The Texas Terroirists

by Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Sandy Wilson

Terroir is often described as a “sense of place”—be it geographical, climatic, topographical or cultural—that’s imbued into things that are grown or produced in a certain region. It’s always been the main focus of the wine industry in France, but that hasn’t always been the case for the Texas wine industry. “When we started planting grapes,” says Ed Auler who, along with his wife, Susan, founded Fall Creek Vineyards, one of Texas’ earliest modern wineries, “we didn’t have any established traditions to follow. We knew about the successful wine industry in California, and we planted what they did: chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Only, in Texas, the results were a hit-and-miss bag. Then, we began to assemble our own body of data, and to consider the issue of terroir.” 

To take full advantage of Texas’ unique sense of place, Auler and a determined group of winemakers and grape growers set out to discover the right kinds of grapes and growing techniques for the many regions of Texas. As a result, the group—think of them as terroirists—has logged almost 40 years of exhaustive and costly research and experimentation that now has our state firmly planted on the path to becoming one of the world’s premier wine-producing regions. In essence, they’ve drawn the map for grape growing in Texas.

 

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Kim McPherson

Kim McPherson—Texas’ longest tenured winemaker and owner of McPherson Cellars, in Lubbock—grew up in the Texas wine industry. His dad, Clinton “Doc” McPherson, a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, is known as one of the fathers of the modern Texas wine industry, and, along with Bob Reed, a horticulture professor, founded Llano Estacado Winery. After graduating from Texas Tech, Kim went to California, where he obtained a degree in oenology and viticulture from the University of California, Davis. After working a stint in California, Kim returned to Texas to become the winemaker at Llano Estacado.

From the very beginning—when other Texas winemakers were emulating California—Kim preached “planting to the land,” or growing the right grapes for the region. He’s championed the Mediterranean and Rhône varietals, which have proven to be capable of thriving and producing great wines here, and he introduced the Spanish sangiovese to Texas, where it remains one of his signature varietals. He still uses the sangiovese grapes from his father’s original Sagmore Vineyard in the Texas High Plains, where the vines are approaching 40 years old. 

 

Dan Gatlin

Dan Gatlin, along with his wife, Rose Mary, founded Inwood Estates Vineyards. Gatlin’s parents owned a large chain of beverage stores in Dallas and Fort Worth, and he grew up in the fine beverage industry—traveling the world with his father, visiting the great châteaus of France and learning the intricacies of wine. Dan’s early experience with wine was from a retail perspective, but he cites a visit to one of the greatest French wineries, Petrus, as his epiphany moment. There, he had the honor of spending an entire day with the winemaker—visiting the vineyards, the production facilities, the cellars. As a result, it occurred to Dan that he could do the same in Texas. “We’d just have to do like they’d done in France,” he says, “and grow the right varietals for the terroir.” 

He began a 25-year experiment—planting over 40 varietals in various vineyards in the northern part of the state and in the Texas High Plains. He concluded that Mediterranean and Rhône varietals were right for Texas, and he was the first to plant tempranillo here. His early tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blends gained a following among cab lovers, and the tempranillo grape continues to garner the spotlight. Dan’s retail wine background came in handy as the driving force behind Inwood wines, which gained early popularity on high-end Texas restaurant wine lists and set the stage for other Texas wineries.

 

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Greg Bruni

Also raised in the wine business, Greg Bruni left his native California in 1993 to become the vice president and winemaker at Llano Estacado Winery. Bruni brought a wealth of knowledge to the Texas wine industry, as his family had founded the esteemed San Martin Winery in California. And when he first visited the Llano Estacado Winery and the Texas High Plains, he saw the same type of challenge in the fledgling industry that existed years ago in California. He relished the idea of becoming a key player in shaping the future of Texas wines, and he began by concentrating on many of the Italian varietals of his heritage—introducing a lusty Montepulciano to the winery’s lineup and creating the first of the Super Tuscan-style blends that he called Viviano. Both wines have gained an enthusiastic following over the years, and the winemaking style has been adopted around the state. Bruni’s skills marked a turning point in the quality and breadth of the Llano Estacado wines, and have presented a challenge to the rest of the Texas wineries to raise their bar of excellence.

 

Jim Johnson

Several years ago, Wine Spectator referred to Jim Johnson as “a reliable guide to the future of Texas wine.” Johnson had worked in Texas oil early in his career, but, like many Texans in the wake of the great oil bust, he found himself looking for another line of work. He worked at a retail wine store in Houston for a few years during the infancy of the Texas wine industry, and the shop often hosted tastings of those wines. Johnson tasted and evaluated the various wines against wines from other regions of the country and the world, and his conclusion was that Texas could do better. He headed to the University of California, Davis, where he graduated with honors and a degree in oenology and viticulture. But after working at three of California’s top wineries, Johnson returned to Texas to become the winemaker at Slaughter-Leftwich Vineyards in Austin. Together with his new wife, Karen, he purchased land in Bend and planted the Tio Pancho Ranch in 1996, using the Mediterranean and Rhône varietals he knew were right for the Texas terroir: viognier, sangiovese, ruby cabernet and cabernet sauvignon. Johnson added tempranillo in 1998, and the Johnsons’ Alamosa Wine Cellars was the first Texas winery to produce it. His El Guapo blend became an instant hit with chefs and consumers, yet Johnson believes we’ve only scratched the surface of experimenting with hot-weather grape varietals.

 

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Raymond Haak

When Raymond Haak first announced that he would open a winery in Santa Fe, Texas—a mere 12 miles from the Gulf of Mexico—it was viewed as a truly foolhardy endeavor. But Raymond had done his homework over the last 25 years—beginning in 1969, when his wife, Gladys, brought home two grapevines from a local nursery.

For their newly built Haak Vineyards and Winery, the Haaks selected two varietals of native American grapes: blanc du bois and Lenoir. The varietals were, as yet, untried in the large-scale production of quality wines in Texas, but they were hardy, drought-tolerant and disease-resistant. When the winery opened in 2000, Raymond released a port-style wine made from the Lenoir grape, and both a dry and off-dry white wine from the blanc du bois. Former Houston Chronicle wine columnist Michael Lonsford traveled to the winery to taste these new wines, and subsequently wrote a glowing review, which quickly garnered the wines a huge following. In 2003, Raymond produced his first Old World-style Madeira from the Jacquez  (Lenoir) grape, which won 14 medals. In 2006, he produced a second Madeira from the blanc du bois grape, which has also won numerous medals in worldwide competition. Raymond’s pioneer research and success with these two hardy, native American grapes has led to a statewide explosion of wines produced from them—even at high-end wineries.

 

Don Pullum

Grape grower and winemaker Don Pullum vividly recalls his first taste of wine at the tender age of 16. He was at the home of a good friend whose father was a lover of fine wine. The wine was a small pour of a Chablis Premier Cru from the estate of Albert Pic. He knew that it tasted good, but, at the time, he lacked the knowledge to describe the taste as having a bouquet of pear and lemon peel that followed through on the palate, ending with a streak of minerals that hinted at the wine’s terroir. 

Many years later, after a career as a Harvard-educated investment banker, Pullum left the corporate world and began to search for a place to grow grapes. He discovered the rich, Hickory Sandstone soil in Mason County where he planted his Akashic Vineyard with Rhône and Mediterranean varietals. As he watched the grapes flourish and eventually produce excellent wines for Sandstone Cellars Winery, he began to envision a wine culture in Mason County. He encouraged other grape growers to plant hot-weather varietals like tempranillo, alicante bouschet and touriga nacional—a Portuguese varietal from which he produced Texas’s first wine made from 100 percent touriga grapes. Today, his dream is becoming a reality as Mason County grapes are known for producing high-quality, elegant, sought-after wines with finesse. There are now 12 vineyards in Mason County—with two more on the way—and three award-winning wineries.

Texas has been richly blessed by the efforts of all of these dedicated—often dogged—terroirists who have invested much to develop the Texas wine palate. The industry is healthy and growing, gaining worldwide attention and now very much a reflection of our unique sense of place.