By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Marla Camp
Raymond Haak, a former electrical engineer, and his wife, Gladys, a former accountant, worked their way toward the mutual dream of owning their own business. They eventually established themselves in the mini-storage warehouse business and also purchased a large, busy convenience store. But during the time spent building enterprises, a shared hobby emerged that would one day lead to the Haaks’ greatest achievement: growing grapes and winemaking.
“It began one day in 1969, when Gladys brought home two Concord grapevines from the nursery,” Raymond says. “I would never have dreamed where those scraggly little vines would lead us.”
After 30 years of growing grapes and making homemade wines, the Haaks opened Haak Vineyards and Winery in Santa Fe, Texas, in 2001. Since then, Raymond has become known as a pioneer in the Texas wine industry, for both his research on growing hybrid native grapes on the Texas coast and the award-winning wines he produces from them. His dedication to growing varietals that are best suited to the coastal Texas terroir, and using only Texas-grown fruit to produce his wines, is much admired by those who believe that the Texas wine industry should only grow those varietals best suited to the various climates and geographical conditions of the state.
On the three acres of vineyards adjacent to the winery, the Haaks grow blanc du bois and Lenoir (black Spanish) grapes, although those vineyards account for only 3 percent of the grapes used in their production. The remaining grapes are sourced from other Texas grape growers. Among Raymond’s first wines were a sweet and a dry white wine—both made from blanc du bois, a grape that tolerates the hot and humid areas of the southern United States without succumbing to the diseases and pests that afflict Vitis vinifera varietals. Raymond says he’ll probably spend the rest of his life exploring the possibilities presented by this grape.
A few short weeks after the opening of the winery, Michael Lonsford—then the popular wine writer for the Houston Chronicle—wrote a glowing review of the two wines and shared his amazement at finding a real winery with state-of-the-art equipment located 20 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. The article sent local wine lovers flocking to the winery, and word of the quality of Haak wines soon spread far beyond Santa Fe.
Raymond then produced a port-style wine from the Lenoir grape. Upon sampling the wine, noted wine expert D.C. Flynt remarked that it reminded him of an old Madeira, prompting the Haaks to travel to the island of Madeira to research. There, they studied the craft of making Madeira at the source—tasting each one produced on the island. They discovered the rich history of the wine, which dates back to the 16th century, when Portuguese trade routes shipped the port wine to distant merchants via the important seaport of Madeira. The British noted that when they received shipments of the wine, its taste and appearance had changed considerably during the long sea voyage, although not in a bad way. The altered taste was eventually linked to the barrels being inadvertently exposed to very high temperatures in the ships’ holds during the voyage, causing a significant degree of oxidation and the fading of the color to a rich amber hue. Because the resulting structural alterations produced a highly desirable taste, the Portuguese wine makers began to age the wine at temperatures as high as 140 degrees for a period of time, following a two-year barrel aging at cellar temperature. They called the resulting wine Madeira, and it became a favorite throughout Europe. To their surprise, the Haaks also discovered that many of the Madeiras produced on the island are crafted from the very Lenoir grape that they had been growing in their own vineyards in Santa Fe.
When they returned home, the Haaks built an estufa—a large, room-size oven chamber in which the wine is heat fermented in barrels for six months at 105 degrees after being barrel aged in the cellar for two years. After the heat fermentation, the wine is left in the barrels until the need arises to bottle another vintage, as the wine continues to age gracefully in the barrel, but aging stops once it is bottled. Many Madeiras are barrel aged for 10 years or longer before bottling. Interestingly, the label on a bottle of Madeira shows the date it was bottled (noted as engarrafado, or “bottled,” on the label) as well as the actual vintage date—or the date the wine was placed in the barrels. Once a Madeira is bottled, it will retain its taste quality for years, even after being opened.
The first release of the Haaks’ 2003 Jacquez (Lenoir) Madeira has garnered 14 medals, including three golds and a silver, the latter from the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition. It was the first (and the only to date) Madeira to be produced in the United States, and will be the only one ever allowed to be called Madeira. Raymond’s label was approved mere days before the 2006 agreement went into effect between the U.S. government and the European Union that banned the use of the titles Port, Sherry, Madeira and similar European-styled wine monikers on U.S. labels.
In 2006, Raymond produced a Madeira from the blanc du bois grape. The wine won instant acclaim and, to date, nine medals, including a Grand Star and Gold at the 2009 Lone Star International Wine Competition and a Best of Class Gold at the 2009 Los Angeles International Wine Competition.
After opening the winery, Raymond and Gladys realized that running the winery was too large a task for the two of them to handle. They’ve hired an additional 20 employees—including a chef and kitchen staff that prepares meals for special events. Their newest employee is a winemaker—an arduous hiring decision for Raymond, as he wanted someone he could train to produce wines in the same manner he does to provide a consistent product. He received hundreds of resumes from around the globe, eventually choosing Nadia Hetzel, who received a degree in oenology and viticulture from the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute in Germany, and who he feels approaches winemaking with the same degree of passion that he does. The winery staff also includes two of the Haaks’ five daughters, Cecilia Gabba and Bridget Haak and son-in-law Peter Loose.
Raymond believes the Texas wine industry has a brilliant future, much of which has yet to be realized. “We need to plant every grape varietal we can find from everywhere, and analyze which ones grow well and produce good wines in Texas,” he says. “Then we need to get rid of all the varietals that don’t work here, and we need to be very aggressive in doing this, as it will take years, considering it takes a vine five years to produce grapes of a quality sufficient to produce a wine that will show the grape’s best characteristics.”
Haak Vineyards and Winery
6310 Avenue T, Santa Fe
2009 Reserve Blanc du Bois: This is an exceptional dry, barrel-fermented wine. The bouquet opens gracefully with a hint of buttery honeycomb. On the palate, the buttery nuances are held together structurally by the soft American oak tannins, which contribute a subtly spicy vanilla note. The wine finishes with the soft flourish of an almond, vanilla and honey compote.
2009 Blanc du Bois (semi-sweet): An off-dry white wine with an aroma that blossoms with a soft, clean wisp of white peach and over-ripe fig. It continues to unfold on the palate with hints of banana and pineapple in mid- to back-palate. The harmonious flavor is well structured with a nicely balanced acidity.
2006 Madeira Blanc du Bois: This Madeira literally sparkles in the glass with a golden hue reminiscent of a clear fall sunset. The aroma fills the nose with luscious notes of butter-infused caramel and hints of almond-flavored cream. The flavors of tightly integrated buttered almonds and caramel carry the sensations the length of the palate, held together by the soft oak tannins resulting from extended barrel aging in American oak.