A Texas winemaker in Spain: Russell Smith’s Mediterranean journey

When I was a kid I used to make tiny worlds in a shoe box. I guess dioramas were a popular thing for Midwestern kids to make in the 1970s. I would populate my model worlds with paper mache hills covered with green colored saw dust grass, aluminum foil streams, popsicle stick trees and plastic dinosaurs.

The landscapes always resembled my real world, but the creatures and activities were always exotic. It was my first foray into traveling to far off foreign lands, even if it was only in my imagination. The desire to experience places that were somewhat similar, yet completely unfamiliar was in me at an early age.

That wanderlust is deep in lots of people. Russell Smith, the former winemaker at Becker Vineyards is one of those people.

I met Smith in July at a public pool in the tiny village of El Molar in the Montsants wine region located in eastern Spain, about two hours south of Barcelona. He was leaning back in his deck chair, a glass of Estrella Damm draft cerveza lazily tucked into his hand, a rumpled fisherman’s hat shading his eyes from the mid-day sun.

He was flanked by his partner, Susan Halseth, who traveled with him from Austin. Smith had the ease of a man on vacation, but this was no vacation. He was there to work. The pool was a short walk from his recently purchased old-vine Cariñena (also known as Carignan) vineyards.

Smith and Halseth had only been in Spain for about a week, and he was reveling in the beauty of the region and relaxed way of life. “This is a dream. I’m as happy as I can be,” he said. “It’s in the top 10 percent of best climates for grape growing and I love the little villages and the people. Everyone is so nice here.”

His dream has been long in the making. Smith first visited Spain right after college in the 1970s and absolutely fell in love with the country. The dream stayed alive and evolved with each stage in his career in the wine industry. He interned at a winery in Germany, worked at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Flora Springs in Napa Valley, made wine at a small Texas winery and had a successful 13 year run as the winemaker at Becker Vineyards.

In that role, he increased the production from 11,000 cases to more than 85,000 cases. With his skills honed through years of practice, it was time to try his hand at doing the familiar in a far off foreign land.

There is no doubt Smith has extensive winemaking experience, but the odds are against him. What in the hell does a Texan know about Spain? Translating his work with grapes grown in the High Plains of Texas to a completely different world in Spain won’t be as easy to translate as recreating his world in a diorama shoe box.

The soil is calcareous clay as powdery as flour, and holds water much better than the sandy loam of Texas. His new vineyards lie at about 1,000 feet in elevation, 20 miles inland from the Mediterranean. The land gently slopes down to the Ebro River that snakes its way to the sea. The Mediterranean climate is more temperate than the continental climate of Texas.

Helping Smith translate his Texan drawl and wine know-how to Catalan language and Spanish winemaking is where Sumpta Mateos comes in. She is his muchachas-guías. Mateos, a professor of enology at Rovira i Virgili University in the province of Tarragona, is serving as his vineyard management and winemaking consultant in Spain as Smith embarks on a new adventure in life.

We walked the rows of 40 and 60-year-old gnarled Cariñena vines jutting out of the cake-mix dirt, like Texas cedar fence posts topped with tufts of green leaves and green grapes. As we walked, Mateos explained, “Grape-growing knowledge has been passed down for generations in this rural community. Some of that information is good and some of it is useless fiction.”

That’s where her degree in enology (the science and study of all aspects of wine and winemaking) and viticulture (the study of the cultivation of grapes) comes in handy. It’s not enough to know that the cool evenings mean that the grapes will mature with good acidity. You have to know exactly when to pick those grapes to get around 24 to 25 Brix and 3.5 to 4 pH to make the best quality wine. That know-how is the mezclarse of science and insight passed down for generations.

Smith intends to produce about 760 cases of red and white wine with the grapes grown in his vineyards and sourced from neighboring vineyards this year and next. The plan is to sell the wine primarily in the U.S. and possibly some in Germany in 2014.

Fast forward to September: Smith is still in good spirits in the midst of harvest. “Everything here is going as well or better than I had hoped.” He harvested a one hectare vineyard of 14 year-old, pristine, organic Garnatxa (aka Grenache) in a neighboring village on Labor Day. He is harvesting his own Cariñena this week. I guess a Texan can make it as a wine grape grower in Spain.

He and Halseth also enjoy the daily life as much as they expected. “I´ve spent a fair amount of time in Spain over the years. The lifestyle here in rural Cataluña suits us perfectly. All the folks in El Masroig have been friendly and welcoming in spite of our rudimentary castellano. Our greatest frustration is the language, since many people here prefer to speak Catalan. As soon as the grapes are in, I plan to really bear down on my language skills.”

While it appears that Spain and Smith are getting along well, we will have to wait a couple of years to judge whether his winemaking skills have fared as well in the new environment. I sampled three of Mateo’s wines, giving me an idea of the quality of wine that she and Smith may produce.

The Don Ferranti Tinto, a blend of Tempranillo, Garnatxa and Cariñena; Don Ferranti White, a blend of white Garnatxa and Macabeo and Don Ferranti Oaked, white Garnatxa aged in French oak barrels, were all approachable and enjoyable wines. If Smith’s yet-to-be-named wines are as easy-drinking and food-friendly, he should sell out the small lots immediately.

Sometimes after being in a place that is unfamiliar, we long for home. He says, “We really miss our friends and family but try to stay connected through Skype and email. Also, speaking of home, I could really dig a plate of Polvos’ enchiladas right now.”

He and Halseth will return to Austin temporarily in November before heading back to Spain for another growing season, harvest and bottling of his Spanish wine. I expect in his second season, there will be fewer things unfamiliar for this Texan winemaker in Spain.

This article previously ran on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?

Lakeside Grenache

This weekend Beautiful Wife and I loaded up the car and headed to a lake house on a quiet cove of Lake LBJ. After the kids went to bed, we grabbed a bottle of wine and headed to the gazebo on water’s edge to enjoy a conversation, the sound of the waves lapping on the shore and the night breeze.

We choose a 2007 Real de Aragon Granacha from the Calatayud region of Spain. This is not a pretentious wine, packaged with a red stopper instead of a cork. It was right at home being barefoot and shirtless on a Texas lake.

Smell: a Spring day in the field with cherries and dusty sun.

Taste: Real de Aragon introduced itself with round cherry and soft strawberry flavors followed by cedar tannins. The finish didn’t stick around long enough for us to fully get to know one another. This wine didn’t have the heft typical of a Spanish Grenache. I guess it is fitting to be a little watery sitting lakeside.

Price: $10 (you get what you pay for with this one)

It’s pleasant enough, but nothing special. It’s a good thing we had lots of other fantastic ingredients to make a memorable night.

In flight at House Wine

Do you remember ten years ago when wine bars started popping up here and there? Not tasting rooms, or wine shops that served by the glass, but honest to goodness establishments fully dedicated to the enjoyment of wine by the taste, the glass or by the bottle. Outside of New York and San Francisco wine bars were few and far between. Much has changed. In Austin there are at least a dozen different wine bars.

My beautiful wife and I decided to try House Wine before going to dinner. This place is in a little house just south of Lady Bird Lake a block west of S. Lamar on Josephine St. They are definitely going for the South Austin vibe – casual, cozy and a little sloppy. The space is intimate (small) and eclectic (mismatched shit). We felt pretty comfortable right from the start.

There wasn’t table service, so we bellied up to the bar and looked through the menu. House Wine has about 25 whites and 30 reds by the glass and by the bottle. The prices are pretty damn reasonable ranging from $7 to $11 and bottles in the $20s and $30s. We were there at happy hour – hey hey 2 bucks off each glass.

On this particular night, we were indecisive, so we decided to order two flights. Three half glasses for $15. A bargain. I ordered a Spanish Tempranillo, a Côtes du Rhône and Spanish Verdejo (white). My beautiful wife asked the bar tender to select a flight for her. She had a sparkling rosé, an Argentine Malbec and a California Pinot Noir. We also ordered a selection of cheese and smoked salmon. The cheese and salmon were nice, served in a gorgeous wooden bowl and gave us something to clear our palettes between wines. Worth the order.

Here’s what I had.

I started off with Paso a Paso Verdejo 2008.  Lovely pale yellow in the stemless glass. Nice scents of pear. The Verdejo grape makes a nice medium bodied, citrusy, honied wine that is right at home on the shabby back porch of House Wine and at your summer party.   

Next I had a Volver Tempranillo 2005.  Bright ruby with a fruity nose. This guy started off with round cherry, cassis and vanilla and finished with cocoa and a bite of tannins. The smoked salmon tasted great with this.

My third glass was REDblanc Côtes du Rhône. This organic Grenache, Syrah blend had a warm plum color and a nose to match. It was a mouthful of raspberries, violets and licorice with a touch of cedar on the finish.

Decent wines for the price.  If you are looking for a very relaxed, inexpensive wine bar with a decent selection, try House Wine. If you want knowledgeable wine guideance and service in an elegant setting, you’ll be disappointed here. Good news is there are several other wine bars in town.

Suitable Wines for a Summer Romance

“Summer romances end for all kinds of reasons. But when all is said and done, they have one thing in common: They are shooting stars-a spectacular moment of light in the heavens, a fleeting glimpse of eternity. And in a flash, they’re gone.” – The Notebook

 Lazy summer days are perfect for carefree romance. What better way to while away a languid day with a lover than a picnic with feet dipped in the lake? Like the thrill of romance, a chilled white or rosé wine makes everything in a picnic basket tastes better.   

 This week I set out to find wines that have the ease of summer and brighten the mood at any occasion. I’m looking for bottled sunshine. When it’s hot out, I often find myself reaching for a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. I guess I’m a loyalist. I decided to break out of that mold just a little bit, and selected four different wines from Italy, France and Spain that are perfect for a picnic.

 San Felice Vermentino

The first one I cracked open was from Tuscany, a 2009 San Felice Vermentino Maremma Toscana Perolla. San Felice has been cranking out reds and whites in a modern winery since 1967 amidst a medieval village.

The dominant grape in this wine is Vermentino, which is widely grown in the hills of Maremma. The grapes sun bathe in the hot sun all day, then sleep in the cool Mediterranean breezes at night. This stress free grape lifestyle gives the wine a fresh, bright flavor. Did I mention that I like Sauvignon Blanc? I guess habits are hard to break. This wine has about 15% of it, which gives it more complexity and a little heft. 

This baby has less alcohol than big red wines, clocking in at about 12.5%. Drinking a couple glasses of this on a hot afternoon won’t make you too drowsy. If that’s your goal, have a third glass. 

Look This is sunshine in a glass.  
Smell Like a tropical beach breeze carrying flint-kissed citrus scents.
Taste San Felice tastes like the perfect shade to prevent sunburn. Its gauzy body gently releases tart, crisp green apple and lemon zest flavors easing into hint of meringue and a clean finish. This is not a wine to lay down waiting for a special moment. Drink it now. Every summer day is a special moment.
Price $16

 Château Bonnet Blanc

Second up, is Château Bonnet Blanc from the AOC Entre-Deux-Mers in the Bordeaux region. The storied vineyards of Chateau Bonnet are downright ancient with the first plantings emerging from the dirt in the 16th century, and the current regime took over in 1956.

 OK, so I’m still on the Sauvignon Blanc train. This one is made up of about half Sauvignon, 40% Sémillon and the rest Muscadelle grapes. Semillon is the rich, supple, subtle Angelina to balance the Brad of Sauvignon Blanc, which can be fragrantly belligerent and acidic. Like Jolie and Pitt, these two make a fantastic blend, particularly with a smidge of Muscadelle thrown in for good measure.

You know what can spoil a picnic quicker than ants? Forgetting your corkscrew. Never fear, this baby is packaged with a screw cap. Just twist and pour. If you miss that ceremonial pop of the cork, just stick your finger in your mouth, bend it into a gentle “J” shape, pucker tightly around it, and then pull it out briskly. “Pop!” This is the genius move that was created centuries ago specifically to mimic the sound of a cork being pulled. It’s fantastic.   

Look The delicate color of gold coins shimmering just below the surface of a gentle green stream.
Smell This wine smells just like a vivacious young girl picking up those gold coins, while eating grapes and drinking lemonade with white blossoms in her flowing hair.
Taste Château Bonnet Blanc introduces itself with smooth grace before racing into crisp, fresh citrus fruit flavors with vivid acidity that draws out a long, relaxed finish. It’s hard not to lounge just a little longer enjoying the after-glow once you’ve had it.  
Price $11

Blanc Pescador

Don’t you just love the delicate tickle of an effervescent wine? Like miniature angles frolicking over my tongue. For my third selection, I opened a young Blanc Pescador. This isn’t a rollicking sparkling wine – its less bubbly than Champagne, but has more fizz than a Vinho Verde. The good folks at Castillo Perelada in the Empurda Costa Brava region of Spain work a little magic during fermentation to conjure a fine, light and natural sparkle. In Spanish this is called “vino de aguja”, which means “needle-wine”. I have no idea what that means, but I read it somewhere.

Finally I’ve taken a complete departure from Sauvignon Blanc. Blanc Pescadore is made up of Macabeo, Parellada and Xare-lo grapes.

This is a picnic wine if there ever was one. Its entire attitude and outlook on life is casual fun. You could try to dress it up for a black tie event, but it’s much more comfortable in flip flops and a sundress eating finger foods in the breeze. If your lovely day gets rained out, bring it inside and serve it with ceviche while sitting on the floor in a circle of friends.  Better yet, serve it for brunch with a crab omelet. The tart fruit and acidity are an ideal date with shellfish. With only 11.5% alcohol, it won’t knock you down so soon after you woke up.  

Look Daisy petal soft yellow with hints of spring green.   
Smell Grapefruit mist carried on a sea breeze with a whisper of yeast.  
Taste It tastes like wearing white linen while playing badminton. Clean, fresh and crisp with a sparkling bounce in its step.  
Price $11

Riondo Prosecco Raboso, Pink Spago Argento

I can’t get enough bubbles, so my fourth wine choice is a spirited Prosecco made with Raboso grapes, grown on the Veneto hills of Italy.  Riondo opened in 1999 and is nestled in Monteforte d’Alpone in northern Italy, west of Venice.    

Pink Spago Argento is a frizzante with frothy bubbles that make me smile. The wine makers get the gentle sparkle by controlling the temperature during fermentation. It is impossible to be in a bad mood while sipping a glass of bubble gum pink wine that begs you to take it sailing. Like most of my summer choices, this is somewhat low in alcohol at 10.5% to give us license for day drinking.

Look As bright pink as the crinoline of a fairy princess tutu.
Smell  It smells like the delicate breath of that lovely fairy princess after she’s eaten a bowl of sweet cherries and freshly picked strawberries.
Taste Pink Spago Argento dazzles the mouth with a crisp pop of fresh fruit and brisk acidity. It finishes with a subtle bitterness that reminds you it isn’t simply cute and sweet. Its gentler than the bittersweet end of a summer romance.
Price $9

 Try one of these wines pool-side, at the lake, in the hammock or on a picnic blanket this weekend. Let me know what you think. What is your favorite wine for making summer memories?

¡Viva España!

The Dutch looked invincible in the quarter finals and the semi-finals. They looked down right abysmal in the World Cup championship game. Thugs. Classless, plodding thugs. It’s not that Spain dazzled us with scoring fireworks, but at least they were aggressive around the box. Their one goal with minutes left in the second period of over time was all it took for them to be world champions. Congratulations.

In their honor, we uncorked a 2004 Condado de Haza tonight. This tasty tempranillo from Ribera del Duero is from our man Alejandro Fernandez, (the same guy that made the wine that I wrote about in Feelin Tinto Fino). OK, let me be honest, I was looking for an excuse to open the wine. I actually wanted Netherlands to win today.

I decanted this wine, assuming it had cast some sediment. Yep, there was a little at the bottom, but it was pretty hard to tell with this wine that is as opaque as FIFA referees and as purple as the mark on Alonso’s chest after he got kicked by De Jong in the match today. A little swirled kicked out delicious aromas of blackberry, cedar and the satisfying tingle of alcohol vapors. Ahhhhh.  

How does it taste? It tastes like victory. It starts off with round and deep with dark blackberries and cherries. It is quickly joined by tabacco and a hint of astringent tannins and eases out with vanilla aged raisins. Damned good.

It costs about $26 and is worth every penny. I think I would have drank it even if Netherlands won.

Feelin Tinto Fino

Properly decanted and ready for action
Subject show prior to consumption


Lately I’ve been itchin for a taste for Spain, so I grabbed a few bottles of Dehesa la Granja 2001 to scratch that itch. This fine juice comes from the vineyard Alejandro Fernandez  in the Ribera del Duero region. Our man Alejandro has been in business since 1972, and is well known for some of his other labels – Tinto Pesquera, Condado de Haza  and El Vinculo. He makes his wines exclusively from the Tempranillo grape, which I’m partial to. 

The pop of the cork released a dusty raspberry bramble scent. The rusty brick brown wine had kicked off a bit of sediment, so I decanted it so I didn’t have to chew it. 

Even though its only 9 years old, my buddy Dehesa is already showing signs of maturity. Tasty enough, but missing a little of the roundness and pizzaz I was looking for. Tasted more like the inside of a wallet than I want. I don’t think I’ll leave the other bottles lyin around too much longer. So, I popped a second bottle later on to see if it was holding up better than the first. 

This one, classic Tinto Fino. Medium bodied, with the lively step of a flamenco dancer springing forth to smash berries with wooden shoes on my tongue. Can’t blame ’em, the flavors. After being cooped up in a barrel for two years before being bottled, then all that time sittin in that glass jail for seven more, ya gotten expect the flavors to burst forth. Then the tannins and oak restrained a few of the more susceptible fruit flavors with leather straps, forcing them to linger for a long finish. This I like. I like it a lot.

This is a great wine to pair with a meal. Lamb, venison, duck, pizza would all benefit from a visit by old Dehesa. I didn’t bother though. Food seemed like too much effort. This wine had me fully occupied on a Wednesday night.

You might have a tough time finding the ’01 vintage, but I encourage you to go out and grab a bottle of the year you find. It retails for about $25 and is widely distributed. Go get ya some.