Coming to America
Scenic hills with tall pine trees fringed my East Texas path to produce a cloistered environment with an emerald cast. As I drove, I thought about how modern man conjoins with nature on a grand scale in Texas: acres under barn, vast countryside dedicated to row crops, white wooden fences extending to the horizon guarding the domain of domesticated animals.
My path circumnavigated the sprawling East Texas city of Tyler, following four-lane thoroughfares into the piney woods. Once at Tyler’s southern reach, I entered what I soon realized was the “Province of Kiepersol,” the domain of Pierre de Wet and his daughters. A man of immense vision and strength, Pierre, with his daughters Marnelle and Velmay following closely in his footsteps, has crafted a new life and realm…
After our introduction, Pierre said, “Sense of place, terroir, for me it’s very different than the old conception that you read about in all your wine books. With modern-day technology, man can change the terroir. I’m a good enough farmer to change it to get what I want.” His voice carried the interesting intonation of his South African homeland, but his message was pure unadulterated American freedom….
To finish the tasting, Marnelle and I trekked down into the barrel room for a sample of her 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon still in barrel. From one taste, it was obvious that she had reached the level of a confident winemaker, something that only comes with courage and even a bit of cellar room bravado to coax every last bit of fruit and character the grapes have to give.
Excerpt from The Wineslinger Chronicles – Chapter 14
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The Supreme Expérimentateur
I headed out across the vast prairie on Highway 81 past Decatur in the region once dominated by this seemingly impenetrable forest. The land opened around me with only remnant fingers of dense Cross Timbers brush tucked into prairie folds, the last vestige of this barrier once called the “iron forest.” Hawks were positioned like sentinels atop the dense vegetation, scanning wide-eyed in search of their prairie buffet. I was on my way to visit with Les Constable—grape grower, winemaker, and owner of Brushy Creek in Alvord, Texas.
As we drove his golf cart into the vineyard, Les said, “These varieties of grapes do all right and make good wines,” he continued, “but it’s hard work for me. I’ve been looking for vines that in Texas with its heat and sun and that can still handle the freezes that burn us here.”
He readily admits to anyone and everyone that he’s made lots of mistakes in his vineyard, but he learned something important from every error. As we got still deeper into the vineyard, Les stopped again and looked out for a few moments. Pointing forward, he said, “Now, these vines are happy campers.”
A Strong Texas Brand
No sooner did I arrive at the winery than a barrage of words shot in my direction without any encouragement or provocation from my side. “I’ve been doing this for far too long . . . I get rocks thrown at me. Why? I guess that I just don’t play nice in the sandbox. But, hell . . . why play? It’s getting harder and harder to create a truly Texas wine. Harder and harder and harder!”
The first time I met Kim McPherson was several years ago at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo where he was pouring his then CapRock wines at the barbecue cook-off. I was surprised and frankly somewhat impressed by how many syllables he could give to the monosyllabic word SHIT after I asked him to comment about the romantic life of a Texas winemaker.
Looking around me, the McPherson winery appeared an eclectic mix, much like Kim himself. It was a bit of postindustrial Coca-Cola and Zen-like bamboo, with elements of historic Texana beside modern art….
Excerpt from The Wineslinger Chronicles: Chapter 9: A Strong Texas Brand
Sun on the Skins
This high, flat plain [around Lubbock] didn’t exactly conjure up the image of wine country to me. The scenery was dominated by shades of burnt red below and indigo above. At the conjunction of these two domains, lean and well-drained soil combines with intense high-altitude sun, a little water, and copious amounts of manual labor to define this agricultural region. Surprisingly, cotton and other commodity crops, the local mainstay for generations, now share space with some of the most sought after grapes in Texas.
Fresh high-plains air in my nostrils and strong hot coffee in my belly primed me for the day’s activities. The first stop was at the Newsom family vineyards. Neal [Newsom] admitted that after his first encounter with Professor Roy Mitchell, his association with another Texas Tech professor, Clint “Doc” McPherson [over 25 years ago], encouraged him to allocate some of the family’s land for a vineyard.
As we talked, Neal showed off his grape harvester [above] an odd-looking bulky blue tractor with a high cab and a possumlike underbelly that first shakes the vines and then whisks the berries with a deafening blast of air to overhead bins.
Excerpt from Chapter Eight: Sun on the Skins
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Blood, Sweat and Tears
Bobby Cox is a larger-than-life character both in stature and reputation among grape growers and winemakers. He’s something like a Texas version of Paul Bunyan, and Neal Newsom’s large blue grape harvester parked beside him appeared as the mechanical equivalent of Bunyan’s large blue ox, Babe. While Bunyan was a legendary lumberman in the American northland, Bobby’s a bona fide virtuoso of grape growing here in the Southwest. Continue reading Blood, Sweat and Tears
Deep Roots in Texas
Looking out from the road, the isolation in this part of Texas provides little to identify the era. It could be the present day, or just as likely the countryside of the nineteenth century when Frencesco Quaglia and his Italian immigrant countrymen scouted this area.
As I slipped into Del Rio from the open highway, the landscape turned to stark urban concrete. After driving through the city center, I exited, like Alice through the looking glass, into a starkly different world. It was one of tall trees, wild green undergrowth, and the lush emerald rows of grapevines that surrounded the Val Verde Winery. Continue reading Deep Roots in Texas
Wine in a Carafe or Barrel
When I finished my Ste. Genevieve wine-tasting anecdote, Pat [Predergast - President of Ste. Genevieve Winery and Mesa Vineyards] leaned back and said, “That’s a great story. I certainly like that wine. It’s a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The Fumé Chardonnay can be a bit harder to find than most of our wines, but it’s worth it.”
As we talked, Pat [Predergast - President of Ste. Genevieve Winery and Mesa Vineyards] discussed the different mindset that’s needed in a “big boy” winery like Ste. Gen. As the discussion started, we munched Pizza Hut pizza and pasta on paper plates. This seemed like fitting cuisine for a winery that takes great pride in keeping its wine a value in the marketplace, and something that complements everyday cuisine.
I told Pat, “Call me crazy, but I just can’t fathom the French wanting to open a winery in, of all places, Texas.” Pat told me what he suspected was the reason…”
Excerpt from Chapter Five, Wine in a Carafe or Barrel
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My stop on this trip, over a hundred miles to the east [of El Paso, TX], a mere stone’s throw in Texas terms, was Dell City and the Mont Sec Vineyard nearby. This vineyard, first planted over two decades ago and now consisting of over two hundred acres of wine grapes, constitutes the largest private vineyard in Texas, but Texas wine drinkers barely know it exists… Continue reading Chihuahuan Love
A Sip with the Good Friar
“When we entered the region, we saw grapes growing wild along the rivers of Tejas and they looked like I imagined they did for hundreds of years. The vines were thick, hanging from the trees on the river banks, and sometimes covered rocks and ledges.”
This is how Father Garcia de San Francisco y Zúñiga recalled the local landscape in 1659 as he, Father Juan de Salazar, and ten Christianized Indian families made their trek into what was then called Tejas. It was a raw, wild land that harbored Native American tribes. Both land and tribes were unforgiving to trespassers, especially those who were faint of heart or weak in faith. Continue reading A Sip with the Good Friar
Limestone Ledges and Red Sandy Soils
The spring sun warmed my face as I gazed out over freshly greened prominences to the north from a perch high on an eastward-pointing finger of the Edwards Plateau: my personal piece of the Texas Hill Country. I sat there wondering how and where did the Texas wine experience all begin. As I let my mind override my eyes, I could “see” the defining moment.
The genesis occurred eons ago in a vast and desolate inland sea predating human consciousness— a wet and hostile place. At an unhurried, nearly immeasurable pace over millions of years, the shells of countless creatures were deposited on the ocean seabed. Continue reading Limestone Ledges and Red Sandy Soils