Photography by Dorsey Barger
In March of 2006, I got a call from Lewis Dickson, a prominent Houston defense attorney. He wanted me to taste the La Cruz de Comal and Dickson wines he was making in Central Texas.
“I met you a couple of years ago when my winemaker, Tony Coturri, and I came to your restaurant for lunch,” he said. He had a fantastic old-Houston twang that made the word wine come out wahn.
I didn’t remember meeting him at all, and, since I’m not a huge fan of Texas wine, I was almost certain that getting together would be a waste of time for both of us. But when he mentioned that Café Annie, a much-celebrated Houston restaurant, carried his wines, I became intrigued.
Many of us treat wine with a reverence bordering on the religious. It’s unlikely, for example, that you’ll ever go to a carrot tasting to watch vegetable enthusiasts hold a carrot up to the light, gaze adoringly at its gorgeous color and swirl it to urge its flavors to unfold. And I doubt you’ll ever see anyone sniff a carrot under his nose, take a bite, chew it, roll it around in his mouth, spit it into a bucket, and then wax poetic about its chalky, flinty, tobacco notes. We judge great wine much differently than we judge great vegetables—or anything else.
Wine has the power to transport us around the world, because great wines taste distinctly like the place they come from. There’s a sublime mineral quality to a great riesling that can only come from grapes grown in German vineyards; there are manly, sexy, leathery notes that separate the red wines of Italy from red wines grown anywhere else. A sense of place—“terroir” in wine lingo—is part of what defines well made wine. But the Texas wines I’d tasted seemed to have sacrificed any expression of place to grocery store shelf placement and big bottle sales.
Lewis arrived for our tasting in tattered blue jeans and a ratty flannel shirt with the elbows blown out, looking a lot more like a grape farmer than an attorney, which impressed me. So did my first sip of his 2004 La Cruz de Comal Cohete Rojo (a red table wine made of merlot, cabernet, syrah, tannat and alicante bouchet grapes). Its tastes and smells evoked a drive down a Hill County back road—Texas clay and red dirt, with pine trees mixed in. I was tasting something I’d never tasted before, and yet had known all my life. It was overwhelming.
While I moved on to his 2005 La Rosa (a rosé made from Norton, black Spanish, syrah, and tannat grapes) and Dickson 2005 Petard Blanc (made from 100 percent Blanc du Bois grapes), Lewis told me how he’d met his winemaker, Tony Coturri.
On vacation in California, he happened to be sitting in his hotel room, drinking a glass of one of Tony’s single-vineyard zinfandels before meeting friends for dinner.
“It was so incredible that I couldn’t leave my room,” he recalled. “I picked up the phone and said, ‘hey guys, I’m not going to be able to make it tonight,’ and spent the rest of the evening in my room with Tony’s wine. The next day, I called this winemaker I didn’t know and said, ‘I have got to meet you.’”
Tony Coturri is a winemaking John the Baptist, crying in a wilderness of factory wine (and food) production, promoting organic and sustainable practices. If we repent and change, he seems to be saying, we might still save the earth from our sinful agricultural ways.
He doesn’t make wine for critics, not here in Central Texas, and not at his Coturri Winery in Sonoma. With his long beard, ponytail and T-shirts, he doesn’t dress or shave for anyone else’s pleasure, either. For Tony, it’s all about substance, not pretense, and there’s nothing slick about him or his wines. They’re both intensely genuine.
Lewis and Tony make wine the way it was made hundreds of years ago, picking grapes with their own hands, sorting them, crushing them and coaxing the juice into becoming wine, using neither chemicals nor high-tech machinery nor full-time employees. Paradoxically, these winemaking methods are so ancient, simple, and basic as to be way ahead of their time, and sometimes even a little suspect. At the very least, the hands-on approach seems to take other winemakers by surprise.
“That’s impossible,” another Texas winemaker once told them. “You can’t make wine like that!”
In fact, they can, even if only a tiny bit of it—the coming vintage will consist of just 150 cases.
“We take what the vineyard and the vintage give us, and we don’t mess with it,” Tony says. “We don’t add acid, we don’t add color, we don’t add water, or sulfites, or cultured yeast. We move the must [the mixture of crushed grape pulp, juice and skins] around with our hands to feel for hot and cold spots that can make fermentation uneven. We’re really close to the wines, using our whole body, all of our senses, to hear and feel what the wine is telling us to do. It’s a very intimate relationship.”
“One time we were sorting grapes and I brought Tony a cluster that looked good to me and asked if I should keep it or toss it,” Lewis remembered. “He thought I was being a smart-ass and actually threw a five-gallon plastic bucket at me! He said, ‘Are you second guessing me? I’ve been making wine for 38 years! Do I tell you how to prepare a brief for the Supreme Court?’”
Later Tony apologized. “Sorry I threw that bucket at you,” he said. “But every harvest needs a little drama.” For the sake of all wine lovers in Texas, let’s hope that Lewis Dickson and Tony Coturri continue this passionate pursuit of making truly authentic Texas wine for a very long time to come.