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

The best wine growing regions of the world such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont and Napa Valley have significantly cooler climates than Texas. Conventional wisdom says that it’s just too dang hot in Texas to grow grapes for world class wines. Not so, say a group of prominent Texas winemakers. The searing heat in Texas is actually a perfect climate for growing vinifera grape vines.

Representatives from Stone House Cellars, Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards and Inwood Estates host The Sip
Representatives from Stone House Cellars, Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards and Inwood Estates host The Sip


Winery owners and winemakers from Fall Creek Vineyards, Inwood Estates, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards celebrated Texas Wine Month by sharing the results of their respective 2015 harvest at a tasting event dubbed, The Sip, Season Two (Season One, was held last year). The winery representatives confidently proclaimed 2015 to be a great growing season in a state with an ever improving wine industry.

The evening started with Ron Yates, owner of Spicewood Vineyards, taking a group of sommeliers and journalists to visit the Spicewood Estate Vineyard where 25 year old Sauvignon Blanc vines grow. Yates explained his vineyard management practices focus on producing low yields. It might seem counter-intuitive to get fewer grapes per acre when you are making wine, but the grapes that remain get all of the nutrients and energy of the vine. The resulting wine is so much better. To underline that point, Yates poured a tank sample of the newly made 2015 Spicewood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, which even in its infancy shows great promise.

The Sip Season 2
Ron Yates discusses the Spicewood Vineyards harvest among the vines


“It’s astonishing to see the changes in the Texas wine industry in the past several years,” says Yates. “The home-grown talent, the talent that is returning to Texas and the new-comer talent is impressive. The state has plenty of winemakers with the knowledge and know-how to make excellent wine. Now we are working on improving the grape growing in the state.”

Fall Creek Vineyards winemaker, Sergio Cuadra, and Inwood Estates Vineyards owner and winemaker, Dan Gatlin, echoed Yate’s sentiments that crops with lower yield is a key to success. Stringent vineyard management practices with vigorous canopy management, new trellising techniques, better irrigation practices and putting the right grapes in the right places have all led to vastly improved crop quality in recent years.

“We’ve made mistakes in our grape growing in the past in Texas,” says Gatlin. “Growing grapes the right way is within human control. We know how to manage the variables of climate and land. But a cotton farmer in the High Planes can’t just switch to grape growing using the same farming techniques and expect to have a great grape crop. We don’t need vineyards that produce 20 tons an acre. We need them to produce two to four tons of grapes per acre.”

Anyone who has met Gatlin knows that he isn’t shy about expressing his views. He got down-right testy when discussing what he considers misconceptions of better growing conditions spread by winemakers in California and France. He asserts that it’s just not true that you have to have a cool climate to grow great Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The myth of climate persists,” says Gatlin. “We still have Cabernet in the field in Texas. Mouton has already picked its grapes in Bordeaux. We’ve let our grapes hang as late as October.”

Fire gave way to data. Professor Gatlin broke out a whiteboard to draw a graph of the importance of the development of polyphenols and tannins in grape maturation. He blinded me with science. He contends that as a grape develops there is a cross-over point when tannins decrease and phenols increase. It’s just past the point when there are more phenols in the grape than tannins when the grapes are ready for harvest.

The Sip Season 2 tasting of 13 Texas wines
The Sip Season 2 tasting of 13 Texas wines


“The most important element in winemaking is having the right levels of polyphenols,” says Gatlin. “It is the right stuff in your wine. The mistake some winemakers make in Texas is to pick when sugar levels are there, but before the tannins and phenols have developed. Picking at the right time and having smaller the crop loads lead to exponential growth in phenolics.”

Beyond improved Viticultural techniques, the winemakers agree that the growing conditions in Texas this season were ideal for a strong 2015 vintage. Our 7 year drought came to an end and Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan lakes rebounded from historic low water levels. In fact the rainy spring, including the wettest May month on record, sounded an alarm for a challenging year, but the tapering of rain in June and dusty dry July and August made for an idyllic grape growing climate.

Grapevines need rain early in the season to expand their shoots and develop the grape clusters. After that, during veraison, the period when the grapes start to ripen, vines stop growing and divert photosynthesis production to the grapes. At this stage it’s preferable to have drier conditions for better ripening, which is exactly what we had.

The college lesson continued with Professor Cuadra dropping knowledge among the barrels in the Spicewood cellar. With the intoxicating and fully awake smell of new-born wine freshly fermenting in open vats setting the mood, he showed charts comparing the temperature progression in Iran with central Texas. It turns out we have the exact same heat profile as the Middle East. Why is that important? Because that’s where it is widely believed vinifera grapevines originated. If vines can flourish there, they can certainly flourish here.

Susan Auler and Sergio Cuadra of Fall Creek Vineyards
Susan Auler and Sergio Cuadra of Fall Creek Vineyards


Anyone who has tasted the delicious wines from Chateau Musar in Lebanon knows that it’s completely possible to make excellent wines in the Middle East.

Cuadra explained that the grapevines in Texas are well adjusted to our heat. They don’t suffer the same type of damage as vines in cooler regions when the heat spikes. We don’t see the same type of sunburn.

In addition, while we have higher overall temperatures than many wine regions, when evaluating what’s called “Growing Degree Days”, or the summation of daily average temperatures minus 50ºF for a period of 7 months, Texas Hill Country grape growers harvested at an equivalent heat accumulation index as compared to other cooler regions. More important than the growing season length is the actual number of Degree Days accumulated.

Tasting in the Spicewood Vineyards cellar
Tasting in the Spicewood Vineyards cellar


Texas grapevines also have an advantage of prolonged warm weather beyond harvest. After grapes are picked, our vines don’t go dormant as they do in colder regions. Instead, the roots of the vines in Texas continue to grow deeper where they can access water even in arid summers.

With the improved understanding of viticulture best suited for the Texas climate, improved wine making techniques and a fantastic harvest, the winemakers from Fall Creek Vineyards, Inwood Estates, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards agree that the 2015 vintage could be one of the best on record for Texas wines. What a fantastic thing to hear as we celebrate Texas Wine Month.

This story was originally published on October 12, 2015 in the Texas Wine News section of Texas Wine & Trail Magazine.

Barrel tasting among the barrels
Barrel tasting among the barrels


Disclosure: the author’s marketing communications agency, Pen & Tell Us, was hired to organize and promote “The Sip, Season 2.”

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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.

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Exploring Texas Wine at the Austin Wine & Music Festival

Do you remember the TV commercial where the two boys are reluctant to eat a bowl of Life cereal because they are certain it’s going to taste like crap? They pass it on to their little brother who happily eats it and they exclaim, “Hey Mikey! He likes it!” That’s my experience with Texas wine. I was certain I’d hate it because of a bad experience in the past, but when I gave it a try, I found some I like.

Outa state haters can keep your derision in check until you’ve done the same and given Texas wine a try. 

I started my education in Texas wines at the Austin Wine and Music Festival, held annually over the Memorial Day weekend. Not only was I able to taste fine wines from boutique Texas wineries, but I could get Sangria slushies and habanero honey all within earshot of live music. Now that’s a party. With a stemless wine glass in hand; I set out among the sea of tents housing 30 local wineries in search of a few wines that I would be proud to serve to any guests, any time.   

My quest for the goods began with Inwood Estate Vineyards & Winery. Every time I ask a Texas wine aficionado what their favorites are, they list Inwood among the tops. This is a boutique winery producing fewer than 5,000 cases a year. They were pouring three wines under the Segundo label, leaving the higher priced estate wines at home. I really liked all three.

Inwood Segundo Palomino-Chardonnay

This is an interesting white wine made of 75% Palomino and 25% Chardonnay grapes. Have you had a Palomino wine before? It’s the primary grape used to make Sherry in Spain. It’s a bold white wine, aged in French Oak and it stood up well in the near 100 degree heat at the festival.

Look Segundo shows soft yellow with bright clarity. It could pass for a Sauvignon Blanc in appearance.
Smell A burst of honeysuckle, honeycomb and pear announced that this is no meek wine. It’s as big as Texas.
Taste Lush, full bodied white with green apple, pear, vanilla and honey flavors and a clean, crisp finish that has a tiny hint of minerality.
Price $22


Next I ambled over to Dry Comal Creek Vineyards because I had met the owner, Bonnie Houser, during a preview of the festival and liked her vivacious style. They make wine with grapes grown in Texas, New Mexico, California and Arizona with an emphasis on fruit forward wines.

Dry Comal Creek Vineyards 2010 “Bone Dry” French Colombard   

This wine is a limited production wine, with less than 500 cases produced. It’s made with grapes grown in California and fermented and aged at the winery outside New Braunfels, Texas. While it’s labeled “Bone Dry” because it has 0% residual sugar, the fruitiness of the wine makes it seem a bit sweet. It would be a good wine to throw in a bucket of ice and drink during a mid-summer picnic.

Look Like a Texas ranch with aged straw in the sun, light and relaxed.
Smell A floral and almost herbaceous nose with citrus and lemon zest.
Taste This wine came straight out of the orchard with pear, green apple and lime. While the mouth feel was full, it had a crisp mineral finish.
Price $18


My next stop was at the Spicewood Vineyards tent. Owner, Ron Yates, talked about his passion for wine and how happy he is to be making it, instead of being a lawyer like he was before. Ron and winemaker, Jeff Ivy, produce a little more than 5,000 cases of wine annually at the facilities in the Hill Country near Marble Falls. Much of the wine is made from grapes grown on or near the property. Spicewood Vineyards is known for its award winning Sauvignon Blanc.

Spicewood Vineyards Touriga Nacional 2009  

You might recognize Touriga Nacional as one of the primary grapes used to make Port. Unlike Port, this wine is not fortified and does not have high residual sugar. The vines grow well in the heat of Portugal as well as the Texas Hill Country. Spicewood ages its Touriga in a mix of new and aged Hungarian and American oak for about 8 months; just enough time to round out the wine without giving it woody qualities. This is a big wine that would go well with a huge hunk of meat.

Look Deep amethyst and garnet like a rich Cabernet.
Smell This Touriga had a full nose of vanilla, blackberry and anise. Rich, spicy, fruity and powerful.
Taste The first taste is like the first bite into a rare steak right off the ranch, bloody and fleshy. The saline eased quickly into plumb, currant, black cherry and cola. This is a relatively young wine and had enough tannins to make me pucker a bit.
Price $24


I also tried delicious wines from Driftwood Estate Winery and Flat Creek Estate, but after sampling eight wines before getting to them, I didn’t trust the accuracy of my palate (even though I was spitting much of what I sampled). Therefore I chose not to take notes on these wines. In particular, I want to try the Flat Creek Super Texan blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah again. I had a great talk with Rick Naber, the owner Flat Creek, and appreciated his enthusiasm for the wine industry in the state. I’ll make a point of visiting his winery. 

I’ve just scratched the surface with Texas wine, but I’m happy to buy them, serve them and recommend them. Give these a try and let me know what you think. I’m going to keep trying Texas wine and really appreciate your recommendations for what to drink next. What should I try?

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