Ghost Vineyards Of Texas

by Russell Kane and Terry Thompson-Anderson

The absence of the moon combined with a dense fog made the night exceedingly eerie, but rounding the spot on the road known as “dead man’s curve” just south of Fredericksburg on Route 16 and seeing the ghostly apparition of the once-promising and long-abandoned Pedernales Vineyards looming in the distance only magnified the effect. 

Tales and speculation about the failed winery (not to be confused with present-day Pedernales Cellars) linger today—a mystery from the early days of the Texas wine renaissance. Inside, barrels of wine wait for no one, and the guest book lies open with anticipation—the last entry recorded in 1996. Rumors hint, and some argue, that the vineyard fell victim to tainted rootstock from California, and was the only Texas casualty of the devastating phylloxera, the dreaded killer of French and other European vineyards in the mid-1800s.

Others say the vines suffered from Pierce’s Disease—spread by the glassy-winged sharper shooter—before the condition was better understood in the state. Whatever happened, visitors walking the once-flourishing vineyard are warned by anyone familiar with the grounds to burn their boots when they leave.

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Modern Texas winery visitors have no idea of the struggles, hardships and tragedies that came before the modern-day glitz. Some of Texas’ so-called “ghost vineyards” are evidence of ventures lost, but others have reappeared from the ashes of defeated dreams—rising like the phoenix. In honor of these pioneers, my coauthor, Russ, and I recently gathered on a gray Texas Hill Country eve—each of us bringing wines from our personal cellars and from winemakers who have tried and lost, as well as from those who are moving forward from those early footsteps—to celebrate and resurrect the past bounty of the ghost vineyards and to honor the sacrifices that were made.

 

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Cypress Valley Winery

Cypress Valley Winery was established in the early ’80s in Cypress Mill, in Blanco County. Founder Dale Bettis was raised a Texas country boy who went on to achieve a doctorate and travel the world as a consultant. However, the siren’s song of the soil pulled at his heart. While working in Switzerland, he became enamored with the craft of making wine, and in the late ’70s, Bettis returned to Texas and planted a small, experimental vineyard on the century-old Goeth Ranch. He used American and French-American hybrid grapes, as well as Old-World Vitis vinifera grapes, and the early plantings were encouraging—particularly the performance of the classic Old World varietals. Armed with this success, Bettis continued planting and purchased an existing vineyard in Midland.

While Bettis reveled in working in the vineyard, reality dictated that he continue to work as a consultant to support the fledgling operation. He reached out to Texas A&M University for a student to apprentice in the vineyard, and a young Penny Sue Adams answered the call. “The project was much bigger in scope than I ever imagined,” Adams says. “There was nothing to compare to in those early days of the Texas wine industry—nor anyone to ask.” 

Adams threw herself into the work of tending the vineyard and eventual winery, which released its first commercial wines in 1982. And Bettis was so impressed with Adams that he turned the entire operation over to her and returned to his work—making Adams the first female winemaker in the state of Texas. Her love of the work grew in a few unexpected ways, too. “Dale asked me to marry him within a year,” she recalls with a sigh.

The couple’s operation continued to expand. They added additional vineyard acreage, established a home in the original 1880s limestone house and had two sons. And their wines were gaining a following with consumers and critics alike. Tragically, though, in 1989 Dale passed away and a devastated Adams sold the winery property, their home and the Midland vineyard, and moved to Austin.

Adams maintained her dedication to the Texas wine industry, and in the ensuing years she became a sought-after consultant. When Mike McHenry and a group of investors established a winery in San Saba, Texas, they immediately tapped Adams to be their winemaker. Wedding Oak Winery opened in June of 2012, in a lovely historic property in downtown San Saba, and once again Adams was able to pursue her dreams of producing fine Texas wines. 

Although the Cypress Valley wines are long gone, we chose two of Adams’ current wines from Wedding Oak for our ghost vineyard tasting—to honor the skills and knowledge she forged at Cypress Valley. The 2012 Wedding Oak Terre Blanc, made from Hill Country marsanne and roussanne (both white Rhone Valley varietals) was a full-bodied white with an aroma sharp with honey-floral notes followed by clean, lemony-dry and minerally character. And the Wedding Oak Tioja (a blend of Texas High Plains tempranillo, Mourvèdre and cabernet sauvignon) had a fresh aroma of dark cherries and the earthy experience of High Plains red dirt.

Penny Adams is an unsung Texas treasure—modest of her accomplishments and contributions to the history of the Texas wine industry. When asked if she thinks a true Texas style has yet emerged, she replies that it takes a long time. “We’re still pioneers.”

 

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Blue Mountain Vineyards

On a path less traveled, the expanse of West Texas desert extends to a veil of blue hazy mountains. A stranger points the way to the deteriorated sign marking the once-famed, mile-high Blue Mountain winery and vineyard in the Davis Mountains, where mysteries intertwine with the legend of the renowned Blue Mountain Cabernet. 

A walk on the property reveals the old vineyard still ringed by tall wire fencing. Inside, the grimaces of dead vines stand outstretched, while a few twining green tendrils whisper of hope and resurgence. Winemaker Patrick Johnson, who worked with winery owner Nell Weisbach, recalls the lore of the cabernet grapes that once adorned Blue Mountain. “They were simply perfect,” he says. “The sugar, pH and acidity were all right there in the vineyard. Once I got the grapes into the winery, they just about made wine by themselves.” Johnson admits that the vineyard’s demise over a decade ago was due to Pierce’s Disease. Then, it was common belief that this affliction was a syndrome only associated with parts of the state much farther east with wetter climes. But at Blue Mountain, no one ever discovered why the mysterious infestation spread.

Most likely, the last taste of original Blue Mountain Estate Cabernet came from a bottle that lay hidden in the depths of Russ’ personal wine cabinet from the 1999 vintage. Out of the bottle, the wine was purple-black, thick and inky, with clean and refreshing aromatics of cedar, mint and anise, and a pure crisp palate of cassis—the gold standard of cabernet experiences. 

Previously, Russ had shared another bottle of the cabernet with winemaker Ben Calais, of Calais Winery, and before tasting, Calais submerged a pH meter into the wine. “This is incredible!” he said. “The pH is three point six—spot-on quality cabernet, and something that’s not seen commonly in Texas cabernets without serious winery adjustment.”

Since that day, Calais has begun planning his own foray with a cabernet made from grapes grown by new Blue Mountain winegrower, Jack Wright. In honor of Blue Mountain Cabernet and Calais’s new high-altitude adventure, we tasted Calais’ La Cuvee d’Elme made from grapes grown at Newsom Vineyards on the High Plains west of Lubbock. It’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc that reveals a red-black color with aromatics of dry earth and mineral combined with a deep-black cherry essence. It brought high expectations for Calais’ upcoming expedition into the vapors of Blue Mountain.

 

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Pheasant Ridge Winery

Long before we gathered for our ghost vineyard tasting, Russ was in Lubbock where the sky was a bright azure, but the weather report was ominous with sub-freezing temperatures. Weather notwithstanding, Bobby Cox—a larger-than-life character both in stature and reputation among Texas grape-growers, winemakers and associated brethren—was available to share dinner and wine at the Newsom Vineyards B&B.

Bobby and his wife Jennifer entered the room cradling a red-dust-encrusted magnum of their wine, a 1982 Pheasant Ridge cabernet sauvignon—more than two decades old. All eyes were fixed on the bottle, but as the couple got closer, the focus switched to Bobby’s hands—worn from years of tending Texas vines—and his furrowed face etched with lessons learned at the mercy of Mother Nature and hard economic times. Even after losing the winery under financial duress in the early ’90s, the Coxes spent years sipping their coffee every morning staring across the field at the winery that was no longer theirs. But life goes on. 

In the early ’80s, Bobby was an acknowledged “young Turk” of the new Texas wine revolution. With help from their parents, he and his wife started the Pheasant Ridge Winery and its estate vineyard on the outskirts of town. But when they looked out over the fields, they didn’t see Lubbock. They saw similarly sun-drenched regions of Spain, Italy and southern Europe that produced excellent wines. 

At auction in 2013, the Bingham family—for whom Bobby has been a vineyard and winery consultant—bought the Pheasant Ridge Winery and its vineyard. Shortly thereafter, the Binghams announced they would bring Bobby Cox back to Pheasant Ridge Winery as winemaker with their son Daniel Bingham as assistant winemaker.

When asked what the biggest surprise was when Bobby and the Binghams finally had a chance to enter the winery after the auction and look around, Bobby thought for a moment, then said, “I found something; something good.” It was some 1996 Pheasant Ridge Estate pinot noir left there by the previous owners who took over after Bobby’s departure. “I’m not going to tell you how good I think it is because you likely won’t believe me,” he teased. “I’m just going to send you a bottle and you decide.”

While awaiting the delivery of the package and the opportunity to taste the wine, the feeling of anticipation built, but was tempered with skepticism. At the ghost vineyard tasting, when the cork was finally pulled, we gasped when the cork came apart into several pieces before being extracted. Regardless, Bobby was right—the pinot noir was a radiant garnet color and had the medium body of bottle-aged Burgundy. It was aromatic with the sweetness of cedar-wood and hints of smoke, supported by an essence of sweet strawberry and mineral. All elements were well integrated—a hallmark of prime pinot noir. Bobby’s wine was the real deal, created by the magic of a moment in time when soil, grape and climate played in synchronicity. 

Like wine, winemaking can sometimes be enigmatic. A new day is dawning for Bobby, and for many of the others who’ve followed the successes and mistakes of Texas winemakers past. Of course as in the past, some ventures won’t make it, but for others, there are second chances. The legacy and spirit of Texas winemaking remains strong, and will most definitely carry on as the crafting of a new wine region continues, one vintage at a time.