by Andrew Chalk
There are few people better known in the Texas wine industry than Kim McPherson. Winemaker at his eponymous winery, McPherson Cellars, consultant, collaborator with Dave Phinney on the widely distributed ‘TX’ member of the ‘Locations’ series of wines (later bought by E&J Gallo), James Beard award double semi-finalist, mentor and muse to at least two generations of Texas winemakers. Now in his late 60s, it seemed like a good time to do a career appraisal. However, I found he was showing no signs of slowing down. As I sat down he was reading a review that a friend had forwarded of his ‘EVS Windblown’ wine in The Washington Post (which rated it as “extraordinary/sublime’’).
College and Early Career
He graduated from Texas Tech in 1976 with a degree in food science and went to California where he met his wife, Sylvia. His father was sending him to the University of California, Davis to study oenology.
Back then Napa was in its first post-prohibition ascendancy. The 1976 Judgement of Paris had put the region on the map and the atmosphere was palpably electric. McPherson’s classmates included such luminaries as Randall Grahm, Dan Seghesio, Bruce Cakebread, and Doug Shafer.
Working for the ‘The Man’
Post-Davis, he stepped into the breach at Llano Estacado when the winemaker left. Next up was Texas Vineyards in Bonham. It went bankrupt. There was a brief stint at the ill-fated Teysha in Lubbock. Then to California where he made a 350-case Chardonnay in Santa Maria at the Central Coast Wine Warehouse. Dan Berger, wine reviewer for the LA Times, made it ‘Wine of The Week’ and “I sold all of it in about an hour and a half’”he recalls. “Chardonnay, if you have nice fruit, is really easy to make.”
The Origin of McPherson Cellars
Fate intervened again. The bank holding the note on Teysha was run by a man named Alan White, who Kim grew up over the street from. He got Kim to take over winemaking at Cap Rock Winery (as Teysha became known). He offered a good salary “he put my daughters through college through the Texas Tomorrow Fund,” says McPherson, and White agreed to let him have his own label. Everything was hunky dory until the banking regulators came in and were puzzled that the bank had, as one of its assets, a winery. It was sold and the buyers proceeded to sell off the assets. McPherson saw the writing on the wall and started his own label. The wine was in Cap Rock’s tanks and had to be moved. Greg Bruni, winemaker at Llano Estacado Winery, offered tank space. “That was very gracious of him,” says McPherson who was able to eventually get the stored wine bottled and sold. He had finally sold wine with his own label on.
McPherson needed his own space. He settled on his current downtown Lubbock building, an ex-Coke bottling plant. He ran it on a shoestring budget with outside tanks and Kim and two employees did all the engineering, including insulating tanks and welding their own catwalks.
McPherson’s list of consulting clients reads like a who’s who of Texas wineries. In addition, two large contracts for national brands have preoccupied McPherson in recent years.
The Federalist, was a Terlato Wines brand. He used to do the Texas wine in the line. He loved working with Terlato but the passing of Tony Terlato last year has put the future in doubt.
McPherson makes Locations TX from Texas Rhône grape varieties. When E&J Gallo purchased the brand in 2018 Kim waited for the inevitable contract cancellation. Instead Gallo asked him if he could up to 30,000 cases (from 2,700). That one brand would be more wine than made by all but half a dozen Texas wineries. Nowadays, Locations is by far the biggest single national presence of any Texas wine brand.
He sees Locations as very important for the whole state. “That’s a big thing for Texas. It’s not about me. It’s about showing that you can make wine in this state that’s good, and can be a national product, with the fruit we have. It’s the tide that will raise all boats…but I don’t know if people get it.”
Among winemakers: Tony Soter and Robert Vraig who consulted at Cap Rock. Randall Grahm helped him take on new varieties. Dr. Richard (Dick) Peterson. Gallo enologist. Dave Phinney, Dave Ramey. and Dawnine Dyer at Domaine Chandon.
Non winemakers: Freddie Franzia. He got a lot of people to drink wine. Jim Tresize for his advocacy for the industry. His professors at Davis who taught California so much about winemaking. His Dad, who started the modern Texas wine industry with Bob Reed.
Varietals: What varietals does he think work best in Texas? Sangiovese is his number one. Others are Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petit Sirah, Cinsault, Alicante Bouchet and Tempranillo. The whites: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc.
Stylistic preferences: To make wines that are ready to drink.
Oak: Gentle use, and always French. He induces a lot of the flavor in his white wines using lees stirring.
Yeasts: Mainly cultured yeast.
Organic Grapes: No organic growers in the sense of being certified. Fruit must be irrigated. He is impressed with the quality of Texas growers.
Biodynamic farming: If you proposed a High Plains farmer fill a cow’s horn with preparation 500 you would likely be shot.
Filtration: Everything should be sterile-bottled.
Cryomaceration: Not used.
Floatation: Loves this technique for clarity in white wines.
Flash détente: Not used.
Microxygenation: Used occasionally.
Cellar adjustments (sugar, acid): Never sugar but hot climate fruit can need acid.
Press wine: Only adds back 10%-15%.
Blending: He is a big fan.
What defines the taste of a Kim McPherson wine? “Varietal correctness. An old-world feel. Tony Soter taught me this. Maintain consistency, consistently.”
Three students did extended apprenticeships at the winery over the years. Kyle Johnson, Tony Offil, and David Mueller. All recall their time fondly, the knowledge they acquired and Kim’s lively personality.
Tony Soter emphasised to Kim the importance of consistency. That is the first thing I think of when I think of Kim McPherson wines. They are consistent. Not just in being the same over vintages, but in everything he releases being consistently a good, indeed formidable, example of its type.