The best wine growing regions of the world such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont and Napa Valley have significantly cooler climates than Texas. Conventional wisdom says that it’s just too dang hot in Texas to grow grapes for world class wines. Not so, say a group of prominent Texas winemakers. The searing heat in Texas is actually a perfect climate for growing vinifera grape vines.

Representatives from Stone House Cellars, Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards and Inwood Estates host The Sip Representatives from Stone House Cellars, Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards and Inwood Estates host The Sip


Winery owners and winemakers from Fall Creek Vineyards, Inwood Estates, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards celebrated Texas Wine Month by sharing the results of their respective 2015 harvest at a tasting event dubbed, The Sip, Season Two (Season One, was held last year). The winery representatives confidently proclaimed 2015 to be a great growing season in a state with an ever improving wine industry.

The evening started with Ron Yates, owner of Spicewood Vineyards, taking a group of sommeliers and journalists to visit the Spicewood Estate Vineyard where 25 year old Sauvignon Blanc vines grow. Yates explained his vineyard management practices focus on producing low yields. It might seem counter-intuitive to get fewer grapes per acre when you are making wine, but the grapes that remain get all of the nutrients and energy of the vine. The resulting wine is so much better. To underline that point, Yates poured a tank sample of the newly made 2015 Spicewood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, which even in its infancy shows great promise.

The Sip Season 2 Ron Yates discusses the Spicewood Vineyards harvest among the vines


“It’s astonishing to see the changes in the Texas wine industry in the past several years,” says Yates. “The home-grown talent, the talent that is returning to Texas and the new-comer talent is impressive. The state has plenty of winemakers with the knowledge and know-how to make excellent wine. Now we are working on improving the grape growing in the state.”

Fall Creek Vineyards winemaker, Sergio Cuadra, and Inwood Estates Vineyards owner and winemaker, Dan Gatlin, echoed Yate’s sentiments that crops with lower yield is a key to success. Stringent vineyard management practices with vigorous canopy management, new trellising techniques, better irrigation practices and putting the right grapes in the right places have all led to vastly improved crop quality in recent years.

“We’ve made mistakes in our grape growing in the past in Texas,” says Gatlin. “Growing grapes the right way is within human control. We know how to manage the variables of climate and land. But a cotton farmer in the High Planes can’t just switch to grape growing using the same farming techniques and expect to have a great grape crop. We don’t need vineyards that produce 20 tons an acre. We need them to produce two to four tons of grapes per acre.”

Anyone who has met Gatlin knows that he isn’t shy about expressing his views. He got down-right testy when discussing what he considers misconceptions of better growing conditions spread by winemakers in California and France. He asserts that it’s just not true that you have to have a cool climate to grow great Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The myth of climate persists,” says Gatlin. “We still have Cabernet in the field in Texas. Mouton has already picked its grapes in Bordeaux. We’ve let our grapes hang as late as October.”

Fire gave way to data. Professor Gatlin broke out a whiteboard to draw a graph of the importance of the development of polyphenols and tannins in grape maturation. He blinded me with science. He contends that as a grape develops there is a cross-over point when tannins decrease and phenols increase. It’s just past the point when there are more phenols in the grape than tannins when the grapes are ready for harvest.

The Sip Season 2 tasting of 13 Texas wines The Sip Season 2 tasting of 13 Texas wines


“The most important element in winemaking is having the right levels of polyphenols,” says Gatlin. “It is the right stuff in your wine. The mistake some winemakers make in Texas is to pick when sugar levels are there, but before the tannins and phenols have developed. Picking at the right time and having smaller the crop loads lead to exponential growth in phenolics.”

Beyond improved Viticultural techniques, the winemakers agree that the growing conditions in Texas this season were ideal for a strong 2015 vintage. Our 7 year drought came to an end and Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan lakes rebounded from historic low water levels. In fact the rainy spring, including the wettest May month on record, sounded an alarm for a challenging year, but the tapering of rain in June and dusty dry July and August made for an idyllic grape growing climate.

Grapevines need rain early in the season to expand their shoots and develop the grape clusters. After that, during veraison, the period when the grapes start to ripen, vines stop growing and divert photosynthesis production to the grapes. At this stage it’s preferable to have drier conditions for better ripening, which is exactly what we had.

The college lesson continued with Professor Cuadra dropping knowledge among the barrels in the Spicewood cellar. With the intoxicating and fully awake smell of new-born wine freshly fermenting in open vats setting the mood, he showed charts comparing the temperature progression in Iran with central Texas. It turns out we have the exact same heat profile as the Middle East. Why is that important? Because that’s where it is widely believed vinifera grapevines originated. If vines can flourish there, they can certainly flourish here.

Susan Auler and Sergio Cuadra of Fall Creek Vineyards Susan Auler and Sergio Cuadra of Fall Creek Vineyards


Anyone who has tasted the delicious wines from Chateau Musar in Lebanon knows that it’s completely possible to make excellent wines in the Middle East.

Cuadra explained that the grapevines in Texas are well adjusted to our heat. They don’t suffer the same type of damage as vines in cooler regions when the heat spikes. We don’t see the same type of sunburn.

In addition, while we have higher overall temperatures than many wine regions, when evaluating what’s called “Growing Degree Days”, or the summation of daily average temperatures minus 50ºF for a period of 7 months, Texas Hill Country grape growers harvested at an equivalent heat accumulation index as compared to other cooler regions. More important than the growing season length is the actual number of Degree Days accumulated.

Tasting in the Spicewood Vineyards cellar Tasting in the Spicewood Vineyards cellar


Texas grapevines also have an advantage of prolonged warm weather beyond harvest. After grapes are picked, our vines don’t go dormant as they do in colder regions. Instead, the roots of the vines in Texas continue to grow deeper where they can access water even in arid summers.

With the improved understanding of viticulture best suited for the Texas climate, improved wine making techniques and a fantastic harvest, the winemakers from Fall Creek Vineyards, Inwood Estates, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards agree that the 2015 vintage could be one of the best on record for Texas wines. What a fantastic thing to hear as we celebrate Texas Wine Month.

This story was originally published on October 12, 2015 in the Texas Wine News section of Texas Wine & Trail Magazine.

Barrel tasting among the barrels Barrel tasting among the barrels


Disclosure: the author’s marketing communications agency, Pen & Tell Us, was hired to organize and promote “The Sip, Season 2.”

What are you drinking? 


This December, Barley Swine will open a new location at 6555 Burnet Rd. The move from its South Lamar home, where it’s been for the past five years, not only gives the restaurant triple the size for up to 80 guests, but also the opportunity to add booze to its beverage program.

John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine


Until the new location opens, Barley Swine will keep a focus on beer and wine, but the move to Burnet brings an inventive cocktail menu under the direction of General Manager John Michael Williams. With a full bar at his disposal, Williams is concocting seasonally focused cocktails made with ingredients from local farms. He’ll use those fresh bits to create his own vinegars, shrubs, syrups, tonics, and sodas.

Williams has a strong food and beverage pedigree. After graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) with a concentration in wine and spirits, he completed the CIA advanced wine and beverage certification as well as the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level II sommelier certification. He has honed his skills at renowned gastronomic destinations like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.

“Our new cocktail program is part of the evolution of Barley Swine,” says Williams. “We’ll take a cue from the culinary direction from our executive chef and owner, Bryce Gilmore, to have a focus on making seasonal drinks with house-made ingredients. I’m working on recipes for our own velvet falernum syrup for Tiki drinks, a house-made vermouth, and 10 varieties of bitters. We’ll make cocktails that are fun and approachable.”

Robert Stevens will join the Barley Swine team as the new bar manager from Blackberry Farm. He’ll select the tight lineup of high-quality craft spirits for the 10-seat bar. You won’t see big-name booze brands like Grey Goose either. Stevens will use those spirits to make barrel-age cocktails like a mezcal Manhattan with house-made vermouth.

In addition to delectable drinks, Barley Swine is rolling out a completely new creation: edible cocktails. There will be a tasting menu of one bite amuse-bouche with alcohol: Imagine a Negroni as a fruit roll-up rather than a cocktail.

Luckily, Barley Swine won’t move away from its excellent selection of craft beers.

“Beer is always a huge focus for us, especially with our gastro pub tasting menu format, which allows for pairing of beers,” says Williams. “There are so many great breweries in Austin, which lets us pour lots of local beers. We’ll have 12 taps and several bottled and canned beers. Seventy percent of our total beer list will be local. We’ll have bombers from Adelbert’s Brewery and Jester King, and we’ll have Blue Owl and Strange Land on tap.”

The wine list is getting a boost too. Wine buyer, Kristy Sanchez, who has been at Barley Swine since the beginning, is excited to bring in more wines from small boutique vineyards and more natural and biodynamic wines. The wine list is constantly changing to offer selections that pair with Gilmore’s ever-evolving menu. Now the list will expand to include 40 wines by the bottle, split bottles options, and 14 white and 18 red wines by the glass.

Beer and wine at Barley Swine Beer and wine at Barley Swine

“I’m excited about the versatility we’ll have with the wine list,” says Sanchez. “We’ll have more space to carry a full spectrum of wines to pair with the chef’s tasting menu and a la carte menu. We’ll have higher end bottles and affordable wines that are great at happy hour. We have some really hard to find wines like the Teutonic Wine Company Traubenwerkzeug Quarryview Vineyard pinot noir — there are only six bottles of it in Texas — and Boundary Breaks riesling from Finger Lakes region of New York.”

The new Barley Swine will still have happy hour every Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 6:30 pm with new a la carte items, hand-crafted cocktails, wine for $7, and $3 beers.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I was provided complimentary sips and nibbles at Barley Swine during this interview. 

What are you drinking?

Williams and Sanchez of Barley Swine


Professional soccer a wash-out in Austin: Aztex to sit out the 2016 season

October 5, 2015

While a news story about a professional soccer team doesn’t really fit on a blog about alcoholic beverages, I’m including this story about the Austin Aztex that was originally written for CultureMap because the lack of beer sales at the team’s facilities had a financial impact on the team. It is another example of the importance […]

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Buenos Aries Café celebrates 10 years of delicious Argentine cuisine

September 27, 2015

Operating a restaurant is a tough business. In fact, according to Dun & Bradstreet reports, “restaurants have only a 20 percent chance of surviving two years. The business challenges are compounded in a tough market like Austin, where several new restaurants open each month driving a hunger for people to continually seek out the hottest […]

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The Townsend salutes the Paramount Theatre with special cocktail

September 23, 2015

The venerable Paramount Theatre  in downtown Austin will light its new blade sign today to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The new 50 foot tall sign is an exact replica of the original one that was removed in the 1960s.   In honor of the sign lighting, The Townsend, located at 718 Congress Avenue, which is located directly across […]

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New Wine Guide for the Emoji Generation from Wine Folly

September 22, 2015

Your wine decoder ring is here. Wine Folly, the highly visual and informative blog that regularly decrypts the complex world of wine with easy to understand infographics, has just released its first book, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine.   Wine is awesome. I can’t imagine enjoying a great meal without a delicious glass […]

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What’s on tap for the Texas Craft Brewers Festival and the 6 beers you’ve gotta try

September 17, 2015

The 2015 Texas Craft Brewers Festival returns to Fiesta Gardens on Saturday, September 19, 2015. The state’s largest craft beer event serving beer made exclusively in Texas got even bigger this year with 65 breweries pouring around 170 brews.   There will definitely be a style of beer to suit any palate, as brewers will bring […]

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What would Muppets drink?

September 16, 2015

“It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to get things started…” Following is a guest post from Beautiful Wife, Suzanne McGinnis, written in collaboration with me.    The “Muppet Show” is back. I can’t wait for the debut of the new series on Tuesday, September 22. I can […]

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3 DIY cocktails to toast the end of summer

September 1, 2015

Kids are going back to school. Municipal pools have closed. But summer isn’t really over. A few minutes in the merciless 100-degree sun will tell you that summer is still in full swing. A look at the calendar will tell you that summer cocktails are still in fashion until Wednesday, September 23. These sweltering afternoons […]

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I’m Embarrassed to be Texan

August 26, 2015

I actively support the Texas wine industry as a consumer, in my marketing communications business and as a wine writer. We have fantastic wineries making delicious wine in Texas. However after visiting the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York for the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference, I’m embarrassed to be a Texan. I […]

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