The Birth Of A New Family Wine Label: Inception From Newsom Family Vineyards And Llano Estacado

The 2013 wine grape harvest in the Texas High Plains was so abysmal, it was enough to make a grown man cry. Even a tough Texan.

Newsom Family Vineyard Inception
Newsom Family Vineyard Inception

 

“2013 was a complete crop failure,” says High Plains grape grower, Neal Newsom. “We had a good winter and into spring. But then, five weeks after bud break we had a terrible hard freeze in May. That has never happened before. The vines were almost through bloom, and most were in full bloom. They were as tender as they could be at that time of year. It was so cold for most of the night, that we had a lot of permanent wood damage. We lost almost everything. Eighty percent of our Cabernet froze to the ground.”

Newsom, and his wife, Janice, have been growing grapes in the West Texas community of Plains on the New Mexico state line since 1986. Newsom Family Vineyards are situated on a high desert plateau at 3,700 feet in elevation and gets plenty of high-quality sunlight. The area has long, hot days and it cools down quickly at night during the growing season. The Newsom vineyards have seen its share of trying weather, but nothing like this.

The entire harvest from his 125 acre vineyards amounted to just a little over 800 pounds of grapes. That’s not even enough to fill a grape bin. In a normal year they average 2.5 to 3 tons of grapes per acre. That’s about 750,000 pounds of grapes annually. In other words, 800 pounds is pretty close to 0.

“It was a hopeless situation,” said Newsom. “We put it all in one bin to get an official weight for insurance purposes. We took it to Llano and thought they would make rosé or dump it into a blend.”

Perhaps out of sheer sympathy, Llano Estacado assistant winemakers, Jason Centanni, and Chris Hull, decided to make wine with that paltry parcel of grapes.

“I’ve never had these things until I moved to Texas,” says Greg Bruni, Llano Estacado’s VP of Winemaking. “In California, we’d have a frost event, but it just reduces the tonnage. When it happens here, it can wipe you out. The production of the vineyard was almost non-existent. It’s really emotional.”

Bruni discussed the possibility of making wine from the Newsom’s grapes with Llano Estacado president and C.E.O., Mark Hyman, who agreed it was a good idea to make the wine. While the 2013 vintage certainly wouldn’t make any money, the Llano execs realized that the Newsom family were eager to start their own wine label. This was a great way to put a toe in the water and get ready for a bigger vintage in 2014.

Newsom recounted, “A couple months after I dropped off the grapes, Greg called me and told me, ‘You’ve got to come taste this. You’re not going to believe this.’ He’s right. It has great tannin and bright acid. We didn’t pick the grapes until almost November, so they had lots of hang-time, which is what winemakers like.”

“It came out tasting great,” says Bruni.

In late January, Llano Estacado and Newsom Family Vineyards introduced their joint collaboration, Inception. In its first release, there was only 25 cases, or 300 bottles, of Inception made. This unique Texas blend, will only be available to select restaurants in Lubbock and to wine club members.

“This is the rise of the phoenix from the ashes,” says Newsom. “That really can happen. This is the inception of our family label, and how we’re getting started. Here we go.”

2013 Inception, Newsom Vineyards

The wine is made from a field blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Sangiovese and 9% Tempranillo and the balance is Malbec. Brambly blackberry pie, ripe plum, black cherry, dust, and aged leather greet the nose. It smells like hard-fought victory. Sun-kissed black currant, baked blackberries, tobacco leaf, coffee and dark chocolate coat the palate in pleasingly medium bodied wine. It tastes like the comfort of a friend who has your back. It’s well-structured with just enough acidity to keep the fruit bright, just enough tannin to remind you it’s no push-over, and enough alcohol (12.2%) to give it a satisfying mouthfeel.

This wine is good enough to make even a tough Texan smile.

It’s priced around $28 to $34 and for sale only in restaurants in Lubbock, and maybe a few others around the state. The distinctive hand applied labels, and accompanying hand-tied leather strap holding a metal Newsom Vineyards brand is a nice touch.

If you are not fortunate enough to find one of the 300 bottles made, don’t fret. Newsom reports that the 2014 vintage Inception is looking really good. The blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah will be, “Friggin nice,” according to Newsom. The 2015 Inception red blend will be predominantly Tempranillo and Syrah with other red grape varieties. Ratios will change each year.

Both Newsom and Llano Estacado report that this is likely going to be a long term engagement with Llano making private label Inception for Newsom. That’s great news for Texas wine drinkers.

This story was originally published on Texas Wine & Trail Magazine.

Disclosure: I was provided a sample of this wine for review at no charge. 

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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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