by Kristi Willis • Photography by Whitney Martin
The large warehouse home of Lewis Wines just outside Johnson City isn’t especially picturesque. Yet the happy customers standing around tasting tables tucked in between wine barrels and tanks don’t seem to mind one bit. It appears that what the facility may currently lack in curb appeal is more than made up for in craft. Owners Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb, college buddies who met playing soccer, are relatively new kids on the Texas wine block, and weren’t even sure they wanted to start a winery when they made their first batch of wine in the attic of Pedernales Cellars in 2010.
Lewis had discovered Texas wines through a roommate who worked for Llano Estacado. “He would bring home the sample bottles after a tasting at H-E-B or Randall’s, and I got curious about why I liked one more than the other,” he says. His curiosity led him to volunteer for the harvest at Pedernales Cellars, and the winery hired him the next week. Over the next two years, he worked harvests and led tastings and tours. He’d caught the wine bug, and asked permission to make his own wine in an unused attic nook of the winery. But the process was more labor-intensive than Lewis had bargained for, and he asked his buddy McNabb to come out and help. McNabb’s chemistry degree came in handy as the pair learned the ins and outs of vinification, and soon McNabb was hooked, as well.
After that first batch, Lewis and McNabb decided to start a small brand. In 2011, they began managing a vineyard in Round Mountain in Blanco County. They also bought property in Johnson City and slowly settled in to the business of winemaking—focusing on the varietals that thrive in the unpredictable Texas weather (Spanish and Portuguese varietals, such as tempranillo, touriga nacional and tinta cão). “The easier it is to grow and make good fruit, the better the wine gets,” says Lewis. “There may be a market for a hundred-dollar cabernet sauvignon, but if the grape isn’t growing well or won’t ripen here, then it doesn’t matter.”
Lewis had learned this lesson early on. That first year managing the Round Mountain vineyard, he came home from an early-July trip to Argentina to discover an unpleasant surprise. When he checked on the vineyard, the grapes were ripe four weeks early. He called Pedernales Cellars to see if they were in the same situation and learned that most of their vineyard staff was also on vacation. It was all hands on deck for everyone around, with all able bodies pitching in to get the crops picked from both vineyards before the grapes became overly ripe.
While Lewis Wines waits for its vines in Johnson City to become productive (it takes three years for plants to yield quality grapes), they’re using fruit from the Round Mountain vineyard as well as from grape growers across the state. Often new winemakers have to choose from what growers have available, but Lewis Wines’ steady production of 3,000 cases per year, and widespread praise, have made it easier to convince growers to take a chance on grapes they might not otherwise choose. “This season, a grower sent us a list of what they were planning and asked what we wanted on the other hundred and fifty acres,” says Lewis. “We used to have to pay for the vines up front, and now I have a grower asking what I want. That’s amazing.” Blanc du bois grapes from East Texas have been high on the winery’s shopping list because it’s the primary grape in its popular Swim Spot Vinho Verde. A glass of the crisp, acidic, slightly effervescent white wine is a perfect foil to the Texas heat, and has been popping up in wine shops and on restaurant menus across Austin. “We love Vinho Verde,” says Lewis. “If your choices on a hot summer day are a light beer or a Vinho Verde, well, you know what we’d pick.”
Ideally, Lewis would like to can the popular wine to make it easier to carry for summer outings, but with the 10 percent alcohol content (versus 5 percent for beer), they’d need to use a smaller can. Unfortunately, the area canning units only accommodate a standard 12-ounce can, not the 6-ounce cans used by a few other winemakers such as Coppola.
In the meantime, Lewis Wine fans will have to settle for bottled wine, which they can buy in an increasing number of Austin venues. The Whip In, Travis Heights Beverage World and East End Wines carry the brand, and diners can find it on the menus at Dai Due, Salt & Time and other local restaurants. Better yet, make an appointment (and the short trek out to Johnson City) to visit Lewis, McNabb and the crew to see their new tasting room.