Standing the Taste of Time

by Terry Thompson-Anderson and Russell Kane • Photography by Knoxy

Fall Creek Vineyards is celebrating the 35th anniversary of making its first wines, and although the winery is considered a pioneering force in establishing the Texas wine industry, it hasn’t always been business as usual. In fact, it’s been anything but that. Like the beloved cypresses that line its allée entryway, the winery has grown and evolved, and has faced multiple challenges, setbacks and victories to become one of the most iconic destinations for Texas wine enthusiasts. Situated at the northwestern edge of Lake Buchanan, Fall Creek Vineyards was founded by Ed and Susan Auler. Ed, a fourth- generation Texan, graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1969 and took the reins of the family’s Fall Creek Ranch in Tow, Texas, in 1970. By 1973, Ed was looking for ways to make the ranch a more viable operation.

The couple took a trip to France to research French cattle breeds. “We spent two days looking at cattle, and three weeks touring vineyards,” Ed says with a laugh. “Somewhere around Bordeaux I began to realize how the topography and soil were similar to those on our ranch. I’d say they’re almost identical!” 

Ed went with the grapes—putting in an experimental plot of 13 varieties, mostly French-American hybrids. The vigor of the Vitis vinifera (which included the classic Bordeaux varieties) surprised him, and with the help of top California growers and famous Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker and enological consultant André Tchelistcheff, the Aulers planted more European varieties. Fall Creek Vineyards began wine production in 1979. 

But not all of the harvests have been good for the Aulers. In 1990, an extended freeze killed their entire vineyard. The Aulers replanted with new vines, only to have them succumb to Pierce’s Disease twice, predominantly because the disease was barely understood in Texas at the time. It was a costly lesson, but Ed realized that a winery must diversify its sources of grapes, leading him to build relationships with other growers. 

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Most importantly, the Aulers had a big vision for what Texas Hill Country winemaking could become. Over time, Fall Creek Vineyards continued to grow, and Ed gave up his private law practice to concentrate on the winery, as well as to address pressing legal issues within the industry. He realized that the wine laws in Texas at that time were written for an industry that didn’t exist. For example, it wasn’t clear how wine could be made and marketed in rural parts of the state where the sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. He either had to get the laws changed or move his operation to a “wet” precinct. Ed worked with Dr. Bobby Smith, owner of La Buena Vida Vineyards in North Texas, who had the same problem. The two drafted a bill and presented it to the then-Texas House Speaker Billy Clayton. 

Leon Adams—considered to be the seminal American wine historian—advised Auler that Texas legislators never vote against God, country, family or farming. Because growing grapes and small-scale wine production on family farms is such a strong tradition in Texas—going back to the 1800s—Auler and Smith thought their odds were good to get something into legislation. Their bill was introduced in early 1977, and by June, it was passed as the Texas Farm Winery Act. Signed by then-governor Dolph Briscoe, this new law allowed wineries in dry areas to sell their wines in wet areas.

Ed and Bobby’s vision and hard work started a long process of aligning Texas winery laws with those of the major wine-producing states. It was decades later when the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association lobbied to allow rural wineries to sell wines from their tasting rooms, no matter if the area was wet or dry. The feat required an amendment to the state constitution, approved by Texas voters in 2003. After its passage, the Texas wine industry grew rapidly—from 42 wineries in 2000 to its present number of around 300 (50 in the Texas Hill Country alone).

Ed’s early vision of the Texas Hill Country as a major new wine-producing region also involved lobbying to get it accepted as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the federal government. He realized from his experiences in Europe that quality wines had a sense of place—as defined by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system in France—and the establishment of an AVA for the Hill Country would offer these wines recognition for their terroir. “There were three things I knew the federal government required if we were going to get the Hill Country accepted as an AVA,” says Ed. “First, I had to prove that the Texas Hill Country was a recognized area. That was the easy part. All I had to do was define its geographical boundaries and define its growing conditions. It was doable based on what I’d experienced as both a pilot and rancher in this area. I knew the borders were going to roughly be defined as the boundaries of the Edwards Plateau.”

Then, the harder part came into focus. Ed had to present evidence that the Hill Country was a recognized wine-producing area. This is where he got help from his wife, Susan. She worked with leading Texas chefs to get Texas wines on their wine lists and to feature them in events around the country. She also founded the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival in 1986, and at the first one, three Texas wineries presented their wines: Bell Mountain Vineyards, Cypress Valley Winery and Fall Creek Vineyards. There were also six wineries from California and one from Germany—paying homage to the Hill Country’s German ancestry. While the first event started small, the press took note and eventually the area’s wineries won increasing national attention. The resulting articles written about Texas Hill Country wineries and their wines gave Ed the last piece of evidence he needed to obtain approval for the Texas Hill Country AVA in 1991.

The Aulers aren’t content resting on their laurels, though. They strive to add even more elements that would carry Fall Creek wines forward. Last year, after searching internationally for two years, Ed and Susan brought Sergio Cuadra from Chile to be director of wine operations at Fall Creek. Cuadra had worked with the most successful Chilean wine companies—Viña Concha y Toro, Caliterra and Viña Errázuriz—and he came to Texas with a good bit of optimism, but his eyes were wide open. “I was concerned by the heat,” Cuadra says. “I know the effect high temperatures have on vines in Chile and in California. But, after tasting Texas wines and experiencing my first Texas harvest in 2013, I believe that something very interesting is happening here,” he says, “I believe that when grapevines are exposed to high temperatures over time, they activate something in their genes that allows them to not only survive, but to thrive and produce quality grapes and wine. The main thing is that here, ripening happens very quickly and, as a winemaker, I have to react more quickly to get the results I want.”

The synergy of Cuadra’s knowledge and Ed Auler’s winemaking skills speaks volumes for the future. Cuadra recently helped put the finishing touches on Fall Creek’s new GSM (grenache, syrah, Mourvèdre) blend made from Salt Lick Cellars grapes, and Cuadra’s first solo Texas wine—the 2013 Fall Creek Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes grown at Mesa Vineyards near Fort Stockton—was a double gold-medal winner at the 2014 Lone Star International Wine Competition. Of course, Ed Auler is still in charge of his signature wine: Fall Creek Meritus, a red Bordeaux blend, that continues to impress with a double gold medal in the 2013 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition.

Even after 35 years, new beginnings, opportunities and directions continue to unfold for the Aulers and Fall Creek Vineyards.