The reinvention of Texas’ oldest winery: Llano Estacado

The first winery in Texas since Prohibition is in the midst of a revival. Founded in 1976 in Lubbock by Texas Tech professors Clinton “Doc” McPherson and Bob Reed, Llano Estacado has built a strong following and has become one of the state’s largest wineries – it’s number two in sales behind Ste. Genevieve.

The new Llano Estacado Tasting Room
The new Llano Estacado Tasting Room


Under the direction of president and CEO, Mark Hyman, Texas’ oldest winery has grown from producing 3,800 cases when he started in 1994 to more than 165,000 cases today. Much of that growth has been through the sales of inexpensive wines that elbow for space in the grocery store with the likes of Barefoot Wine and Cupcake Wines. Llano Estacado intends to keep a strong hold on its sales in grocery stores with the “Harvest” line of wines developed specifically for H.E.B., the largest wine retailer in the state.

Llano Estacado CEO Mark Hyman
Llano Estacado CEO Mark Hyman


Hyman is proud of the winery’s growth, but he’s not satisfied with only being known only for grocery store wine. Along with executive winemaker, Greg Bruni, Hyman is engineering a massive makeover with a substantial facelift of the winery, a revamp of the wine portfolio, and a change in where the wines are sold.

Llano Estacado Exec Winemaker Greg Bruni
Llano Estacado Exec Winemaker Greg Bruni


“It is time to recreate ourselves, both physically with our facilities and with our portfolio. We just completed our fifth expansion since 2000. The first three expansions were all production oriented. Now we’ve created the ambiance to go along with our production. We have a new modern tasting room, events center, conference room and outdoor patio overlooking our new estate vineyard.”

With the recent promotion of Bruni to executive winemaker, and Jason Centanni to winemaker, Llano Estacado is breathing new life into its wines. The winery has introduced innovative winemaking techniques, added new varieties, and has greatly expanded its lineup of wines with an increased emphasis on fine wines.

Llano Estacado Wines
Llano Estacado Wines


Llano Estacado is eager to shed its reputation for making only cheap wines by introducing new families of fine wines such as 1836, Mont Sec and T.H.P. in addition to its Viviano in a fine wine portfolio. The winery makes more than 163,000 cases of its Llano Estacado brand and only 2,000 cases of its fine wines. Hyman is bullish about the changes.

Llano Estacado THP
Llano Estacado THP


“Everybody knows our Llano Estacado brand. We sometimes have the connotation that we are just inexpensive, sweet wines. We’re not. We have a beautiful, emerging wine club portfolio that is growing by leaps and bounds. We’re making a lot of newer styles that we weren’t doing 5 years ago even. We want to make wines that are different from the wines you will find in the grocery stores. Wines that are special.”

It hopes to further change its image with a leap from the Randall’s aisles to the sommelier’s list. Landing on the table of fine restaurants like Lonesome DoveMonument Café and The Scarlett Rabbit in Austin; Stampede 66, Y.O. Ranch, Gilleys, and Gaylord Texan in Dallas; La Perla Negra and Lonesome Dove in Fort Worth; Good Dog, Coppa Osteria, Texas Borders, The Empty Glass, The Cellar Door, Bob’s Steak & Chop, and South Shore Harbour in Houston, is part of its reinvention.

Llano Estacado went so far to get a spot on the Stephan Pyles’ restaurants wine lists that it made a completely new line of wines, called T.H.P., explicitly for Stampeded 66 in Dallas. It is a lighter Bordeaux style wine intended to invite a second glass, or even a second bottle.

The multi-pronged approach to grocery store sales, boutique wines and special wines for restaurants is Bruni’s way of taking on the big wine companies outside of Texas.

“We’re the big guy in the Texas wine industry, but we compete against the international giants. In that way, we are an ant. There are wineries out there that are either boutique or big. We’re trying to pave a new path and do it all.”

It takes a lot of grapes to make all of that wine. Most of the by Llano Estacado wines are produced using Texas-grown grapes from the High Plains – where the majority of wine grapes are grown in the state. The grapes for Llano Estacado are sourced from long-time vineyard partners in such as Newsome Vineyards and Reddy Vineyards.

Vijay Reddy and his wife Subata farm 30 varieties of grapes on the 310 acre Reddy Vineyard, just outside Brownfield, Texas.  Neal Newsom and his wife Janice farm 92 acres which produce nearly 400 tons of 12 varieties of grapes a year on Newsom Vineyards outside of Plains, Texas, which is just 15 miles from the New Mexico border. Both vineyards are at relatively high elevations of 3,500 to 3,900 feet, which supports ideal growing climates with hot days and cool nights.

Winemakers Bruni and Centanni regularly kick the dirt in the vineyards with Reddy and Newsom frequently.

Centanni says, “We visit the vineyards several times in the season. We know when the grapes should be ripening and check the chemistry and condition of the grapes to determine whether to drop crops. We come out in the spring and then heavily in July through harvest. We take samples back to the lab to test the grapes’ flavor and maturity.”

The vineyards and the winery enjoy a tight working relationship. The long-term commitment to shared success has led to a unique working relationship.

As Newsom explains it, “Most of our contracts with wineries are for five years: except Llano. It’s evergreen. We don’t have to worry about it.”

Bruni added, “Contracts are for when you can’t get along. They are the referee. We essentially have a verbal contract. We trust each other to do the work we need to do.”

Centanni, Reddy, Bruni and Newsom
Centanni, Reddy, Bruni and Newsom


Wines to Try

  • 2014 Viognier Mont Sec Vineyards: made with Viognier grapes planted in the 1990s in the Chihuahuan Desert south east of El Paso at 4,080 ft in elevation, this wine has a broad texture, with bright lemon and fleshy peach flavors. It pairs well with chicken fajitas or pan-seared scallops.
  • 2013 Montepulciano: a dead ringer for an Italian wine made with a blend of Montepulciano, Aglianico and Barbera. This is a standout wine that will change how you think about Texas wines. Crisp cranberry, juicy cherry and tobacco leaf flavors are delicious with pasta and arrabbiata sauce.
  • 2013 Mont Sec Viviano Cabernet Sauvignon: a “Super Tuscan” style wine that blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese grapes grown in Texas High Plains. It’s bold and rustic with loads of blackberry flavors and goes great with grilled steak or pizza.

A version of this article was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: Llano Estacado provided transportation to Lubbock and wine tastings at no charge. 

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laV and Vilma Mazaite to launch “Celebrate Burgundy” festival in Austin

Vilma Mazaite
Vilma Mazaite to launch new wine festival in Austin

Celebrated sommelier and director of wine at laV Restaurant and Wine Bar, Vilma Mazaite, is launching a new wine and food festival in Austin called “Celebrate Burgundy” in early 2017. A press release issued by laV’s PR agency, says, “The festival, designed to be a leading wine and food event focused on Burgundy wines and regional French food will be led by Vilma Mazaite.”

Mazaite has tons of wine cred having been named a “Best Sommelier of 2015” by Food and Wine Magazine earlier this year. Her expertise in French wine is well recognized and is on display in the massive wine list at the restaurant. She traveled to Burgundy in September to plan the festival with some of the region’s most notable wine producers.

To allow her time to plan and host the festival, Mazaite, will leave her role as director of wine and will serve laV as Executive Consultant.

In the press release laV’s General Manager, Jamie Wagner says, “We believe Austin is ready for a world class wine and food event and there is no one better to lead it than Vilma. We’re excited to start Celebrate Burgundy and look forward to working with others in the Austin food and wine community to make it a reality.”

The release added a comment from Mazaite saying, “I am very proud of what we’ve done at laV and am excited to be starting our next venture. I believe we can create a unique wine and food experience in Austin. We’ve  already begun securing participants from Burgundy and have been met with great enthusiasm from several producers.”

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Texas Winemakers Hold “The Sip” to Announce Stellar 2015 Harvest

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.”

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Sneak peek at Barley Swine’s new location and big boozey additions

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. 

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Williams and Sanchez of Barley Swine

New Wine Guide for the Emoji Generation from Wine Folly

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 Folly the Essential Guide to Wine
Wine Folly the Essential Guide to Wine


Wine is awesome. I can’t imagine enjoying a great meal without a delicious glass of wine to make it even better.

But let’s face it; wine can be confusing. I mean, come on, there are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world, not to mention thousands and thousands of wineries. To make things even more confusing, most of those wineries label their products in some foreign language. You almost have to be a scholar to figure out which wine to buy.

Cute but not Cutesy

Authors and designers, Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, set out to arm wine drinkers with an easy to use reference to demystify wine. The 230+ page Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine is loaded with infographics, wine maps and detailed profiles of 55 different wines to simplify the wine selection process.

It’s organized in three main sections of Wine Fundamentals, Styles of Wine and Wine Regions. The information is presented in super easy to understand, bite-sized pieces with useful charts, and images. Despite simplifying the information, it is far from simplistic.

Ms. Puckette is whip smart and knows her stuff. She has worked at some of the country’s top wine restaurants such as Restaurant RN74, is a Certified Sommelier and has been recognized as the 2013 Wine Blogger of the Year by the International Wine and Spirits Competition. She uses her wine knowledge and graphic design talent along with Hammack’s keen eye to create a book that is sure to help you feel like a wine expert without ever putting down your glass.



Get the Wine Folly book

It sells for $25 in paperback and digital editions (everything but kindle) at places like, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books and Nook.

wine glass emoji

Disclosure: I was provided a copy of the book for review at no charge

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I’m Embarrassed to be Texan

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 said it. I’m embarrassed to be a Texan.

Why? The Texas wine industry can’t hold a candle to New York.

Rainbow over Lake Seneca in the Finger Lakes wine region
Rainbow over Lake Seneca in the Finger Lakes wine region


Sure, Texas has excellent wines that win national and international awards. I’m confident Texas wines could go toe-to-toe with those from the Finger Lakes. It’s not about the quality of the wine.

Its all about the cohesion

It is about the cohesiveness of the industry. The Finger Lakes wine region has its stuff together. It’s more than a geographic region marked by 11 long, deep lakes gouged out of the earth by glaciers 10,000 years ago. It’s more than just an American Viticultural Area (AVA). It’s more than wine trails connecting the 129 wineries that grow cool climate vinifera grapes like Riesling and Cabernet Franc in Finger Lakes AVA (there are 428 wineries statewide). It is a tight knit community of wineries, farms, restaurants, tourism boards, chambers of commerce and businesses all with a shared mission of promoting the beautiful region as a top-notch wine and tourism destination. The biggest driver of this unity is the largest tourism board east of the Mississippi, the Finger Lakes Wine Country.

It’s working. The Finger Lakes wine region has been recognized as a “Top 10 Worldwide Wine Destination,” by Wine Enthusiast and a “Top Wine Destination in the U.S.,” by It also landed the challenge to host the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, a coveted marketing opportunity for any wine region looking to wine and dine around 270 wine writers. The folks of the Finger Lakes certainly made the most of that opportunity. They rolled out the red carpet for the bloggers.

A wine tourism board that works

The Finger Lakes Wine Country, founded in 2000, has a lot to do with that success. The group began conversations to bring the Wine Bloggers Conference to the Finger Lakes in 2011. That lobbying and the great press the region has enjoyed helped it win the RFP process to host the conference.

“It is a pretty big undertaking,” says Laury Ellen Poland, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association. “There aren’t a whole lot of wine regions that have the infrastructure to support this kind of undertaking. It took all of our energy for more than a year.”

This whole concept of having a wine tourism board came about when Corning Enterprise, the economic development arm of Corning, commissioned a research study to determine the best ways to attract quality engineers and scientists to rural Upstate New York. The research firm determined the big draw is wine. Duh! I could have told them that.

Since then, four counties have signed on to support the Finger Lakes Wine Country by providing a portion of hotel room tax revenue. Private companies chip in too and Corning matches the public dollars. The group collaborates with organizations like Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and the New York wine and Grape Association for broader reach.

The Finger Lakes wine region screams community

Beyond the tourism board, everything about the Finger Lakes wine region screams community. Our first taste of this community during the conference was a tasty welcome dinner with dozens of restaurants and wineries hosted in a park in the middle of picturesque Corning, NY. That incredible level of hospitality was on also display with lovely receptions at the Rockwell Museum of Art and the Corning Museum of Glass.

Community was front and center in an excellent educational session put on by fruit crop physiologist Alan Lakso, a professor emeritus from Cornell University, who has researched grapes for 45 years, along with Fred Merwarth, owner, winemaker and vineyard manager of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and Master Sommelier, chef and winemaker Christopher Bates. These guys shared deep insight into the history, geology, climate, grapes and winemaking techniques. It was clear that academia, viticulture, winemaking, wine sales and culinary arts are inextricably linked in the Finger Lakes. How else could the region produce quality wines from an area with extreme weather, crazy variations in soil and short growing seasons?

Merwarth of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard described the growing conditions saying, “Cold winters are a defining character. It can vary from minus 6 to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit at the same time in the same winery. That kind of deep cold impacts vine health for up to 2 years. We don’t think of it as just a growing season. It’s a 12 month cycle.”

Master Sommelier, Bates, noted that the big challenge for the region is that it sells all of its wine to the millions of tourists that visit the areas each summer and the masses in New York City, a stone’s throw across the state. “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here. But we want our wine on a national stage. We need to get people excited about wine outside of New York. We have no interest in comparing our Riesling to the Riesling from Rheingau, Germany or our Cabernet Franc to what’s made in Loire, France. We make good Finger Lakes wine.”

Paul Scotto at sunset
Paul Scotto at sunset


Where the cohesiveness of the Finger Lakes wine community really shined was in the wineries visits that they arranged for the bloggers. These were incredibly well orchestrated to show off the interrelationships between the wineries, the interconnectivity between farmers, chefs, winemakers and the land itself. Each excursion along wine trails featured multiple wineries gathered in one location. We tasted fantastic wines from places like Glenora Wine Cellars, Zugibe Vineyards, Knapp Winery, Dr. Frank’s Wine Cellars, Fox Run Vineyards, Goose Watch Cellars, Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery and more. Can you imagine a Napa winery hosting other wineries on its property for group tastings? Would that happen in Bordeaux, Rioja, Mendoza, Barossa Valley or the Mosel? Well it happens in the Finger Lakes.

I’m not saying these people are nicer than Texans, but they sure can give us a run for our money.

What a treat to have a vegetable farmer, grain farmer, beef farmer, cheese maker, chef and winemaker describe what they grew, made and why they are great together. I was blown away by the camaraderie they shared not only with each other, but with those of us who were there eager to learn about it. Hospitality.

Texas isn’t ready

Texas, I don’t think you could pull off hosting the Wine Bloggers Conference. Yet. I don’t think you are ready. Texas has some great cities. It has some great wineries. It has some great wine trails. It has hospitality in spades. But, the Texas wine industry lacks the cohesion to really make it on the world stage. Maybe the state is just too dang big. After all, it is bigger than France. But, it is lacking a serious organizing body to unify the wine industry.

It can be done. It requires that a significant number of winery owners get on board. That’s tough. Established wineries may not feel the time and monetary investment is needed to advance their own business. That’s true in New York too, but they’ve gotten enough wineries on board to make it happen. It takes funding and that is definitely a challenge. The New York model of funding a concerted marketing campaign to promote economic development and regional tourism with a blend of private and public sector money may not work in exactly the same way in Texas. We may need state dollars to pull together our huge region.

Lake Seneca
Lake Seneca


It is worth the investment. The full economic impact of New York grapes, grape juice, and wine in 2012 was $4.8 billion in state and local taxes for New York State, according to a study conducted by Stonebridge Research Group for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. This compares with a full economic impact of wine and wine grapes of $1.83 billion on the Texas economy in 2011 according to a study by Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP commissioned by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.

The words of Christopher Bates are ringing in my ears, “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here.” Does that sound familiar Texas? The 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference already has a home in Lodi, CA. What do you think Texas? Can we be ready to host in 2017? I know we can.

Related stories from the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference:

Disclosure: I was provided with the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference where this interview took place.

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The Influence of Soccer, Hand-shakes and Donkeys on Wine

The Terroir of Chile in Viña Montes and of Argentina in Kaiken

Second generation winemaker, Aurelio Montes del Campo, hosted a big barbeque at his home in Argentina this summer for friends to watch Chile battle Argentina in the final match of the Copa América soccer tournament. Guests eagerly sliced into a huge slab of beef with knives they brought from home; juices streamed off the table onto the floor. Glasses were never empty of Malbec.

The game was tense. Argentina was favored. Chile hadn’t won the Copa América in 99 years. The Chilean-born winemaker anxiously watched, quietly pleased that the Argentinian super-star, Lionel Messi, wasn’t capitalizing on his astonishing skills.

“All my friends were cheering for Argentina. Even my kid,” says Montes. “I was alone in the corner.”

In the end Chile defeated Argentina in a penalty shoot-out.

“I cried when we won,” says Montes. “My friends were surprised by my tears. I said, ‘Maybe for you it was a just game. Not for me.’”

Aurelio Montes del Campo
Aurelio Montes del Campo


Geographically worlds apart

Chile and Argentina may share a border, but they are just as different as the U.S. is from Mexico. The culture, the politics, the climate and the landscape are a study in contrast. Their style of play on the soccer pitch and their winemaking are influenced by culture. Chile is a country of order. Argentina is a country of passion.

Chile’s wine region is cradled between the frigid Pacific and the towering Andes. Its grape vines are protected from phylloxera, mildew and hail by the cold ocean winds and the physical barriers of the Atacama Desert to the north, the mountains to the east and the Patagonian glaciers to the south.

Argentina’s wine region, centered in Mendoza, is marked by the higher altitude, starting at 3,000 feet in elevation, and is cut off from the Pacific rains by the Andes. The only significant source of water is the Mendoza River.

Two countries, one wine family

Despite the differences, the Montes family calls both countries home and makes wine in each.

Mr. Montes presented the wines from Viña Montes, the eponymous Chilean winery, and Kaiken Wines, its Argentinian sister winery, for wine writers from around the country at the eighth annual Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Corning, NY. After the session Montes shared his story and laughs with me over wine.

In 1987 Aurelio Montes Sr. built the stunning, modern Viña Montes winery in Santiago, Chile along with 3 partners. The four men had two things in common. All were passionate about wine, and none had any money. They sold a car to acquire the money start the business. It is unique in that it is the only winery in Chile where the winemaker is the owner.

Viña Montes is well known for its powerful Alpha M Cabernet Sauvignon and is famed for its Purple Angel, the super Carmenère, which is perhaps the best representation of Chile’s national grape. The winery produces more than 20 varieties of wine from several vineyards in the valleys and at higher elevations.

Viña Montes was the second winery in the world to be certified sustainable. Sheep devour the weeds between the vines rather than using herbicide. Stringent energy efficiency practices cut the amount of power used. Viña Montes commissioned one of the most comprehensive studies of water use in the industry and as a result it employs inventive dry farming techniques which have dramatically reduce water consumption by up to 65 percent in some vineyards. It’s not only good for the earth, but it also makes wines with more concentration.

Fortified with success at the winery, the Montes family decided to expand operations in other countries.

“I was talking with my father and we decided we wanted to find a new place for a winery,” says Montes. “For five years I traveled to places like Australia, Napa, Spain, Portugal and France together to learn how wine is made in these regions. It was during these travels that I realized Argentina is really special.”

Drinking in the culture of Argentina

Named for the only animal to be able to cross the Andes between Chile and Argentina, the Caiquenes wild geese, Kaiken was founded in Argentina in 2002. That spirit of crossing the Andes to start a new winery in Argentina was both a gamble and an adventure. It was an economic risk. It was a culture risk.

Fifteen years ago, the Argentinian wine industry was completely undeveloped and Malbec was unknown outside its borders.

“We choose to start our winery in Argentina for three reasons,” says Montes. “One, we fell in love with the undeveloped country. Two, the terroir is so different. Producing wine in the desert is very different. The soil in Mendoza is something I would never choose. Sandy soil. Rocky soil. Crazy soil at high altitude. Finding new terroir was very great. Three, I wanted to go someplace where people are passionate about wine. In Argentina, they drink 40 liters per person a year. Never have I had lunch or dinner in Argentina without wine. People love wine. That passion is not easy to find in other places. These three things made us say, let’s go to Argentina. We love to make wine, we love to drink wine. This is the perfect place to be.”

The climate, the altitude and the grapes are significantly different in Argentina from Chile. Doing business is equally divergent. Montes explained, “In Chile, if I want to buy grapes, I sign a contract with the vineyard owner. In Argentina, if I want grapes, I stop a grower in the street, go to the vineyard and give them instructions. Then harvest and ferment. Until that point there is no price set. Contracts don’t exist in Argentina. It sounds crazy. It’s a hand-shake relationship based on trust. Everything is relationships.”

Similarities and differences come alive in the wines

Kaiken Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015
Kaiken Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015


Despite the differences, there are some similarities. Kaiken also follows sustainable practices. The vineyards are farmed with biodynamic concepts, working with nature, moon, stars, and the community to guide it. Like Viña Montes, Kaiken sources grapes from multiple vineyards in various terrains like the Vistalba vineyard, the oldest vineyard in Mendoza with 105 year old Malbec vines, and the Cistaflores vineyard located on the upper slope of the Andes.

While Kaiken doesn’t make Carmenère and Viña Montes doesn’t make Malbec or Torrontés, both make Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Incidentally, the Torrontés, grown in the Salta region of Argentina, is susceptible to fall victim to the ravenous appetites of wild donkeys. That’s not an issue growers face in Chile. It isn’t easy to find Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina, but there are a few wineries that are producing good wines. It took Montes almost 10 years to find the right spot to grow Sauvignon Blanc.  Kaiken makes its 2015 Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc with grapes grown at almost 5,000 feet in elevation high on a plateau in the middle of the Andes in Mendoza. The site has extreme weather, requiring the grapes to be harvested in February (which is equivalent to harvesting in July in the U.S.) because it is already too cold in March.

Montes and KaikenWine  Tasting
Montes and KaikenWine Tasting


It’s fascinating to taste the differences in the wines from each winery side by side. This is where the importance of the growing conditions really shines through.

Montes Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2015 could easily be mistaken for a young wine from New Zealand. Its vibrant aromas of lemon blossoms and fresh jalapeños lead into crisp citrus and tropical fruit flavors with a healthy dose of green grass. This spring flower sells for $15.

Kaiken Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015 is fermented in 16 percent used French oak to round out the flavor and give it elegance and Sancerre-like complexity. Bright lemon and stone fruit flavors dance on the palate with minerals coming through on the finish. This is the second harvest for this wine. “This is like an elegant woman that doesn’t need to dress proactively to call attention,” says Montes. “The wine speaks for itself.” It is $19 a bottle.

Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is made with grapes dry farmed on the lower slopes of Colchagua Valley in soils laden with granite gravel and clay. Herbal scents of dried thyme, leafy tobacco and green pepper dominate before revealing black cherry, blackberry and chocolate flavors. It is a powerful ballet dancer ready to perform for $25.

Kaiken Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is made with grapes grown in rocky, clay-rich soil on 50 year old vines from the Vistalba vineyard in Mendoza. Pow. Bossy blackberry and saucy strawberry slap you in the mouth. Soft mocha and baking spices kisses let you know it’s all in fun. This juicy darling is $25.

The Montes family has managed to capture the order, structure and elegance of Chile in the bottle. At the same time it celebrates the freewheeling, rugged flair of Argentina with its sister winery. Soccer, politics, relationships and wild donkeys are the terroir off wines.

Disclosure: I was provided with the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference where this interview took place.

What are you drinking?



The Intoxicating Experiences of the 2015 TexSom  

Drinking it in at TexSom
Drinking it in at TexSom

The Texas Sommelier Conference, aka TexSom, just wrapped its 11th annual session at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas. It truly is one of the biggest and best wine education conferences in the world. It’s geared for wine professions and serious aficionados who get deliriously blissful to talk about the most intricate and geeky aspects of wine production, geography, wine sales and the minutiae of the sight, smell and taste of hundreds of wines from iconic producers.

TexSom founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks
TexSom founders James Tidwell and Drew Hendricks

The education at TexSom is top notch, but there is so much more. TexSom is saturated with intoxicating experiences. Even the sounds get me. You know how that ding-ding-ding sound of the electronic slot machine gets ingrained in your subconscious after a few days in Vegas. It gets played back into your dreams even after leaving that hell hole. The same thing is true at TexSom. The lilting ding-ding-ding of wine glasses kissing each other’s rounded hips time-after-time though-out each session, all day long, become a xylophone soundscape scoring the important moments of the conference. That sound is my nightly lullaby easing me into wine-soaked dreams.

The melodic chime of glasses
The melodic chime of glasses

What makes it truly intoxicating is the alchemy of so many important elements. Beyond the learning, the wine is insane, the events are a blast, the staff and volunteers are incredible and the camaraderie among attendees is sheer magic.

Education is what TexSom is all about. The presenters are a who’s-who list of the biggest names in the industry with Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine and all sorts of other fancy wine titles. They drop knowledge. It’s impossible for even the best educated wine pro to come away without learning something.

A few highlights for me:

  • Josh Raynolds taught us the lineage of the Pinot Noir direct line progenies spreading from Austria, Hungary and Switzerland including reds like Gamay and Pinot Meunier and also whites like Gouais, Alligote, Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgone and even Chardonnay. Many of these grapes are dying at the cruel hands of commerce. To underscore the point, Raynolds broke out bottles of 2008 Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Gouais from Rutherglen, Australia. It was absolutely the rarest wine imported into TexSom this year.
  • Cocktail phenom, Bobby Heugel, explored the buzz for obscure liqueurs by juxtaposing pairs of cocktail darlings like Greeen Chartreuse vs. Dolin Genepy and Grand Marnier vs. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. One of the more interesting comparisons was between a bottle of Campari made in 2015 vs. Campari made in 2006. The difference is that in 2006 Campari stopped coloring its liqueur with beetles using carmine as a dye sourced from the cochineal beetle because it is a lethal allergen. That’s right, Campari used to be Beetlejuice.
  • Laura de Pasquala and Charles Butler described how some of the world’s most treasured wines are made with the most human intervention. Wines like Champagne, Sherry, Port, Tokiaj and Madiera all require heavy winemaker manipulation to create their wonderfully unique styles. No natural wine bullshit here. Even biodynamics is a highly interventionist method. One of my favorites of the session was the Nino Negri Chiavennasca “Sfursat 5 Stelle” Sforzato di Valtellina, from Lombardy, Italy. It’s made with 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes that are dried on the vine for 100 days in cool alpine air before they are pressed. The result is a complex Barolo like wine with high tannin, dried fruit flavors and elevated alcohol that will age forever.

Yes we get to taste some of the most amazing wines on the planet; wines that I wouldn’t normally be able to afford; wines I wouldn’t normally be able to find; wines which until now I had only dreamt of. The standout retrospective of a dozen Grand Cru Trimbach Alsatian Rieslings going back to 1975 had the crowd cooing in rapturous enchantment. Oh the Burgundy. Oh the Bordeaux, Oh the Champagne. Oh the Sauternes. Oh old vintage and rare bottles. There are too many to mention.

Jean Trimbach with retrospective
Jean Trimbach with retrospective


My absolute favorite part of TexSom is connecting with so many incredible people. There is a Jungian river of shared wine-geek energy flowing at flood-stage levels at every moment. Chatting it up with the people who write wine curriculums, hanging with people are on every Top Somm list, and hearing what’s going on straight from winemakers from around the world is a rush.

How can you beat learning about the vintage variance of Pontotoc Vineyards wines with winemaker, Don Pullam? Or sharing a lively discourse on the state of the Texas wine industry from legendary winemaker Kim McPherson? What could be better than having late night laughs with some of the hottest young winemakers in Texas like Ron Yates of Spicewood Vineyards, Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines and Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards? Or having an impromptu tasting of the Fall Creek Vineyards new releases with the matriarch of Texas wines, Susan Auler, and a fun group of wine writers and sommeliers?

If you haven’t been to TexSom, put it on your list for next year. Check out the sessions, the tasting breaks, the wine lunches, the endless flow of swoon-worthy wines in the Hospitality suites, the crowing of the TexSom Best Sommelier and the Grand Tasting sponsored by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. The event is run like clockwork by diligent staff and volunteers who put in countless hours. You will not be disappointed.

Disclosure: I was provided a complimentary media pass to attend 2015 TexSom.

What are you drinking? 

Infinite Monkey Theorem winery set to open in funky South Austin space

Infinite Monkey Theorem
Infinite Monkey Theorem


Visiting wineries is the epitome of elegance. It’s easy to conjure fairy tale images of royalty while enveloped in the romance of walking rows of fragrant grapevines as you approach the palatial château to the tasting room. But a soon-to-open urban winery, The Infinite Monkey Theorem, throws that stereotype out the window. It’s fun. It’s spirited. It’s more likely to catch a show at The Mohawk than at The Long Center.

You won’t find any vines or pretense at the new Austin winery. It’s taking over a former auto repair shop just off of South Congress Avenue (121 Pickle Rd.), and the owners are busily sweeping out rusty car parts to make room for wine tanks and tagging the walls with graffiti. The funky winery will have private tastings in August and aims to officially open in late September with a kick-ass party complete with tours, drink specials, art features and live music.

Urban wineries aren’t a new thing. This isn’t even the first urban winery in Austin (that distinction goes to The Austin Winery). In fact, it’s not even the first Infinite Monkey Theorem urban winery. Nope. This is the second location for the Denver-based winery, which opened in 2008. They cleverly are bringing wine production closer to where wine drinkers live and work in the wine-loving state of Texas.

Husband and wife team Aaron and Meredith Berman moved from Denver to open the new Austin location and serve as the chief financial officer and la grande dame of wine operations, respectively. The intrepid couple followed a lust for adventure and passion for wine to settle into new digs with their two dogs and kids (the goat kind of kids), in a “tiny house” in the same neighborhood as The Infinite Monkey Theorem winery.

Meredith Berman
Meredith Berman


The Bermans are fitting right into the Austin scene and Austinites are welcoming them with open arms. They are both quick with a smile, easygoing as a pair of flip-flops and as gracious as hosts could possibly be.

The Austin incarnation of The Infinite Monkey Theorem will make wine the same way as the original Denver winery. It will ship in grapes from various vineyards in the Texas High Plains to the facility in Austin where owner and winemaker, Ben Parsons, will make the preliminary batches of wine. The Bermans will be his trusty assistants and continue the longer processes throughout the year. They anticipate cranking out 2,500 cases of wine this year for the first harvest.

Visitors to the Infinite Monkey Theorem tasting room can sample and buy well-known wine varieties like Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and even Rosé made with Texas-grown grapes. I’m a big fan of the Petite Sirah, which sells for $35 a bottle. Initially, the Texas Rosé will be the only locally-made wine, with the rest of the wine coming from Denver. The winery will give birth to Texas white wines about six to eight months after this year’s harvest.

The winery tasting room will have six wines on tap, four bottled wines, and five types of wine in cans, including canned pear cider. Wine in cans? Hell yeah! Take it to the lake, the pool, the skate park or anywhere glass isn’t welcome. You can even shotgun these 8 ounce bad boys (What Are You Drinking doesn’t condone chugging a third of a bottle of wine, but what you do on your own time is your business).

How to shotgun wine like a Texan

And shotgunning is definitely a fun way to enjoy this wine. When What Are You Drinking proposed shotgunning Infinite Chimp wine from the can, Meredith was all over it. She eagerly hosted Cris Mueller, writer for Austin Food Magazine, Courtney Pierce, photographer and videographer for Courtpie Photography and me to shotgun a few cans of wine in the winery while it’s under construction. She even joined right in. Check her out in this video.

I mentioned that the Bermans are starting to fit right in to Texas. Well, Meredith got all cowgirl on me after shotgunning wine together. It turns out she has a competitive streak as wide as the Red River. She took to Instagram to challenge me to a second shotgun dual wearing full cowgirl regalia.

@infinite_chimp calls me out on Instagram
@infinite_chimp calls me out on Instagram


Check out what happens in this video.


It has been a blast getting to know the Bermans and getting to try several of the Infinite Monkey Theorem wines. I’m looking forward to the opening of the winery and know it will be barrels of fun to visit. Who knows, maybe the Bermans will even invite me back to shotgun with them again.

Infinite Monkey Theorem wine is available in local stores and on tap at various restaurants and bars around Austin. A complete list of places to find the wine, dates for special events and its grand opening party are available on the winery’s website and Facebook page.

A huge thank you goes to Courtney Pierce of Courtpie Photography for shooting the videos.

A version of this story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure 1. No animals or people were injured in the making of these videos (other than Meredith’s ego).

Disclosure 2. Infinite Monkey Theorem provide wines to sample and to shotgun at no charge.

What are you drinking?

What to drink during Running of the Bulls: Avignonesi Desiderio

Avignonesi Desiderio Cortona DOC Merlot 2011
Avignonesi Desiderio Cortona DOC Merlot 2011

Reading Hemingway always makes me want to drink. Every time Jake Barnes takes a long tug off of a wine skin during the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona while watching the Running of the Bulls in The Sun Also Rises, I want to join him in some purposeless debauchery.

This year, the annual Running of the Bulls happens July 6th through 14th at the San Fermín festival, sparking a week-long celebration in Spain and with people like me around the world who want to party vicariously. You don’t have to be a Hemingway fan to have a deep affinity for tradition that honors a mix of beast-inspired panic and the adrenaline rush that comes with it. There is nothing better than a bottle of Spanish wine to celebrate the impudent gamblers who thumb their noses at certain death at the tip of the horn of a massive mound of sweaty bull flesh.

Well, unless you can find a fantastic bottle of wine adorned with a big white bull.  In that case, a fitting wine to drink during the Running of the Bulls is actually an Italian.

A wine that fits the bill is Avignonesi Desiderio, a brooding blend of 85 percent Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from the La Selva estate of Cortona DOC in Tuscany. The label of one of Avignonesi’s most prized wines depicts the beautiful Chianina bull, named Desiderio, of Tuscany. His reputation brought wealth to the small farm of La Capezzine, which became one of Avignonesi’s main vineyards.

This wine smells like courage. It’s bold with fat black and blue berries lashed with leathery straps. It tastes like victory. Brazen black cherries, plum and dusty mint and eucalyptus leaves wave a deep garnet flag in front of that bull. It’s strong and fleet enough to stay one step ahead and carefree enough to dodge any arrogant horn or hoof. Aged 16 months in French oak barrels, this wine is the blood of Desiderio, giving all who drink it, his powerful character.

Grab a bottle at your favorite wine shop for about $60 and celebrate this summer’s Running of the Bulls with the wild abandon of Hemingway’s lost generation.

Disclosure: I was provided a sample of Avignonesi Desiderio for review at no charge.

What are you drinking?