turned on an angle to dig a trench. Once the trench was dug, he bought water from his neighbor. He dug a trench from the neighbor’s well to the vineyard and started running water in it. The water would come down and bust out at the end. It wouldn’t turn the corners to run down a row. He said it’d make a mess. “The water would come screaming down the hill, and when it got to the bottom, it was going about 50 mph and then you try to turn a corner with it in sandy soil and make it go 90 degrees down a row of grapes, and it looked like a rice patty every time we’d irrigate.”
After a while they bought thin plastic tubing, but after they’d place it out, the neighbor would inevitably run over it with his sandfighter (tractor accessory) or the wind would blow, and they’d find it against a barbed wire fence three sections downwind…full of sand.
When it came time to plant, they dug holes with a sharpshooter. Hundreds of holes. They made grape stakes out of pallet pieces. They split them on a table saw.
They built a pole shed for a tractor they hadn’t bought yet. He sold his 1959 Jaguar XK-150 in order buy the tractor because “you can’t plow with a Jaguar.”
1959 Jaguar XK-150
They’d get the grape grower magazines out of California. Most of the stuff they were talking about either didn’t apply to their situation in Texas or they didn’t know what it was. They needed grape stake drivers. So, they had some hand made, but the handles were too high. They tried again and on the next one they found the perfect spot to put the handles and they worked. They had about three made. They started out trying to drive them and that didn’t work, then they found out that because the drivers were so heavy, all you had to do was lift it up and let it fall and it would drive itself. Lift it up and BANG! Lift it up and BANG!
Then they needed wire. So, they figured out they could go to the telephone company in Brownfield and get old telephone wire they were taking off the poles. It was bare wire. So they spooled it up with the telephone poles. They bought used telephone poles 40 feet long and folks told him not to use a chain saw because telephone poles had too many rocks and nails. So, he bought a bucksaw that was about 8 feet long and took two people to operate and he’d get out there with his neighbor and they’d saw the telephone poles into five 8-foot end posts. They’d throw them in the back of the truck or station wagon. At the ends of the rows, they’d dig the holes with a hand-held post hole digger four feet deep and they’d drop the poles in and tamp them down. Then they got the wire and wrap the wire and staple it on the one end. That end was easy! Then they took the wire to the other end of the row and that end got dangerous! At that end you had to wrap it around once, and the only way to stretch it was to pull with a claw hammer. So they’d hook the wire and puuulllll with the claw hammer. And they’d pull it and pull it and pull it and then Andy’d say, “Hit it!” And they’d drive two staples in as fast as they could because the more you pulled it, the more that claw bit into the wire and it would break sometimes. Or sometimes you could even pull the pole at the other end out of the sandy soil. But it was still a huge improvement over what they had because now they had end posts! And end posts meant they now had trellises.
They bought 40 foot joints of aluminum irrigation pipe and that didn’t waste so much water. But they were still learning, and they’d come back out to the vineyard after a day or two, and the pipes would be full of blow sand. And if you’ve ever tried to pick up a 40 foot section of pipe full of blow sand, it was very heavy. So they’d start at one end and it took two people and they had to be very careful, because if you picked it up at one end it would kink in the middle. Andy: “It sounds like we were stupid, but we had never done this before.” Sean: “We were well intentioned!” Andy: “We had nobody to go next door or to drive across to their vineyard to see how they were doing it…except Doc McPherson, and we went out to his vineyard and he was doing the same thing; he was furrow irrigating and had water everywhere.” They did build a rack to store the pipe off the ground.
After they planted their vineyard and muddled through the first few years, learning as they went, they brought in their first harvest in waxed chicken boxes that they would thoroughly wash out. After the chicken boxes came Whataburger 5-gallon pickle buckets. They’d haul their harvest across town to Llano Estacado Winery who bought their grapes. After the pickle buckets came plastic restaurant bus tubs, then back to chicken boxes. They’d put a layer of boxes full of grapes in the bed of the pickup, lay panels of plywood on top, add another layer of grapes, and lay panels of plywood. They would put a ton of grapes in a ½-ton pickup. It was a slow 30 mile trip to Llano Estacado, and the whole way the front wheels of the truck would hardly touch the ground. They’d finally roll into the winery at dark.
Later, a much larger tractor was bought and they planted more grapes. This time Bobby Cox, one of the founding fathers in the grape industry, was there to help. They used a gasoline powered 4-inch auger, aka “widow maker” to drill holes for the grape cuttings.
They’d save cardboard milk cartons and use those as grow tubes. It sounds like they were the most redneck grape growers in the state, but it was all built on a small budget and necessity. In the early days, there were no Vintner’s Vaults in the area or Home Depots on every corner. They had to study what was being done in California but adapt that to what would work in Texas, and remain within their budget and knowledge boundaries.
They found out that flea beetles would get on the plants and turn them to sticks. Sevin spray would take care of them, and they’d use a pump up sprayer and walk the many rows. A story he wasn’t sure he should share involved his then wife. Andy had to perform his two week Army Reserve summer camp duties, and his wife said she would take care of the spraying. She thought she would take the opportunity to get a tan at the same time, so she put on her bikini and got busy spraying. While she was spraying, a pick-up truck drove by. She didn’t think much about it. Not long after she looked up and there were about 15 pick-ups driving by real slow. She decided it was time to put her clothes back on!
Even with all the wind and the bugs and the water and the wind and the tight budget and the wind…oh I said wind?? Yeah, the recurring theme out in their area seemed to be the west Texas “Big Wind.” But even with all of these things seemingly working against them, they have persevered and have been very successful bringing in 40 years worth of grape crops. They still have their 1975 Chenin Blanc vines!
Chenin Blanc vines
They have some very famous Texas wineries as buyers too: Becker Vineyards, Llano Estacado, Ron Yates, and Pheasant Ridge to name a few. Bobby Cox came on as their vineyard manager and new varieties have been planted. Then their new thing was “drip irrigation.” Martin’s Vineyards was the first..
The 2017 Wine & Food Week in The Woodlands was a huge success, so it will be returning in 2018. This year’s event, which will be held June 4-10 and presented by H-E-B, is an all-inclusive, week long culinary and wine extravaganza for the beginner to the serious wine collector.
Wine & Food Week showcases the culinary excellence in the Houston community alongside national and international wines at wine tastings, wine dinners, seminars, the Celebrity Cruises Platinum Wine Vault Collector’s Tasting, special events, Taco Takedown Competition, and an elaborate Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting & Chef Showcase featuring the Cadillac VIP Premium Lounge and the Gloria Ferrer Bubbles Cove.
“We are excited to taste the love from around the world this year by bringing in culinary experts from around the globe including the highest rated Chefs in the Caribbean, Mexico, winners from The Food Network and other highly rated culinary shows, along with The New Wines of Ancient Thrace covering nine European countries,” stated Constance McDerby, founder of Food & Vine Time Productions. “Wine & Food Week is a wonderful time for the people of the Houston community to come together and experience this international wine and gastronomy experience, the largest, most comprehensive event from New Orleans to Aspen.”
This year, Wine & Food Week, will again host over 75 chefs, hundreds of wines with well-versed industry representatives including this year’s Gourmet Wizard, Shaun O’Neale and Wine Wizard Master of Ceremonies, Guy Noel Stout.
Shaun O’Neale claimed the title of America’s best home cook and was named Season 7 Champion of MasterChef on FOX in 2016. Shaun became a culinary star with the release of his debut cookbook “My Modern American Table.”
Houston icon and Master Sommelier, Guy Stout is a Master Sommelier (MS) and one of the first in America. He is also a Certified Wine Educator (CWE), Certified Spirits Specialist (CSS), and previous President of the Society of Wine Educators.
This year’s theme is “Taste the Love,” celebrating flavors from all over the globe and Houston’s exploding foodie scene.
This is a listing of the events for the week:
Tuesday, June 5 – It’s a Guy Thing
Featuring Master Sommelier Guy Stout
Location: The Woodlands Country Club Palmer Course
Time: 7:00 – 10:00 p.m.
Wednesday, June 6 – Meeker Vineyard Wine Dinner
Location: Kirby’s Prime Steakhouse, The Woodlands
Time: 7:00 – 10:00 p.m.
Thursday, June 7 – H-E-B Wine Walk at Market Street
Location: Market Street, The Woodlands
Time: 5:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, June 7 – Wine Walk VIP
Location: Market Street, The Woodlands
Time: 5:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Friday, June 8 – Ladies of the Vine Tasting, Panel & Luncheon
Location: The Club at Carlton Woods
Time: 12:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Friday, June 8 – Sips, Suds & Tacos
Location: The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center
Time: 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Saturday, June 9 – Platinum Wine Vault Collector’s Tasting
Location: The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Montgomery Ballroom
Time: 4:30 – 10:00 p.m.
Saturday, June 9 – Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting & Chef Showcase
Location: The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center
Time: 7:00 – 10:00 p.m.
Sunday, June 10 – Official Wine & Food Week Brunch
Location: Robard’s Steakhouse
Time: 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
To purchase tickets, book a hotel room, sign up to volunteer, and for more information, please visit www.wineandfoodweek.com.
In 2014, I met Henry Crowson at William Chris Vineyards. Back in those days, he was in a management position. Within a year, he started working in the cellar. His smile, and his passion for wine, was infectious, so it was not a surprise to hear that he started making his own wine in 2016. Now in 2018, Henry Crowson owns and operates Crowson Wines with his wife Amy.
Henry’s journey through wine started with a trip to William Chris. He took, his then girlfriend, Amy on a date to tour the winery. While there, he became enamored of wine. Of course, that would lead to his first position with the winery.
After moving to the cellar, his own ambitions grew. In 2016, he made his first wine. The 2016 Rosé was a blend of Malbec, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Lahey Vineyards in the Texas High Plains. Most people got their first taste of this wine at the 2017 Texas Wine Revolution. Henry continued to pour throughout the year. We recently revisited the wine. These days, rich and more intense red fruit notes dominate the wine; I deemed it a Texas winter Rosé.
In 2017, Henry continued to make wine. While doing so, he acquired a premier location just off the main square in Johnson City. He also worked towards opening it. One obstacle stood in his way, his license. For the next several months, I kept checking on the acquisition of this prize. It always seemed around the corner, but it was always just out of reach. Then, on a Thursday, I stopped by Andalusia Whiskey (where Henry recently worked until he moved full-time to his winery) to find out the license arrived.
Today, Henry Crowson can now taste and sell his wines from his own location. Tastings are done by appointment. It is a seated tasting at either a long table or the couches. The tasting resembles more of a conversation. Henry shares information about the wine, such as grape varietals, vineyards, and process. But it is not just Henry. He regularly has guests discuss the wine, encouraging them to share their experience, and reminding them that everyone can be right.
To add to the friendly, relaxed experience, music plays. A turntable with vinyls set the soundtrack. During our visit, we listened to Van Morrison and Tom Waits. In the future, the tasting will not only be paired to music, but also cheese and charcuterie. Henry and Amy want to create a brand, one that is friendly and educational.
The wines at Crowson are natural, taking inspiration from wines by Tony Coturri. During his tenure at William Chris, Henry grew to prefer more natural wines (and also aging in concrete). He allows the fruit to develop entirely on its own, fermented with ambient, native yeasts. In addition, no sulphur or acid is added. The fermentation is allowed to move at its own pace. The 2016 did see some additions before bottling, but Henry hopes to avoid or limit such actions.
At the moment, the tasting includes only three wines, all served in high quality glasses (he used Riedel during our tasting). There are more wines about to be bottled (including a few whites and reds). There are only 500 cases of wine, but there is a contract for enough to produce 1,500 cases in 2018 (the current goal).
2017 Rosé: made from Merlot grapes sourced from Granite Hill Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country. This wine is lighter than the previous vintage, exuding light, fresher red fruits and soft citrus notes. There is a softness to the wine, but it still has a nice crisp, acidic finish. Unlike 2016, this is a porch sipping wine. The wine was barrel-aged in neutral oak for about eight months.
2016 Malbec (Concrete): this High Plains wine is fruit forward with complexity. The Malbec fermented partially in open bins with fresh Malvasia Bianca skins. This small addition helped darken the color and give the wine more robust tannins. The wine then aged in a concrete barrel. The nose matches the wine. There is intense dark fruit with tannins and acid to help steer it away from being overly fruity.
Crowson Malbec wines
2016 Malbec (Barrel-Aged): this is the same wine as the 2016 Concrete Malbec. Instead of aging in concrete, the Malbec is aged in neutral whiskey barrels—more specifically, Revenant Oak barrels from Andalusia. This wine is far more subdued. The fruit notes blend with leather and oak.
Future wines will include Roussanne, Malvasia Bianca, Mourvèdre, and Tannat. There will be blends, but there are none at the moment. Beyond these Texas favorites, Henry hopes to work with Italian varietals like Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Other progress will include a renovation of the adjoining pavilion with an outside bar (to accommodate guests on busy days). Amy is excited to start the wine club, and she and Henry plan on making it member-driven.
Disclosure: Texas Wine Lover was invited to the event for the purposes of this press coverage. However, all opinions, experiences, and photographs are entirely our own.
Rodney Strong Vineyards kicked off the Austin Food and Wine Festival weekend with a special launch party to introduce their wine to consumers in the Austin area. The party was held at the W Hotel on the outdoor patio with a DJ spinning a festive beat and small bites prepared by Two Bros BBQ Market from Jason Dady. The vineyard showcased four wines, one white, one rosé, and two red blends for attendees to sample and enjoy from the different lines they produce. All featured fruit is grown in Sonoma County.
Established in 1959, Rodney Strong Vineyards was the 13th winery in Sonoma County. In 1962, Mr. Strong purchased a 159-acre vineyard that he replanted with the first Chardonnay vines in the famous Chalk Hill region, before the AVA was established. Additional acreage was purchased in the Russian River Valley and where Pinot Noir was planted in advance of that AVA’s establishment. Their founder was a visionary with a keen sense of picking ideal spots for planting the perfect grapes for those appellations. In 1989, the Klein family purchased the vineyard infusing additional investment to further strengthen operations for continued growth by adding additional vineyard acreage in the Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Russian River Valley areas. Over the years, the winery has incorporated green business techniques and practices. By 2005, they were producing small-lot wines from fruit harvested from specific sections within the vineyard. They were the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County and in 2013, they were named Wine Enthusiast’s Winery of the Year.
Rodney Strong Vineyards is well known for cool climate aromatic white wines, and full-bodied Bordeaux style reds. They produce four different lines of wines from high end limited edition collector’s bottles, to very approachable blends that readily appeal to most palates. The first of four wines featured at the event was their very crisp Sauvignon Blanc that was resplendent with fresh pear notes and a hint of effervescence and honeysuckle on the nose. This white was well balanced and full of fresh fruit flavor, making it a lovely wine for entertaining and enjoying when something cool and refreshing is in order. The second wine was a Rosé of Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, which is their second vintage. It had a lovely pale pink hue with bright ripe strawberry notes and a hint of jasmine and acidity. This wine was cold fermented with a 12.5% alcohol content, and was a delightful sipping wine.
Their red blends were more sophisticated with definite cellaring appeal. The third wine was Upshot, featuring fruit primarily from Alexander Valley and Knights Valley. This blend was luscious and medium bodied highlighting the depth of beauty of the terroir. It is a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Riesling with some fruit cofermented before blending. This red was beautiful with a lovely mouthfeel and a soft tannin finish.
The final wine poured was Rowen, featuring fruit from a single vineyard above Lake Sonoma. A Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec blend, this had the boldest fruit flavors. Featuring notes of dark cherry and soft spice with smooth tannins and a rich dark red shade. This was elegant wine perfect for enjoying on its own or pairing with food and able to cellar for a while. This wine showcased why the region produces world class wines. You can taste the care and passion that went into producing these wines as you enjoy each sip. We enjoyed getting acquainted with the Rodney Strong vineyards staff and their wines, and look forward to sipping more of their wines in the future.
In March, Robin and Mike Clark joined Sean and me at a dinner and vertical tasting at Fly Gap Winery in Mason. Sean and I started following winemaker Brock Estes with his very first vintages of Dank, and we have remained friends ever since. When he asked us to join the tasting, I could not say no.
We gathered about an hour or so before sundown at Fly Gap Winery. Friends and family made up the guests ringed around the table. We all chatted with one another, waiting for everyone to arrive. As we waited, we sipped on older vintages. Nacho’s Café from Mason provided our four-course meal to pair with three of Brock’s 100% Texas Tannats.
First, we had a Mexican slider. A thick juicy beef patty rested on the bun, garnished with cheese and a spicy salsa. The salsa could easily take over the dish except for the first wine, a 2017 Tannat from Reddy Vineyards (due for bottling this summer). The young wine showcased bright fruit that calmed the heat and accentuated the fresh flavors of the salsa. As the wine breathed, it grew more intense, making it the boldest of the three wines.
Our second course paired with one of Brock’s newest releases: 2016 Melissa’s Cuvee. This wine comes with a touching story. As Brock and the fruit left Reddy Vineyards in the High Plains, he got a call that his wife had breast cancer. Brock turned his focus on his family, leaving the grapes with his father who kept the free run juice. Thankfully, Melissa made it through her treatments cancer-free! To honor the occasion, the label bears Melissa’s hands. This wine is currently available at the winery, small retailers, and select Spec’s.
Nacho’s Café paired pork carnitas with the light wine. A corn tortilla held the pork with pineapple. The wine’s dark fruit paired well. About mid-palate, the tannins appear and lead to a soft end.
The main course was filet mignon medallions with asparagus and potatoes. The wine, a 2015 Tannat, had balanced tannins that worked with the beef; the hints of oak and mellow fruit provided a nice base for the course.
We ended with a fresh fruit dessert comprised of cantaloupe, pineapple, red grapes, kiwi, strawberries, mandarin, and tartaric crystals. The refreshing dish went well with the cooling spring sunset.
Fly Gap Winery Tasting Room
After dinner, we all headed to taste some new wines. On the way, we toured the slowly developing facilities: the tasting room, a private dining room, and the barrel room. The winery gets closer and closer every year. Brock spends much of his free time working on the wine and the winery grounds. He also pays for everything out-of-pocket. This means the winery progresses at a slower rate, but as the saying goes, “good things come to those who wait.”
We tried wines from three separate barrels. The first two were Tannat. Brock split the juice into two barrels. One older oak barrel has been regularly turned to extract more from the lees. The rest of the juice is in a medium toast new oak barrel.
The surprise of the night was the still fermenting Reddy Mourvèdre. The grapes were picked at 28 brix. Despite the wine’s high sugars and current state, it shows lots of potential. It is bold and rich, a future vintage to keep an eye out for.
Blue Epiphany Vineyards was recently opened just north of downtown Conroe by a team of law enforcement and military and veterans pursing a new path in life. On my wife and I’s first visit, we had the opportunity to talk with co-founder and vintner James Solomon about the story behind Blue Epiphany Vineyards.
After spending about 13 years in law enforcement in Montgomery County, James decided to go all in to pursue his passion of wine by opening a winery. Fortunately, James had several other friends in law enforcement that shared this passion and joined the team. By bringing them together, Blue Epiphany has a group of founders that really know how to get things done.
After searching for the perfect spot for their winery, the team purchased 15 acres last year from a former Montgomery County Judge. In November of 2017, they quickly began the arduous process of turning the land with what was essentially a storage barn into a functioning winery. They completely renovated the existing building to include cellar and bottling space, office space, a beautiful tasting bar, a large tasting room, and a well done patio space. They even started their vineyard with plantings of Blanc du Bois. Talk about rapid progress! Having 15 acres of wide-open space provides both a relaxing atmosphere and plenty of room for the Blue Epiphany team to grow their business while maintaining the peaceful setting.
Blue Epiphany Vineyards is partnering with a well-known winery in Comfort as they launch their business, giving them access to great grape sourcing. Yes, a majority of Blue Epiphany’s wines are made with Texas grapes. This partnership also provides a wealth of knowledge of the Texas wine industry and guidance that helps them bring high quality wines to market out of the gate.
Blue Epiphany currently ages, blends, and bottles their red wines on site. They have a focus on red blends, but they also offer a few red varietal and white wines. Guests can sample six of their wines through a tasting or can enjoy a glass while relaxing in their tasting room or patio.
On our first visit we got to try:
Muscat Muscat – A semi-sweet blend of Muscat Giallo and Muscat Blanc – Texas High Plains
2016 Pinot Noir – Texas High Plains
2015 Tannat – Paso Robles
Escape Plan (Blend)
House Divided (Blend)
Grand Tour (Blend)
There’s a story behind each of the blends. I’m not going to share any secrets here, so I would suggest making the trip to Conroe to visit Blue Epiphany. Learn about their journey, enjoy the well-crafted wines, relaxing spaces, and hospitality. They are already starting to host and participate in quite a few events, so be sure to keep up to date with their latest on social media.
The term Pét-Nat is the cute, short nickname for a type of sparkling wine called pétillant-naturel, meaning “sparkling naturally.” These Pét-Nat wines have become increasingly popular over the past decade, and now are being produced by an increasing number of Texas winemakers.
Pét-Nat wines are based on a method of producing sparkling wines known as méthode ancestrale that was practiced in some areas of France—like Gaillac, Limoux, and Bugey—long before Champagne began to be produced in the 1800s via the well-known méthode traditionnelle. Making sparkling wines via the ancestral method was sort of rediscovered in France’s Loire Valley in the 1990s by progressive winemakers experimenting with organic viticulture and minimum intervention (natural) winemaking. There were often accidents and unpredictable results, but overall it was exciting. This experimental movement spread, and Pét-Nat became an important trend in the wine world. The key differences between the ancestral method and traditional method are described below.
Some Texas Pét-Nats produced from Malvasia Bianca grapes. Note the cloudiness in the center bottle after sediment was swirled from the bottom of the bottle.
For Pét-Nat produced by the méthode ancestrale, the original fermentation is started in a tank, and before primary fermentation is completed, the wine is bottled with no added sugars or yeast to finish fermentation and create carbon dioxide (bubbles and pressure) in bottle. The wines are typically produced at lower pressure (2-4 atmospheres, 30-55 psi) than Champagne and other sparkling wines, are usually sealed with a crimped crown-cap like a beer bottle, and may have some sediment left in the bottle. Pét-Nat is usually made from a single vintage to be consumed relatively soon after bottling and can be made from almost any grape variety.
Champagnes and other sparkling wines (Cremant, Cava, etc.) made via the méthode traditionnelle are produced in two distinct steps. First, a base wine is made in which fermentation is completed. A second fermentation of this base wine is initiated by the addition of a controlled amount of sugar and yeast before bottling to create carbon dioxide (bubbles and pressure) in bottle. Champagnes are often blends of different wines from multiple vintages and can be aged under cellar conditions. These sparkling wines are generally produced at higher pressure, up to 6 atmospheres or about 90 psi, than Pét-Nat. The dead yeast cells and fermentation sediment are cleared from the bottle by a process called disgorgement before the cork, safety wire cage, and capsule are added.
A Pét-Nat with crown cap between two méthode traditionnelle sparkling wines: a Brut Rosé from Oregon and a Brut Franciacorta from northern Italy
Deciding when to bottle a Pét-Nat is important since the amount of sugar and active yeast cells remaining in the wine will determine the amount of carbon dioxide and pressure that develops. Too much residual sugar can result in excessive pressure that may cause “explosive” release of the wine when uncapped. Too little residual sugar may result in a less “frizzante” wine than preferred. Information available suggests that many winemakers look for about 10 grams of sugar per liter (about 1%) as the target for bottling. This is very near the end of primary fermentation that would have started at about 18-20% sugar in the harvested grapes. Careful and frequent analysis is required in order to determine the targeted residual sugar level.
While wines produced via méthode ancestrale have been around for hundreds of years, the name pétillant-naturel, and the nickname Pét-Nat, are believed to have started in the 1990s in the Loire Valley of France when several “natural” winemakers began to rediscover this method of creating sparkling wines. It did not take long for the name to catch on, and Pét-Nat wines are now being produced in many wine regions around the world: Loire Valley in northern France, Languedoc in southern France, northern Italy, Australia, California, New York, and of course, Texas.
Note the sediment adhered to the glass just above the back label in this Texas Pét-Nat
Many Pét-Nat wines will contain some sediment from completion of the primary fermentation in bottle. This sediment makes the wines cloudy or hazy and can be bothersome to some folks. The issue of sediment is an important one since it can appear unsightly in the bottles. Of even more importance is the buildup of so many deposits and solids (especially tartrate crystals) that can create an almost explosive rush of wine from the bottle when opened, causing a wasteful and possible unsafe situation. Winemakers appear to have several choices to deal with sediment in their finished product, as described below.
A slow, cold fermentation in a chilly wine cellar or temperature controlled stainless steel tank can keep fermentation activity at a minimum level, allowing sediment in the wine to settle before the bottling process.
As fermentation nears completion, refrigeration to just above the freezing temperature can slow things down so that sediment and tartrate crystals can settle out. This is basically similar to the cold stabilization process used for many white still wines.
If fermentation is done at a warmer, ambient temperature, filtration before bottling may become a necessary option. This is similar to filtering sediment from many still wines before bottling and does not use all that energy required to chill bulk wine.
If fermentation is done at a warmer, ambient temperature, and filtration is not an option, then it may be necessary to disgorge the sediment from the bottle. This is similar to the process used in producing Champagne and other sparkling wines wherein the capped bottles are manipulated so that the sediment settles on the cap with the bottle in an upside-down position. The wine with sediment in the neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap is removed, and pressure in the bottle pushes out the ice plug with sediment. A portion of wine is then added back to fill the bottle to the proper level, and a new crown-cap is attached.
Disgorging is a more time consuming and man-power intensive procedure, but can remove essentially all of the sediment produced in bottle during completion of the primary fermentation. Like most wines in France, many ancestral method wines are governed by local appellation rules, and the majority of Pét-Nat is declassified as basic Vin de France. However, winemakers in the tradition-rich Montlouis-sur-Loire region, inspired by Pét-Nat’s growing popularity, created a new sparkling wine appellation called “pétillant originel.” (The word “natural” is banned from French wine labels). The key regulations include no added sugar or yeast, nine months of aging on the lees, and mandatory disgorgement.
While working on this Pét-Nat post, I endeavored to gain information from several Texas winemakers about their efforts to produce these sparkling wines. It has been well-publicized that Chris Brundrett at William Chris Vineyards started experimenting with Pét-Nat five years ago. After some early issues, Pét-Nat has become an important part of the William Chris portfolio. Todd Crowell at Ron Yates has also been working on Pét-Nat, producing several versions over the past few years. Silouan Bradford at Saint Tryphon Farm & Vineyards produces a Pét-Nat that is disgorged to remove sediment before bottling, like the Montlouis-sur-Loire French sparklers. A fun discussion with winemaker Rob Nida highlighted the free-flowing, experimental, and often unpredictable nature of Pét-Nat production as key reasons to explore and enjoy this style of wine.
Sparkling wines produced by Regan Meador from Southold Farm + Cellar. The bottle in the center is actually a méthode traditionnelle sparkling wine sealed with crown cap like the Pét-Nats on either side.
Some of the best information on Pét-Nat came from a discussion with Regan Meador of Southold Farm + Cellar. Regan began making Pét-Nat wines on Long Island before moving recently to the Texas Hill Country. He pointed out that making Pét-Nat can often be an adventure since each new batch will likely be different from the last. Bottling Pét-Nat can be an interesting adventure since fermentation is still underway while bottling proceeds. The changes occurring continuously in the live, natural wine can result in noticeable differences between the first bottles and the last bottles in a run. Therefore, bottling becomes a time-sensitive issue, no matter whether it is 3:00 p.m., or more commonly 3:00 a.m. LOL This must be exciting and stressful for a winemaker, and should certainly add some interest for us as consumers.
Pét-Nat wines can be produced from any grape variety, like Lagrein (left) and Sangiovese (right) – by Regan Meador from Southold Farm + Cellar
So, after all the research (and tasting, of course), where do we stand on Pét-Nat? We know it is produced by bottling the wine before primary fermentation is completed. No additional sugars or yeast are added before bottling. The carbon dioxide bubbles and pressure are formed naturally as sugar that remains in the bottle is fermented by active yeast cells still in the bottle. Pét-Nat can be made from most any grape variety, normally from a single vintage. Pét-Nat wines are often cloudy or hazy due to fermentation sediment remaining in the bottle. However, part or all of the sediment may be removed via various techniques before final capping and release of the wine. Pét-Nat is a fun and exciting sparkling wine that often surprises us, and as many folks have pointed out, it really tastes like grapes.
A number of references were consulted in creating this post on Pét-Nat.
Making it (Pét-Nat) / 2014, by Tim, Dec-2014 (AstroBunny) [This was an interesting and informative step-by-step story on actually producing a Pét-Nat wine in Australia – a good read with lots of facts and photos.]
We thought that last year’s Mourvèdre Battle might be the last, because we could not think of another varietal wine that a number of Texas wineries made, and that was well liked by the organizers. Then I happened to speak to one of last year’s judges about the situation and eventually Sangiovese was suggested. I thought about it and said, “Yeah, there’s some Texas wineries making Sangiovese.” Little did I realize how many!
I contacted wineries letting them know about the upcoming Battle of the Texas Sangiovese, and where to send wines if they were interested in participating. The wines then started arriving, and we had to make space in our three wine coolers and wine fridge to properly store them. And the wines still kept coming! I was often surprised by a winery’s entry because I honestly did not know they made a Sangiovese. A couple wineries wanted to participate, but they were either sold out or the Battle was in the midst of them coming out with a newer Sangiovese. In the end, we received 27 Sangioveses from 24 wineries!! All Sangiovese that was entered had to meet the requirement of being at least 75% Sangiovese so Sangiovese could be put on the front label, along with the important word of Texas representing Texas grapes.
While waiting on wines, it was time to find a place to hold the Battle, and fortunately like the previous Battles, owners Ryan Levy and Ian Eastveld of Nice Winery, let us use their facilities. Ryan and Ian make an award-winning Texas Blanc du Bois that sells out usually within a month and are always eager to try other Texas wines.
Then came the challenge of creating a list of judges. We believe the best judges are a diverse mix of people from different backgrounds instead of just one set such as sommeliers. We also wanted to mix up the judges and not have the exact same ones from the previous Battle, so palates would be different and a fair judging of the wines would be given. We ended up with a total of 12 excellent judges.
The wines included in the blind tasting in alphabetical order were:
Brushy Creek Sangiovese 2015 – Reddy Vineyards – Texas High Plains
Brushy Creek Sangiovese 2016 – Reddy Vineyards – Texas High Plains
Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards Sangiovese Riserva 2014 – Timmons Family Vineyards – Texas High Plains
Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards Sangiovese 2015 – Timmons Family Vineyards – Texas High Plains
Lost Draw Sangiovese 2016 – Texas High Plains
McPherson Cellars Sangiovese 2016 – Texas
Messina Hof Sangiovese 2016 – Texas High Plains
Red House Winery Sangiovese 2016 – Texas
Rohan Meadery Entropy 2017 – Texas Hill Country
Ron Yates Sangiovese 2016 – Tio Rancho Ranch – Texas Hill Country
San Martiño Winery & Vineyards Sangiovese Reserve 2012 – Texas
Signor Vineyards Sangiovese 2016 – Timmons Family Vineyard – Texas High Plains
Texas Hills Vineyard Sangiovese 2013 – Estate – Texas Hill Country
Trilogy Cellars Sangiovese 2016 – Texas High Plains
Wedding Oak Winery Sangiovese 2015 – Texas Hill Country (86% Sangiovese, 14% Tannat)
William Chris Vineyards Sangiovese 2016 – Narra Family Vineyards – Texas High Plains
William Chris Vineyards Klenk Sangiovese 2014 – Klenk Family Vineyards – Texas Hill Country
Winery at Willow Creek Sangiovese 2015 – Trails End Vineyard – Abilene, Texas
The scoring system we used in the previous three Battles has worked well, and we decided to use it again. It gives us a result from 70-100 per wine. All wines also had a backup bottle in case one wine was determined to have a fault.
We followed the same process as last time where we will only give the top 10 wine results instead of the entire list from top to bottom. We believe this is fair since the last place wine might imply it was a bad wine, when in fact it may be very good, but just got a lower score.
Along with the help of Texas Wine Lover contributing writer Jim Rector’s wife, Carole, she and I handled the bagging and numbering of the wines at the Nice Winery. All foil capsules were removed if present. All wine bottles were placed in brown bags and the neck taped at the top of the bottles to prevent any possible sign of the wine.
We did three wines per flight for the judging with eight minutes per round to allow enough time for the judges to write tasting notes. I will compile all the notes and send them individually to the respective winery.
Once all the judges arrived, they sat down to begin the blind tasting. After instructions on judging were given, the first round of three wines was poured by judges who volunteered to help.
With the scores tabulated and ranked, the results were presented to the group by unveiling the wines they had just judged. Special Texas Wine Lover gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for the top three wines.
L-R: Gold (William Chris Narra Family Vineyards), Silver (Kissing Tree), Bronze (Brushy Creek 2015)
These are the top 10 wines which were ranked by the group of 12 judges:
Grower Project The Source 2015, Letkeman Vineyard, Texas High Plains
The judges had been instructed to judge each wine individually and also to give fair results from the start to the finish. Some of the top ten wines were at the beginning of the tasting and others were at the end, so the judges did a fantastic job in treating each wine fairly. There were also some wines that were made by the same winery, and the scores for those wines were back to back in the results. That is an incredible feat considering the wines were randomly placed throughout the 27 wine lineup and the judges had no idea what the wines were.
The Battle had been another fun experience with excellent wines and knowledgeable judges. Many of the judges had agreed that Texas wines were getting better and better every year. Thank you to all the wineries who participated and the judges who traveled, some as long as three and four hours, just to help judge our latest Battle. And as always, a huge thank you to Ryan and Ian from Nice Winery for helping Texas Wine Lover.
The set of judges was an eclectic set including winemakers, winery owners, viticulture experts, Sommeliers, wine media, and experienced wine judges.
Mike Batek – Hye Meadow Winery – owner/winemaker/viticulture