By Jessica Dupuy
Photography by Andy Sams
There’s a little winery near Canyon Lake that’s turning heads among Central Texas’s top wine experts. La Cruz de Comal, nestled in a small valley just beyond New Braunfels, is fast becoming known for producing crisp, delicate wines that reveal an authentic character for the place in which they were made. One sip, and you’ll taste an inherent uniqueness—something a little different about these wines.
There’s a faint sense of earth, acid and texture on the palate that reveals a quality that can only be defined in one way: all natural. But that’s not just some marketing gimmick; it’s actually the process. The term “natural,” when applied to winemaking, refers to what happens to the grapes after they’re plucked from the vine. Fermentation happens from the yeast already growing in the grapes or inside the winery. These natural yeasts are believed to reveal the most pure expression of the wine, which means each vintage will have its own distinct flavor. In more conventional winemaking, things like strains of yeast, tannins, sugar, enzymes, proteins and even acid are typically added to the wine during the process. In natural winemaking, these things are not done. And most conventional winemakers also add sulfur (producing sulfides), but that’s something La Cruz de Comal owner Lewis Dickson will avoid at all costs. The result is that the wines he’s producing might be the most terroir-authentic wines in the entire state.
“I think in this day and age, it’s difficult to make a bad wine; technology has helped us avoid it,” says June Rodil, certified advanced sommelier and beverage director of Congress restaurant. “You know what’s easy? Making boring wines. And Lewis’s wines are definitely not that. They have a voice and character as unique as their maker.”
A native of Houston, Dickson spent his first career in law, but he’d always been an admirer of wine. In the ’80s, he toured California wineries and found himself regularly returning to Coturri Winery in Sonoma County where natural winemaking pioneer Tony Coturri has been making wine for more than four decades. But it wasn’t until the late ’90s—when Dickson took a two-year sabbatical in the South of France—that he decided to make a dramatic career change.
In 1992, Dickson decided to buy property in Startzville, and he persuaded Coturri to help him establish a vineyard. “I’ve always thought that Tony’s wines were not just good but, interesting…full of personality,” says Dickson. “What he does is wonderful: you pick grapes, crush them, let them ferment, press them. But after that, you essentially let the wine make itself.”
While Coturri and Dickson may be forging a new path by their commitment to making only natural Texas wines, it’s important to note that there’s also controversy swirling around natural wines. The primary concern is the lack of added sulfur, which not only could allow the wine to oxidize and brown, but could invite potential bacterial problems or the chance of a second fermentation in the bottle. For most traditional winemakers, it’s an expensive risk they’d rather not take.
“The fiction is that if you don’t add sulfites to the wine they won’t hold up with age,” says Dickson. “That’s nonsense. If they’ve got acidity, that’s all the natural preservative you need. I like to make acid-driven wines that are more Old World-style, but you have to have the right level of acid to start with. Our fermentation process is slow, cool and long, and creates a nice backbone for acidity.”
Once the wine is ready to bottle, Dickson is committed to hand bottling—making for a gentler process for these already-delicate wines—as opposed to using a conventional bottling line. Throughout the entire process, Dickson adds absolutely nothing to the wines. For aging, he uses lightly toasted barrels to help manage tannic structure, but not to impart flavor.
“What interests me,” notes Dickson, “is to take the raw materials and the best possible package that can be harvested and see what I can do with it without doctoring it up or messing with it to manipulate its natural expression. There’s a lot of good wine out there, but to me, wine can, and should, be more than just good. It should be interesting—alive with personality.”
Though not necessarily an advocate of natural wine, per se, The Austin Wine Merchant co-owner and general manager John Roenigk admires Dickson for his commitment. Natural wines are a rare and unique find these days—especially by American winemaking standards—though there are more than a few Old World producers in France and other parts of Europe. “What Lewis is doing is important for our part of the world,” says Roenigk. “Especially for what he’s doing out of his home vineyard in choosing grape varieties that he thinks will work. I respect him from that standpoint, and he’s putting as good a wine in the bottle as he possibly can.”
“I have people who buy these wines because they’re unique,” Roenigk says. “Others buy because it’s Lewis, and they just like him. And others who say they want something from Texas that says ‘Texas’…and I can’t think of a better wine to offer them. It’s artisanal and it’s good. It’s an honest effort and he’s a man doing something with conviction.”
Notable wines from La Cruz de Comal include the 2011 Pétard Blanc (made from blanc du bois), the 2010 Du Petit Lait (a rosé of merlot and Black Spanish grapes) and Cohete Rojo (“red rocket”), a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, Black Spanish and a few other red grapes.
For more information visit lacruzdecomalwines.com or contact Lewis Dickson at 830-899-2723.