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.”

What are you drinking? 

8 Texas wineries to explore off the beaten path

Perissos VineyardThe popular wineries clustered along U.S. Route 290 and near Fredericksburg regularly draw big crowds to their tasting rooms. While these wineries are great, there are several hidden gems just a short drive from Austin. On January 17 and 18, the Top of the Hill Country Wine Trail held a barrel tasting event from the 2014 harvest to highlight a handful of off the beaten path local wineries.

Located along the northern edge of the Texas Hill Country appellation, these wineries are worth the exploring for their picturesque scenery and laid-back experience. You won’t find much traffic on the way to visit or long lines at the tasting room bars, but you will find gracious people pouring tasty wines. The Top of the Hill Country Wine Trail includes Perissos VineyardsFall Creek VineyardsWedding Oak WineryAlamosa Wine CellarsFiesta Vineyard and Winery, Texas Legato WineryPillar Bluff Vineyards and Pilot Knob Vineyard.

Take a tour and try these wines.

Perissos Vineyards

Perissos Wine
Located in Burnet, Perissos Vineyards is situated in a gorgeous valley adjacent to Inks Lake about an hour drive from Austin. Its vineyards (and picturesque pastures populated with lazy horses) are nestled in beautiful hills. Designed and built by former custom homebuilder turned winemaker Seth Martin, the lovely winery and tasting room would be right at home in California wine country. Perissos makes its award winning red, white and rosé wines with 100 percent Texas grown fruit, 80 percent of which is grown on its 16-acre vineyard.

Try the 2013 Italian Stallion, a red blend of Aglianico, Dolcetto and Montepulciano. It won gold medal at the 2015 Houston Rodeo International Wine Competition for its bright, juicy, red berry flavors. It sells for $45 per bottle in the tasting room.

Fall Creek Vineyards

Sergio Cuadra Fall Creek
Fall Creek Vineyards calls the shores of Lake Buchanan home. The elegant winery is about an hour and a half drive from Austin and a great place to relax for an afternoon sipping wine and enjoying the scenic waterfalls. Founded in 1973 by Ed and Susan Auler, Fall Creek is one of the oldest wineries in Texas and has developed a statesman like status over the years. New winemaker Sergio Cuadra brings a scientist’s approach to growing grapes and an artist’s touch to making wine.

Try the 2012 Fall Creek Vineyards GSM, a French Rhone style blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes, with bold blackberry, raspberry and cranberry flavors and a smoky finish. It sells for $46 in the tasting room.

Wedding Oak Winery

Mike McHenry Wedding Oak Winery

 

Wedding Oak Winery located smack in the middle of the quaint town of San Saba, brings quality wine to small town Texas. A little more than an hour and a half drive from Austin, this relatively new winery has been making wines with Texas-grown grapes since 2010. The historic 1926 tasting room and adjacent winery has been restored with the charm you would expect from the era. The light, open tasting room and tranquil courtyard make a great place to sip away the hours.

Try the Albariño 2013, a crisp and vibrant white wine made with a grape typically grown in North West Spain. A fresh floral scent and lemon and peach flavors make it a perfect afternoon wine. It goes for $23 in the tasting room.

Alamosa Wine Cellar

Jim Johnson Alamosa
Alamosa Wine Cellars is nestled in a valley in San Saba County near the little town of Bend, about an hour and half drive from Austin. Started in 1998 by native Texan and California wine industry veteran Jim Johnson and his wife Karen, the winery specializes in wines made with grapes that love warm climates like Tempranillo, Viognier, Syrah, Graciano and Sangiovese. The winery’s cozy tasting room sneakily sucks the stress away and blurs the time.

Try the 2011 El Guapo, a bold Tempranillo named for its handsome taste. This wine was introduced in 1999 and was the first commercially made Tempranillo in the state. The current vintage has juicy cherry and herbal tobacco flavors and sells for $24 in the tasting room.

Fiesta Vineyard and Winery

Wes McCoury Fiesta Winery

 

Fiesta Vineyard and Winery is tucked away on a massive ranch in Bend, Texas about an hour and a half drive from Austin. While the winery is only five years old, the Baxter Ranch has been in the family for six generations — since the 1840s. The estate vineyards produce a wide variety of grapes that do well in the Texas heat. Known for its sweet wines, this up and coming winery is using its state of the art equipment to crank out 11,000 cases of wine a year, including dry styles. The tasting room is the Baxter family’s converted game room, and you’ll feel just at home in it with the family as you would around their dinner table.

Try the Fiesta Winery Country Road, a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and a few other red grapes, aged in neutral oak barrels. It’s an easy going red with a serious side with deep blackberry and currant flavors. It sells for $30.

 

Texas Legato Winery

Texas Legato Winery sits in a lovely valley outside Lampasas about an hour drive from Austin. The petite winery makes wine from grapes grown in its six acre vineyards. If you travel in a big pack, the tasting room may not hold all of you, but never fear, the deck with vineyard views will hold everyone.

Try the 2012 Petite Sirah, a dark and brooding wine with rich flavors of black plum chocolate and black pepper. It sells for $23.

Pillar Bluff Vineyards

Pillar Bluff Vineyards

 

Pillar Bluff Vineyards located next door to Texas Legato with abutting vineyards and owned and operated by Gill Bledsoe, who is the twin brother of the Texas Legato Winery owner, Bill Bledsoe. The boutique winery makes 1,200 cases of wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot grapes. The petite tasting room has the grace and ease to transport you through hours and the glasses of wine.

Try the 2011 Tempranillo, a spicy red wine with Bing cherry and milk chocolate flavors with a zippy acidic backbone. It sells for $23.

Pilot Knob Vineyard

Pinkley Family at Pilot Knob

 

Pilot Knob Vineyard is easy to find just off of US Hwy 183 in Bertram, TX less than an hour drive Northwest of Austin. The handsome, huge new stone and timber tasting room sits on a ridge giving it sweeping views of 112 acres of vineyards and the Texas Hill Country surrounding it. The winery was started in 2011 by Craig Pinkley, after he fell in love with the wine industry while on a business trip to Napa. You’re likely to run into his wife and kids working in the tasting room with smiles as big as the view.

Try the Pilot Knob Vineyard, Texas Hill Country, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012. This fragrant wine has blackberry, blue berry and green pepper flavors with rosemary undertones. It’s elegant, but not too fussy to sit outside and take in the sights. It sells for $45.

While the Top of the Hill Country Wine Trail organizes day trips to visit all eight wineries, I recommend taking them just a few at a time. Each winery offers its own version of relaxation. No need to hurry.

An abbreviated version of this story was originally published on CultureMap.

 Disclosure: I was provided a tour with transportation and samples at no cost. In addition, Wedding Oak Winery is a client of my marketing firm, Pen & Tell US. I was not involved in the planning or execution of the event. 

 What are you drinking?

Texas winemakers hold ‘The Sip, Season One’ blind tasting event

First flight of wine for The Sip Season OneDoes Texas wine deserve a place on your table? Does it perform well enough to earn a spot on the world stage? That is exactly what a group of seven family-owned wineries set out to demonstrate a comparative blind tasting event, The Sip, Season One.

Winemakers from Fall Creek Vineyards, Inwood Estates, Perissos Vineyards, Pontotoc Vineyard, Sandstone Cellars, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards poured Texas wines and similar wines from other regions in a blind tasting session held for wine buyers, restaurateurs, sommeliers and journalists. Each guest was asked to keep their own tasting notes and describe the wines during the flights. The wines were not scored, nor were written tasting notes submitted to the winemakers.

Guests evaluated wines in two flights of 8. The winemakers revealed the wines after each flight and discussed the production and shared insights about each wine. Wines poured included:

Flight 1:

  1. Fall Creek Vineyards, 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Texas
  2. Fall Creek Comparative –  2012 St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc
  3. Inwood Estate, 2012 Palomino
  4. Perissos Vineyards, 2010 Roussanne Blend
  5. Spicewood Vineyards, 2012 Viognier, Texas High Plains
  6. Spicewood Vineyards, 2012 Tempranillo, Texas Hill Country Estate
  7. Perissos Vineyards, 2012 Aglianico
  8. Pontotoc Vineyard 2012 San Fernanado Academy

Flight 2:

  1. 2010 Perrin & Fils Châteauneuf du Pape Les Sinards, France
  2. Fall Creek Vineyards,  2012 GSM Salt Lick Vineyard
  3. Stone House Vineyards, Claros Norton Reserve 2012
  4. Numanthia, 2009 Tinta de Toro, Spain
  5. Inwood Estate, 2012 Cornelious Reserve
  6. Stone House Vineyards, Scheming Beagle Port NV
  7. Sandstone Cellars XIII (a non vintage port)
  8. Kopke 2003 Vintage Port, Portugal

The Sip grew from a shared passion by the winemakers to let people taste their wine in a group setting. The idea originated when these wineries participated in the Texas Fall Fest & Wine Auction.

Each of the seven wineries shares a commitment to making high-quality wines that express the terroir of Texas. The line-up demonstrated that a variety of grapes can be used to make wines expressive of the terroir across the state.

“We are a representative group of family owned Texas wineries, fully engrossed in the evolution of the emerging Texas wine industry’s drive to produce hand-crafted benchmark wines for the world stage,” said Ed Auler, founder of Fall Creek Vineyards. “We are all boutique, family-owned vineyards and wineries who organized this event to allow people to taste the excellence of Texas wines in comparison to wines from around the world.”

There may be a Season Two for The Sip.

 

More photos are available on Flickr.

Disclosure: I was one of the organizers of this event and participated as the emcee.

What are you drinking? 

Escape F1 madness with a Hill Country getaway to the Texas Fall Fest & Wine Auction

The Horseshoe Bay Resort MarriottThis weekend the exotic Formula 1 racing cars will roar into Austin for the first time ever. Out of the crush of traffic and blare of the lights, another elegant event is happening in Central Texas. The 8th Annual Texas Fall Fest & Wine Auction brings together 18 wineries and 14 chefs from the Hill Country on Nov. 16 – 17 at the Horseshoe Bay Yacht Club.

Texas wine pioneer and co-owner of Fall Creek Vineyards, Susan Auler, helped start the Fall Fest as a way to focus attention exclusively on Hill Country food and wine.

“The beverage director of the Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott asked me to create a festival to raise the profile of Texas wine,” Auler explains. “I was chosen because of my work to start and run the larger Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival in Austin (the precursor to the Austin Food & Wine Festival). We wanted a more intimate event that didn’t compete with the larger festival, and was easier for the winemakers to attend.”

Susan and Ed AulerNot only did the event help shine a spotlight on Texas wine, but it also played a role in putting the industry on the map. Literally. Auler says, “At the time we started the festival, we were working on gaining an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation for the Texas Hill Country wineries. One of criteria to establish an AVA was to have a region known as having a wine culture. Holding an event right in the heart of the Hill Country and focused the importance of Texas wine and food by bringing together some of the best wines, foods, chefs and restaurants in the Hill country did just that.”

Fall Fest has a decidedly different format and feel than its sister festival held in tents in a park in Austin. Spread over two days, Fall Fest has three main events taking place at the Horseshoe Bay and in the city of Marble Falls.

The casual Sunset Stroll Farm to Market Wine Fair will be held on Friday, Nov. 16, featuring wine and food tastings in a marketplace of Hill Country wineries and Central Texas restaurants. Nibbles from restaurants like Cabernet Grill, Café Josie, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Navajo Grill, Quality Seafood Market, River City Grille and Siena Restaurant Toscana will be served with wine from local vineyards such as 4.0 Cellars, Cap-Rock Winery, Inwood Estates Vineyards, and many more. For the second year, specialty food and merchandise from 17 artisans will be available for purchase.

Chef Josh WatkinsFall Fest resumes on Saturday afternoon with the Formula 1: Texas Wine & Food Trail on Historic Main Street in Marble Falls with appetizers paired with a selection of Texas wines poured by a dozen winemakers. This event started as a nod to the trailer food craze with food served at five various shops in a three block stretch of Main Street. This year the stroll has been turned into a mobile F1 watch party, with the race being shown in the participating shops.

For those of us that want to sit down and enjoy an elegant meal, the event has a Wine Dinner and Auction with four-courses prepared by Chef Josh Watkins of the Carillon and Chef Gilbert Moore of the Horseshoe Bay Marriott on Saturday night. Between main course and dessert there will be a short and sweet live auction with several wine-themed lots.

“I’m excited for the dinner. We have a wonderful menu planned, and the auction is always fun. We hold the auction to raise money for CASA of the Highland Lakes area, which supports child foster care, and Texas wine and grape research,” says Auler.

What are you drinking?

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Tickets for the Texas Fall Fest are available for the full weekend for $110 or sold separately for each event. Sunset Stroll Farm to Market Wine Fair tickets are $40; Formula 1: Texas Wine & Food Trail down Old Main Street is $25; Reception, Dinner and Live Wine Auction and the Saturday afternoon trail package is $75.

This article was previously published on CultureMap.

Raising a glass to fight cancer, LIVESTRONG!

There is nothing light-hearted about cancer. However, even the most serious subjects deserve a serious party. Sometimes gathering like-minded souls together to fight a shared villain is the right thing to do. This weekend we hosted our third annual Mellow Yellow Benefit to raise a glass, and raise money and awareness for the LIVESTRONG Challenge for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

We set out to raise $5,000 by inviting people to attend our party and make a donation to LIVESTRONG as their ticket to entry. We asked for donations of services and food and beverages to keep our costs down and to be able to donate all proceeds to the Foundation. I am moved by the outpouring of generosity I found every time I asked. To date we have raised $6,000!

Three Texas spirits companies — Republic Tequila, Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Treaty Oak Distilling Company —  gladly donated for a third year in a row. Heck, Republic Tequila also sent two beautiful bartenders and Republic Spirit Blends to set up and staff a margarita bar! They made Twisted Margaritas. Here is the recipe:

Twisted Margarita

  • 1 ½ ounces Republic Tequila
  • 1 ½ ounces Republic Jalapeño-Lime Spirit Blend
  • 1 ½ ounces Republic Prickly Pear Spirit Blend
  • Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice Shake and pour into a rocks glass

Josh Hare, brewer at Hops & Grain, sent over 10 cases of beer on the eve of his brewery’s first anniversary.

Ed and Susan Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards donated wine for a second year in a row and came to the party to wish us well and enjoy the fun. Miguel Lecuona of Fredericksburg Wine Road 290 was a tour de force gathering four cases of donated wine from seven Texas wineries and delivered them with a smile.

The house and yard looked glamorous and the food fast fantastic thanks to Suzanne Court Catering & Events, who hustled favors to get donations of goods and services. Our photography sponsor, Steve Rogers Photography, donated his time and talent to capture the fun in our LIVESTRONG photo booth (the well lit photo booth pictures below are from Steve and the candids are fom me). Chris Brewer from the Lance Armstrong Foundation made the photo booth look official by loaning us an amazing LIVESTRONG backdrop.
I appreciate the help of Stephen Moser spreading the word about the Mellow Yellow Benefit in the Austin Chronicle and Michael Barnes for sharing the love in the Austin American Statesman.
Much of the thanks for creating a memorable event yet again this year goes to Beautiful Wife. She was instrumental in converting our home in to a fun event venue.
Thank you to everyone who donated to the cause and who came to the event. You are making a difference in the lives of the more than 28 million people living with cancer. THANK YOU! 

Special thanks to all of our beverage sponsors:

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.

What are you drinking?

There will be meat! Cowboys + Gouchos carnivore fest coming March 4, 2012

Gaucho grilling at Cowboys + Gauchos

When you see a whole elk roasting over an open fire flanked by a lamb, a pig and a goat, you know you are at a carnivore-friendly fest. Chefs slice broad slabs of meat as the smell of roasted meat and barbeque swirl on the breeze while people twirl to Gary Knippa’s country tunes and watch dance performances by Nostalgia Tango. That’s exactly what you can expect to experience this Sunday, March 4, 2012 at the second annual Cowboys + Gauchos, a Wine & Food Foundation of Texas fundraising event. What better way to celebrate the 176th Texas Independence Day than by channeling your inner cowboy?

    • What: Second Annual Cowboys + Gauchos
    • When: Sunday, March 4, 2012,12:00 – 4:00 p.m.
    • Where: Salt Lick Pavilion, 18300 FM 1826  Driftwood, TX 78619 (not the BBQ restaurant)
    • How much: Foundation members: $40, non-members $50, children ages 13-20: $10 per person (non-refundable), children ages 12 and under are free
    • When you go: Purchase tickets online before you go. While the Foundation expects a great turn-out by members, you don’t need to be a member to attend. Check your pretense at the door and come for a good time. The attire is cowboy casual and you’ll want a hat to keep that gorgeous sun out of your eyes. Little cowboys are welcome to run wild on the sprawling property and play yard games. And don’t forget a package of toothpicks.

This unique event was dreamt up by Foundation board member Howard Kells, former owner of Doña Emilia’s South American Bar & Grill (now closed). He watched renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallmann wow Anthony Bourdain with his grilled meat in No Reservations, Season 4, in Uruguay and was enthralled. The France-trained Mallmann left the fussy world of fine dining behind with a keen interest to return to simplistic gaucho cooking (the word ‘gaucho’ being the call-name for Argentine cowboys).

As grilling is central to South American cuisine, it also serves as the inspiration for Cowboys + Gauchos. Kells wanted to emulate the massive scale grilling that Mallmann practices. He designed and custom built an immense grilling rack based on the one used on No Reservations by watching a recording of the show over-and-over and painstakingly recreating it. The one-of-a-kind rig is stout enough to roast a whole steer and even has the ability to adjust the cooking height and angles. The meat is grilled over a main fire, which is continually fed with coals drawn from a smaller side fire.

Wine and Food Foundation Executive Director, Marshall Jones, makes it all happen. He is the guy that landed a donation of all of the grilling wood from Butler Wood in South Texas. He is the guy that sources the whole 240 pound elk, pig, boar, goat and lamb. He is the guy who will stay up all night to roast the elk, starting at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday night, tending to it until it’s ready to eat around 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. He’s the guy that will ring the cow bell throughout the event to signal when another new meat is ready to serve. That’s a pretty cool assignment for a guy who runs a foundation.

Don’t be confused, this isn’t just a meat orgy or Paleo Diet convention. There will be other delightful dishes serve by Austin-based restaurants. Chef Charles Mayes will celebrate the 15th anniversary of Cafe Josie with a seafood dish at Cowboys + Gauchos. Other dishes include antelope chili and smoked quail from Wild Bubbas Wild Game Grill, cabrito and sweet potato tacos from Mansion at Judges Hill Restaurant & Bar, chocolate BBQ pork ribs from Zocalo Cafe and a selection of sweet and savory empanadas from MMMpanadas. There will be other delectable treats from Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, El Alma Restaurante Bar and Live Oak Barbecue. Delysia Chocolatier will provide a selection of truffles and the whole feast will be finished with s’mores roasted over the fire. There might be some vegetables, but you don’t have to eat them.

While Mallmann’s gaucho grilling influence initiated the concept for the event, the similarities between the gaucho and the cowboy, coupled with the Wine and Food Foundation’s bent on promoting local fare led to the prominent inclusion of Texas wines. Eight Texas wineries will be pouring on Sunday with an additional four South American vineyards.

Ed Auler, founder of Fall Creek Vineyards, will be pouring the limited production Fall Creek Vineyards Tempranillo, Salt Lick Vineyard, Texas Hill Country, 2009. This is a stellar wine that is hard to find and shouldn’t be missed. McPherson Cellars will pour its 2009 Sangiovese, 2010 Tre Colore and 2010 Rose of Grenache-Syrah. There will be a wide selection of meat-friendly reds and thirst-quenching whites from Alamosa Wine Cellars, Becker Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery, E.&J. Gallo Winery, Gauchezco Vineyard & Winery, Casa Lapostolle, Llano Estacado, Spicewood Vineyards, Terrazas de los Andes and Vineyard Brands.

If beer is your thing, Thirsty Planet will have barrels of Thirsty Goat Amber Ale and Yellow Armadillo. Sweat Leaf Tea will provide tea to keep us hydrated.

Organizers are expecting a crowd of about 350 hungry revelers and hope to raise upwards of $5,000 to support the Foundation’s work. Proceeds from the event will support up-and-coming chefs and sommeliers through scholarships and the underwriting of the TexSom beverage conference.

I’ll be there with a big, grease-smeared grin on my face. This article also appears on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

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.