By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Sandy Wilson
The journey from the theater to the vineyard has been an interesting one for Texas winemaker Don Pullum. Since he’d always had a passion for literature and a flair for the dramatic it was natural for him to pursue a career in the theater as a young man. His plan was to get some theater experience under his belt then return to his hometown of Corpus Christi and start a small regional theater.
He apprenticed as an actor at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, but knowing that he would need to learn the business end of running a theater, he later went to work in the company’s business office. There, he found the financial picture of operating a repertory company to be quite dismal and began to rethink his future.
Don had married his high school sweetheart, Diana, shortly after graduating from Harvard. After deciding that the theater was not his future, he got a job as a teller at a savings and loan in Waltham, Massachusetts. All was well until the apartment that the couple lived in and dearly loved began to convert to condos. Since they couldn’t afford the asking price, they decided to move to Houston, where Diana was hired as the director of compensation at Continental Airlines. Don found a position as a commercial banking teller, and the couple took advantage of Diana’s travel perks—making many trips to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, where Don expanded his knowledge of wine.
Don eventually worked his way up to the service-manager position at the bank where he met his wine mentor: the iconic Houston restaurateur Camille Berman, owner of the legendary Maxim’s—the quintessential spot for business lunches and dinners in 1980s Houston. After meeting Don over banking business, Mr. Berman became a friend, and every meal that Don enjoyed at Maxim’s would always include a wine from Berman’s extensive wine cellar (as well as discussion on the merits of the wine). During this time, Don began exploring the idea of growing grapes. He planted a few rows of Alexandria vines and made his first wine from a winemaking kit.
The couple next ventured to Washington, D.C., where Diana went to work for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and Don entered the world of venture capital. But like many native Texans, the couple always intended to return to their home state, and when Diana was offered a position in Dallas, they headed back to Texas.
Now Don’s dreams of making wine were moving to the forefront. Eager to get off the corporate track and into the dirt, he began a search for just the right property. Eventually, he came across a piece of property in the Hickory Sandstone soil of Mason County, which he bought in 1998, and began planting his Akashic Vineyard. Don started with grenache vines that, in their third year, produced four and a half tons of fruit. He sold the grapes to Jim Johnson at Alamosa Wine Cellars.
Scott Haupert and Manny Silerio had also recently moved to Mason County and opened a taqueria that became an instant success. In fact, it was so successful that they needed additional parking, and purchased the building next door. Don discovered that Haupert and Silerio were his neighbors across the road from the vineyard and began talking to them about starting a boutique winery in the newly purchased building. The pair liked the idea and Sandstone Cellars Winery was born.
In 2004, Don became a commercial winemaker with the release of the Sandstone Cellars 2004 Syrah, a wine that won a considerable amount of praise. Don has been the winemaker at Sandstone for eight years now, and critics agree that the wines get better each year.
Soon, Ken Maxwell, owner of Fredericksburg’s popular Torre di Pietra winery on Wine Road 290, approached Don about doing some temporary consultant winemaking (a consultant winemaker offers a complete service—winemaking, business, marketing), then Joe King, who was in the process of starting Junction Rivers Winery in Junction, hired him to develop his wines. Don designed the wine-production facilities, sourced grapes for the first releases then made the wine. The Junction Rivers Winery’s wines have been heartily embraced by the local community.
Finally, brothers Carl and Darren Money wanted to start a winery in Pontotoc (a Chickasaw word that means “land of hanging grapes”), and they, too, called Don. Pontotoc Vineyard released their first Don-crafted wine, the 2011 Tempranillo, in August of 2012. The wine was included in the Grand Tasting at the 2012 Texas Sommelier Conference in Dallas.
Don had envisioned a wine culture in Mason County since he first planted his vineyard. It certainly appears his dream is becoming a reality; Mason County grapes are being touted for their excellent quality and now there’s a new regional wine trail composed of Sandstone Cellars Winery, Junction Rivers Winery, Pontotoc Vineyard, plus a couple of new wineries not yet opened. The best news of all for Don, however, is that the trail will include his own winery, Akashic Vineyard Winery, set to open in Pontotoc next year.
2011 Pontotoc Vineyard Estate Tempranillo:This is a stellar wine for the first offering from this small winery. The bouquet promises great taste to come with aromas of red currant, spice, black tea, toasted oak and dust. On the palate it shows medium body with a silky mouthfeel, with complex flavors of currants, black cherry, cola, cacao nibs and coffee bean, with figs and dusty tannins on the finish.
2011 Junction Rivers Winery Cabernet Franc: This wine exhibits a floral bouquet with aromas of black currant, forest floor, toast, fig and cucumber. It has medium body on the palate, with flavors of wild cherry, plum skins, black pepper, licorice, fig and vanilla.
2010 Torre di Pietra Ruby Port: This port has a rich bouquet of mulberry, elderberry and an aroma of spice. On the palate, the elderberry and mulberry follow through, along with peppercorn, spice and sweet and sticky. The mouthfeel is smooth and satisfying.