Fall Creek Vineyards making wine in the right place at the right time

Suzan and Ed Auler

Sometimes things just feel right. As a wine drinker things feel just right when I am sharing wine with friends and telling stories over appropriately paired food. When is it just right for a wine maker?

To answer that question, I recently had lunch at the home of Texas wine pioneers, Ed and Susan Auler, the owners of Fall Creek Vineyards. The Aulers opened four of their newly released wines and shared stories about the right place to grow the grapes and make each of the wines.

Ed Auler started our lunch by introducing the 2011 Fall Creek Vineyards Chardonnay. “Some people say that Chardonnay doesn’t belong in Texas. We disagree. Grapes grown in the right vineyard, with the right treatment, have a significant place here.” Fall Creek makes its Chardonnay with grapes grown by Alphonse and Martha Dotson of Certenberg Vineyard in Voca, Texas. The grapes are cold fermented to let the fruit flavor shine through and aged in just a touch of oak and partial malolactic fermentation to round it out with a little creaminess without giving it an oaky flavor.

An important part of what makes a wine taste right is the food you serve with it. A moderately oaked Chardonnay like the Fall Creek goes really well with rich and slightly fatty food that brings out the bright acidity of the wine.

Try bacon-wrapped figs stuffed with goat cheese as a delicious nibble. The creaminess of the cheese loves the smooth body of the wine and brings out the green apple and pineapple flavors. The fig delights in the wine’s tropical flavors and the smokiness of the bacon resonates with the smooth vanilla finish.

Summer is a perfect time for a picnic on the lake. What better wine at a picnic than a chilled, off-dry (slightly sweet) white wine. Auler is excited by the new white blend, 2010 Fall Creek Vineyards Cache, Texas. “This is the reason I like being in the wine business. I like doing something that hasn’t been done. This is an out of the box white blend that is drier than Conundrum.”

Fall Creek has blended 90 percent Chardonnay, nine percent Muscat Canelli and one percent Sauvignon Blanc to make a wine that is versatile enough to be served at an elegant meal or a picnic. Auler described it as, “Fruit forward and finishes dry. It has a blend of Chardonnay and Muscat flavors on the front and crisp Sauvignon Blanc on the finish.”

Picnics are all about ease. Grab some carry-out spicy Indian, Thai or Mexican food from your favorite restaurant or grocery store to go with this fruity wine. The ever so sweet honeysuckle, honeydew, and peach flavors will dance on your tongue with the hot peppers. While it’s not bone dry, it has enough acidity to balance it out.

In only its second vintage, this is a limited production wine with 225 cases made. The 2010 Fall Creek Vineyards Cache, Texas is available only in the Fall Creek Vineyards tasting room, to wine club members and in select restaurants in Texas for $15 a bottle.Picnics are all about ease. Grab some carry-out spicy Indian, Thai or Mexican food from your favorite restaurant or grocery store to go with this fruity wine.

One picnic wine is never enough. Next on the agenda, Auler served the 2010 Fall Creek Vineyards Chenin Blanc, Texas. Chenin Blanc is famously produced in Vouvray in the Loire Valley or France and is known as a cold climate grape.

How does it fare in Texas? Auler explained, “We don’t match up exactly with any other wine region geographically. I’ve never felt a Mediterranean climate in Texas in all my years on Earth. The Chenin Blanc grape grows well in warm climates like South Africa, just as much as it does in cool climates. To me the proof in the pudding is in the eatin’. It loves growing in Texas. We think our Chenin Blanc tastes very similar to the off dry wines from Vouvray.”

Fall Creek first started making Chenin Blanc 1982 and hasn’t changed the way it’s made since. They use arrested fermentation to leave a little residual sugar for sweetness and gave it a kiss of oak for a smooth body. Whether you have an older vintage hiding in your closet that has gotten darker and more honeyed, or if you have a fresh new release, try it with a rich fish dish. Cold poached trout with dill has the oil and heft to bring out the best of the pear, peach skin, fig and honey flavors of the Chenin Blanc.

I’m headed to Spain this summer for a wine tasting tour disguised as a family vacation, so when Auler introduced the 2010 Fall Creek Vineyards Tempranillo, Salt Lick Cellars, Texas Hill Country, my wine senses started to tingle. “I’m pretty excited about this grape. Tempranillo loves Texas and we hope Texas learns to love Tempranillo.”

While the Aulers planted the first Tempranillo grapes in Texas in 1988, they lost the vines in a devastating freeze. The 2010 Tempranillo is the third vintage Fall Creek has made with grapes grown by Scott Roberts in the Salt Lick Vineyards in Driftwood, Texas.

In the Rioja region of Spain, Tempranillo wines are required to be aged for two years, with a minimum one year in oak. Similarly, Fall Creek ages its Tempranillo in a mix of 50 percent new and 50 percent old American oak barrels. Auler is insistent monitoring vineyard conditions to ensure the harvested fruit is not overly tannic, reducing the likelihood of making an overly astringent wine. The grapes are then cold soaked and the final wine is bottle aged to let the tannins dissipate. Auler adds just a touch of Cabernet to the Tempranillo to give the wine a little punch.

I took the rest of the bottle home with me after lunch and tasted it alongside a 2007 Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain that had been aged in French and American Oak for 18 months. I was curious to see the stylistic similarities and differences.

The dark garnet color and viscosity of the two wines looked very similar. The aroma of the Spanish wine was greener with scents of dill and basil. The smell of cherry was secondary to the herbs. The strawberry, stewed fruit, leather and chocolate scents were more pronounced in the Fall Creek. The Spanish wine had zippy acidity and tasted of ripe cherry, raspberry, tobacco and vanilla flavors. The Fall Creek had richer, rounder raspberry, dried cherry and chocolate flavors balanced with red licorice, smooth vanilla and caramel on the finish. This wine goes particularly well with chilled beef tenderloin.

While there are differences in the Spanish and Texas Tempranillos, they are definitely brothers; the cherry flavors and oak influences belie their shared genealogy. My wife tasted them blind and preferred the rounder, full-flavor of Fall Creek.

Like the Cache, the Tempranillo is also a small batch, with only 200 cases made of the 2010 vintage. It is available only in the Fall Creek Vineyards tasting room, to wine club members and in select restaurants in Texas.

Sometimes in winemaking, the time isn’t quite right. Fall Creek has a couple more new releases that aren’t quite ready yet. The Fall Creek Vineyards Rosé Lenoir will be ready in about six weeks — just in time for the heat of summer to send us crawling to our fridge in search of a cold bottle of rosé.

This year, Fall Creek will introduce its flagship MERITUS as a Port, rather than as a Bordeaux-style wine. Auler explained, “I’ve always been picky about MERITUS. I want it just like I want it or I don’t want it. This one wants to be a Port so I said, OK, you’re going to be a Port.” The MERITUS Port will be released within the next six months.

The Aulers believe they are producing wines with grapes grown in the right places and only releasing new wines at the right time. I’m happy to enjoy them just about any place and any time with the right friends and the right food.

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“Brontosaurus ribs” by local chef win the Greenling Fan Favorite award at Live Fire! meat-cooking competition

In Forrest Gump, Bubba rattles off over 20 different ways to prepare shrimp. It turns out that beef is pretty damn versatile too. On a beautiful April night at the rustic Salt Lick Pavilion, roughly 550 people gathered to grub on beef prepared in creative ways by 16 chefs at Live Fire.Iron and fire and Live Fire

In its second year, the celebration of Texas cuisine hosted by the Austin Food & Wine Alliance hit its stride with hot chefs, inventive dishes, delicious drinks and entertainment; The Elana James Trio had people dancing to western-swing in the pavilion while fire dancers mesmerized the crowd on the lawn — even the bugs lit up in the waning light of dusk.

Alliance executive director, Mariam Parker says, “It’s a really fun event that lets people sample the great flavors of Texas and a twist of the red-hot culinary scene.”

Live Fire started as part of the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival and continues as a legacy event held on the eve of the new Austin Food & Wine Festival. This year, chefs were given  leeway to come up with their own recipes as long as they used beef as the main ingredient. After all, the Texas Beef Council was one of the primary sponsors.

While most of the participating chefs were from Austin, the event also drew chefs from culinary destinations like Portland and San Antonio, where commitment to local ingredients and innovative culinary trends is a shared passion.

The longest line at the event was unsurprisingly for Franklin Barbecue. People in Austin are accustomed to waiting for hours on end for a helping of the barbecue that Aaron Franklin serves at his East Side eatery.

Inspired by local cocktail scenester, David Alan, Franklin presented a sumptuous sandwich with chopped brisket and sausage, purple coleslaw and pickles spilling over a slider bun called the Tipsy Texan. Franklin explained why he participated in the event, “The people putting on Live Fire are so awesome. I can’t imagine not doing this event. It’s for a great cause.”

Not shying away from the exotic, Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo prepared cured beef heart with chicory salad. Why beef heart? Wiseheart quipped, “Because the lungs were already taken. That, and we wanted something unexpected that people would enjoy.”

I was instantly drawn to Beast for the name alone, but when I saw what chef Naomi Pomeroy created, I wanted to set up camp. A rare Texas waygu strip loin roast with wild ramp butter (ramps are in season in Oregon right now) was paired with bone marrow and caramelized tomato tarts. “Bone marrow is the foie gras of beef.”

Her sentiment was shared by meat aficionado and butcher blogger, Reece Lagunas of Whole Foods Market, who made barbacoa with bone marrow butter. “Barbacoa is a staple in Texas. What’s not to like about something that has twenty-five percent fat that cooks down. It’s bound to be good.” Sliced avocado slid over the top gave it extra silkiness.

In one of the most visually stunning displays, John Bullington of Alamo Drafthouse, roasted a 407 pound half cow over an open fire pit and served it with corn mescal pudding. The hulking beast cooked for 20 hours on a specially made rack before it was carved up and served to the crowd.

In his second year making the trip from Portland for Live Fire, Adam Sappington of The Country Cat, created grilled beef shanks tossed in roasted garlic and sherry vinegar with (again) bone marrow butter and Maker’s Mark sauce. “I love beef shank. We do all-around butchery at the restaurant, and I fell in love with the shank because it has a great gelatinous texture. It’s a hidden gem in the cow.”

Local tail-to-snout enthusiast, Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic, created a Reuben-like sandwich of beef tongue pastrami on rye with chicken liver mousse and Maker’s Mark onion jam. Maker’s Mark was a sponsor for a second year in a row, which explains why it shows up in multiple recipes.

Drawing on his Hawaiian and Californian roots, Jonathan Gelman of The Driskill served fire-grilled and smoked beef tri tip along with cast-iron cornbread puree. “Tri tip isn’t a very popular cut in Texas. I wanted to introduce it to a broader audience. It’s touchy to cook. If you over cook it, it gets tough. If you under cook it, it gets tough. I cooked this for 12 hours before the event and then finished it on the grill.”

Participants were able to choose their favorite dish in a text-vote. The winner of this year’s Greenling Fan Favorite was Josh Watkins of The Carillon. Watkins prepared two dishes, fried beef cheeks and beef ribs served with corn pudding and pickled vegetables. He braised the beef cheeks ahead of time and then fried them on-site to and served them with Brussels sprouts. The monstrous ribs, which Watkins called “brontosaurus ribs,” were smoked for 48 hours before the event.

There were plenty of good cocktails, local beer and fine wines to wash all of that cow down the gullet with 19 wine and spirit makers and four local craft breweries participating. Texas wine pioneers, Ed and Susan Auler, who were the original founders of the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, were on hand to pour Fall Creek Vineyards wines. Always affable up-and-coming craft brewer, Josh Hare, had cans of his Hops and Grain brews at the ready. The Pale Dog ale went particularly well with Franklin Barbeque. April Collins poured a selection from wines from her portfolio flanked by her hubby, Master Sommelier, Craig Collins.

Proceeds from Live Fire will let Austin Food & Wine Alliance support the local culinary community through a vibrant Culinary Grant Program for chefs, farmers, artisan producers and nonprofits. The Alliance, which is dedicated to fostering awareness and innovation in the Central Texas food and beverage community, plans to raise enough money with Live Fire to award two to four grants of $5,000 each.

“A grant of that size makes an impact to the beneficiary, allowing them to do things like buy equipment,” says Parker.

Awards will likely be announced around the time of the Alliance’s next big event, a pig roast, in the fall. I may be hungry again by then.

This story was first published on CultureMap.

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Fall Creek Vineyard Bets Big on Texas Wine

 “This isn’t an easy business. It takes a tremendous amount of work and skill. Its’ also a big gamble.”
Ed Auler’s words bounced around in my head. I had just driven about two hours from Austin to visit with him at his winery, Fall Creek Vineyards. On the way I’d passed dry river beds, scorched fields and groves and groves of sun-seared trees dying by the dozens; all victims of the most severe single-year drought in Texas history and the hottest summer ever recorded in the United States. “It’s also a big gamble.” The weather this year makes me wonder why anyone would gamble with producing wine in Texas.
Ed Auler, founder, Fall Creek Vineyards

 If it weren’t for Ed Auler, perhaps no one would bother trying to make wine here. He’s one of the Texas wine industry pioneers that paved the way.

In the early 1970s the Auler family had been in cattle ranching for five generations. At the time the cattle business was going south. Ed thought about growing pecans and peaches as an alternative. Then the crazy notion of growing grapes to produce wine came up. He didn’t know much about wine, but his wife, Susan, who knew a little more encouraged him to take a trip to Europe to learn more about wine. Once in Europe they realized there were a lot of similarities with various wine regions and the growing conditions in Texas.

When they returned, Ed and Susan planted an experimental vineyard to test it. It worked well, so they doubled down and bought more land on the north west shore of Lake Buchanan where the prevailing breeze cools the air quickly at night. Grapes love hot days and cool nights. The sandstone and limestone rich soil in the area is transported from the High Plains of Texas by the Colorado River and is reminiscent of the premier soils in wine regions in Europe. It was a good location to gamble on making wine.  

They planted the vineyards in 1975 and opened the winery in 1979. It was only the second winery in Texas closely following Llano Estacado Winery which opened in 1978. The early days were challenging with trial-and-error in the vineyard. The Aulers experimented with grapes looking for the varietals that thrived. At one point they grew 25 varietals on the property. It was lonely in the early days without a community of wine makers to turn to for advice. It was a big gamble. 

In 1990 Mother Nature had a Royal Flush and blew a catastrophic freeze into the Fall Creek vineyards. The only thing that survived was the Chenin Blanc vines. The Aulers weren’t about to give up. They replanted the vineyards with new trellising and other varietals. Not long after, they were dealt another blow when Pierce’s Disease sucked the life out of the vines. This set-back triggered Fall Creek to source grapes from other suppliers while they replanted the vineyard. Rather than betting everything on their own grapes a third time, they put a program together that spread the chips to other vineyards around the state to minimize risk.

Now Fall Creek vineyards are planted with Black Spanish Lenoir, a neutral blending grape, and they buy grapes on long-term contract such as Chenin Blanc from Mesa Vineyards in Pecos County and Tempranillo from Salt Lick Vineyard south west of Austin.

Ed and Susan Auler learned about wine in Europe and acquired a European taste for wine. The climate at Fall Creek is like Rioja in Spain. The climate at Fall Creek is like Southern France. It is also like Mendoza in Argentina, yet its own region with a style all its own. They employed Burgundian wine-making techniques in pursuit of the European taste profile. To further hone their technique, they called on renowned winemaker André Tchelistcheff as a wine consultant. Tchelistcheff is credited with creating a Napa style for Cabernet while working at Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) and he brought some of that “new world” flair to Fall Creek. The Fall Creek wines respond well to new world technology such as cold fermentation and precision processes.

One of Tchelistcheff’s influences is his encouragement of the Bordeaux blend, Meritus. He tasted the wine and really liked it. Tchelistcheff encouraged the Aulers to set aside Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux varieties and give them white kid glove treatment to make a special wine. Don’t let the grapes get too hot. Don’t let the skins stay on too long. Age the wine in oak barrels and leave it alone. This is the advice Fall Creek has followed since the 1980s. Meritus is only made in the years that it works out well. Fall Creek won’t bottle it unless very pleased and feel it’s worth it. “This is Texas. Texas weather can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Some years we can make Meritus, some years we can’t.”

 Making high-end wine satisfies part of the market, but there is also significant demand for every-day drinkers. To quench that thirst, Fall Creek makes a fruit forward Merlot and Granite Reserve Cabernet, both easy drinking red wines at affordable prices. They also introduced two value lines: Twin Springs Winery and Mission San Antonio de Valero. The Twin Springs Sweet Red, Sweet White, Sweet Blush and the off-dry Merlot-based, Ed’s Smooth Red, all sell very well.  

The gamble on Texas wine has paid off. In the beginning Fall Creek produced 250 cases. They planned to be a 25,000 case winery someday.  Now they are making 55,000 cases a year and splitting at the seams. They installed a new bottling line new can handle 2000 cases a day and have even more expansion plans.

The Aulers will sell their line of sweet wines out of state. The acceptance of the Twin Springs and Mission San Antonio de Valero second lines will determine how big they grow.

Ed Auler poured a line-up of wines for me to try and lovingly described each one.

2010 Vintage Chardonnay Texas

Fall Creek treats its Chardonnay to cold fermentation and retain the character of the fruit. It sees a little time in oak to round it out, without over powering the fruit and goes through partial malolactic fermentation for a richer texture. This crisp and refreshing wine would pair well with anything from deli sandwiches to grilled sea bass.  

Look Light golden with good clarity.
Smell The Chardonnay has tropical scents of pineapple and honey.  
Taste This is a light style Chard with fresh honeydew, green apple and citrus flavors. It has a nice balance of fruit and acidity with a smooth mouthfeel. The clean finish is neither buttery, nor over-oaked.   
Price $12

 

2010 Fall Creek Vineyards Chenin Blanc, Texas

It turns out Ed doesn’t personally care for dry Chenin Blanc, but the University of Texas asked if he would produce experimental grapes. He agreed to grow Chenin Blanc. To achieve a hint of sweetness, fermentation is stopped leaving 2 percent residual sugar. It is then fine filtered and gets a kiss of oak. This is a “perfect wine for people that like to talk dry and drink sweet.” It pairs well with spicy food like Thai and Cajun cuisine.

Look The sunny flaxen wine has good viscosity and clings to the glass.
Smell The Fall Creek Chenin Blanc has a playful nose of cotton candy, honey suckle and toast.
Taste Fruity pear and nectarine flambé greet the palate, followed by toasted marshmallow on the finish. It goes down smooth.
Price
$8
 
Ed’s Smooth Red
Here is a wine for people who don’t take wine too seriously. It’s fun and easy drinking. Its best served slightly chilled, but not as cold as you might pour white wine. It’s a fine accompaniment to Texas BBQ and Tex-Mex food.
  

Look An inviting ruby red glimmering in the glass.
Smell A burst of berry scents greet the sniffer with a touch of oakiness.
Taste Ed is slightly sweet and tastes like a smoky blueberry tart.
Price $10

 

2009 Fall Creek Vineyards Tempranillo, “Salt Lick Vineyards” Texas Hill Country

The grapes for the Fall Creek Tempranillo are grown by Scott Roberts at the Salt Lick Vineyard in Driftwood, Texas. The climate is similar to Rioja, Spain and the grapes are doing very well in Texas. The production is limited, so this wine is only available in the tasting room and in a few select restaurants in Austin. Jansen Roberts said it perfectly – “Perfect wine for people that want more body than a Pinot Noir and less than a Cabernet.” 

Look Bright garnet with a deep red center like a king’s velvet robe.
Smell It has a rich fragrance of smoked plum and raspberry.
Taste The Fall Creek Tempranillo is lush with cherry, blackberry and nutmeg with a long finish. Delicious. I was impressed with this wine and wanted more. Fortunately Ed sent me home with the rest of the bottle to share with Beautiful Wife.
Price
$30 available in tasting room in very limited quantities
 
2006 Meritus
The crown jewel of the Fall Creek line-up is made from 74 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot and 1 percent Syrah. The award winning wine can stare down the thickest Texas steak with grace and finesse. 

 

Look The Meritus is brick red with burnt sienna in the glass.
Smell The nose is full of sweet black cherry, vanilla, rhubarb and oak.
Taste This is a big wine with cassis, blackberry, tobacco and chocolate. It has a good balance of tannins and a long oaky finish. It has the underpinnings of traditional Bordeaux with a little new world punch.
Price
$40
 

The wines are getting national attention and the business is doing well, but is it worth the gamble? Ed Auler reports that making wine in Texas is very satisfying. “This is not a widget. It’s something you put yourself in and put your signature on. It’s a combination of working with mind and hands like being a plumber, electrician, chemist, physicist, accountant, PR, and lawyer at the same time. The moments that bring satisfaction are when I know people enjoy my wine.”

 That sounds like a winning bet.

 Fall Creek Vineyards provided samples of the wines for review.  In addition, Fall Creek was a sponsor of my 2011 Mellow Yellow Benefit with proceeds supporting the Lance Armstrong Foundation to continue its fight against cancer.

This article also appears on CultureMap Austin.