by Andrew Chalk
When I polled Texas Hill Country wineries and growers on the major changes in the region over the last two years Julie Kuhlken, co-owner and founder of long established Pedernales Cellars, said “The continued growth in the number of wineries and vineyards”. January Wiese, executive director of Texas Hill Country Wineries (THCW), the region’s winery trade group, ran the numbers and found that since March 2018 THCW winery membership has increased 40%, adding 17 members and making 60 in total.
The Main Wine Route Fills Out
The industry’s showroom is the stretch of US-290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. Location makes it the second most visited wine route in the country after Highway 29 in Napa. It is 90 minutes from Austin, one hour from San Antonio, and four hours from Dallas and Houston. One measure of regional vitality is the number of wineries along this stretch. There were 15 in 2014 when I first counted and there are now more than double that. Additionally, over 20 tasting rooms await permit approval. Another measure is the price of an acre of US-290 frontage. In 2014 it was $40,000/acre. That acre is now $100,000-$120,000. The direct-to-consumer channel, of which this wine route is part, is the most important channel for Texas wineries as almost all are family owned and produce less than 10,000 cases/year.
A New Wine Route
Expansion is not limited to US-290. In just the last year the road from Fredericksburg to Kerrville (SH-16) has seen the start of what I expect to be a huge transformation. For years it had only Kerrville Hills Winery. Now it has three, the other two being maybe the best financed wineries in the state.
One is Augusta Vin, the Napa-level creation of Austin house builder Scott Felder. He has planted 60 acres to create a one third mile driveway up to the cathedralesque tasting room that he designed. Similar attention was paid in the cellar and whoever makes wine there will have no excuses about the equipment.
The other is Slate Mill Collective. It began life as 1851 Winery before being purchased in 2019 by the Jones family, successful veterans of the oil industry in West Texas. They have planted 160 acres of vines and pivoted it to be a custom crush facility for startup wineries. They offer the emerging winemaker as little as room to work and a shingle, to full winemaking services by resident winemaker Josh Fritsche. Every winery in the collective gets their wines offered in the collective’s fancy tasting room. Former Director of Winemaking, Tim Drake, made the point that since Slate Mill was now primarily a custom crush facility the client was the primary focus, rather than the red-headed stepchild of the host facility’s own label. There are currently four winery clients of the Collective.
A beneficiary of two large wineries on SH-16 may be smaller wineries that locate there to take advantage of lower land prices than along US-290. The crowd pulling capability of the large wineries will have a spillover effect.
The other high-end winery in the area is also owned by the Jones family. They purchased the closed Torre di Pietra Vineyards on US-290, levelled it, and are now constructing Slate Theory Winery with a 9,000 sq. ft. underground cave.
Newer Winery Clusters
Growth has expanded to more remote parts of the Hill Country. One case in point is the tiny town of Mason to the northwest of Fredericksburg. Traditionally the location of one or two vineyards (due to good soil and the 1600 ft altitude), there are now six wineries in or close to the tiny town with five tasting rooms by the end of this year.
Driftwood benefits from proximity to the west side of Austin with six wineries. The best known being a satellite of Fall Creek Vineyards. And two smaller centers are San Saba (three wineries) and Comfort (six wineries).
Individual Winemaker Responses
The boom atmosphere has led to confidence among winemakers. Some individual experiences…
Frenchman Ben Calais, owner of Calais Winery reports “We just released the best vintage we have ever released … 2017 reds” and “In other news I still don’t have any money”.
Pedernales Cellars shows long-term planning, replanting their family vineyard, a process that will take several years, and hiring a winemaker, Joanna Wilczoch, elevating co-owner David Kuhlken to the position of Executive Winemaker, which presumably presages expansion.
Dan Gatlin at Inwood Estates Vineyards, who prices his top wines at over $200 and sells out every year, has continued to invest in his theory of superclones. He was one of the first wineries in the nation to obtain new ENTAV-INRA (the French equivalent of the USDA) clones in 2013 when they ended their long quarantine at U.C. Davis. He is ecstatic about the wines they produce.
Bob Young, owner of Bending Branch Winery, has looked at resistant clones since Pierce’s disease destroyed his estate vineyard. He is upbeat about Crimson Cabernet (a Cabernet Sauvignon/Norton cross), and Andrew Walker’s crosses from U.C. Davis where the professor has produced grapes that are 97% vitis vinifera but have the resistance of hybrids. He has ordered one that is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah.
Two trends he sees are rosé sales continuing to surge and sparkling wines going big in Texas.
Dan McLaughlin, proprietor of Robert Clay Vineyards in Mason, is almost alone in trying to practice organic viticulture. COVID-19 proved a hiccup as he reports “I stopped using herbicides 3 years ago. Insecticides 2 years ago. Went 100% organic last season. Didn’t quite make it this season as we did end up using one non-omri fungicide due to lack of labor because of Covid, but we aren’t giving up by any means.”
If the above gives a picture of a wine industry going in all directions, that is correct. As Tim Drake puts it, we still don’t know the best grapes, or the best places to plant. Only a tiny proportion of the usable land is already planted. The one constant is that all indicators seem to be up.