know what’s fun? Besides listening to Texas Tech football coach Mike
Leach speak- fun is drinking a nice, refreshing, Texas wine on a Saturday
afternoon while preparing for the coming workweek. Maybe that’s not
the waterskiing on Lake Travis fun that you were envisioning. But
if we add that you’re drinking this extraordinary glass of wine straight
from the stainless steel tank where it’s aging at the winery where
the grapes were crushed, then the event becomes significantly more
exciting. Fun is having this drink while the winery’s owner explains
his methods, his materials, his passions. That is fun as my wife and
I might define it, and exactly what we did on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Texas, if you have been paying attention,
is this country’s fifth largest producer of wine. With 180 plus wineries,
choosing a couple to visit can prove slightly more complicated than
you may think. Living in Austin
can sometimes further cloud the decision since the Hill
Country is home to many of the state’s wineries, several of them
clustered around highway 290 in the Fredericksburg
area. Although, making the choice of which to visit first became much
simpler when my wife, a college-educated, classroom teacher and artist
chose Grape Creek Vineyards because the wine’s label looked
|Grape Creek Vineyard,
approximately 10 miles east of Fredericksburg,
rests, like so many of its neighbors, on a beautiful expanse of land
that is awe-inspiring even during the slight decay of a late Autumn.
The winery’s owner, Brian Heath, and his companion Jennifer Evenson
welcomed us as we walked around back of the tasting room. (We discovered
later that this area was the official “red” tasting location-the winery
being of a size to warrant a second room for the whites and those
reds not quite in the meaty, heavy hitter category). Like so
many of his colleagues across the country, Mr. Heath came to the wine
industry after years in the business world. But, possessing both
a predilection for the wine trade and a desire for a new direction,
he also came equipped with a pre-penned business proposal when a Hill
Country winery came up for sale in 2006.
Heath knew, from the outset, what he wanted by purchasing the winery.
For himself, at least, there is much more to the wine business than
crushing, aging, bottling and selling grape juice; he wanted to create
an “experience that’s centered around wine.” From this vision, Heath
has managed to produce a sort of wine theme park replete with tasting
rooms, wine-related merchandise such as t-shirts, books and snack
foods and even a red trolley for carting visitors around the property
to inspect the storage tanks, the oak barrels and, of course, the
vineyard which literally surrounds the facilities. The effect is one
of immersion in the wine culture.
As we sat and spoke that Saturday afternoon, I noticed that many people
had already discovered the quiet pleasure of an afternoon spent with
a fine Texas wine. Each tasting room teemed with small families or
couples out for the adventure of the new and, perhaps, the unexpected.
I mentioned that the place seemed lively, even crowded. Heath responded
with, “We’re usually much busier. This is pretty light.” Evidently,
I was the novice in the room; the green grape on a matured vine.
Later, Mr. Heath
loaded us into his pick-up and we headed out to the storage areas.
As his website maintains, there is an underground facility that
may or may not be the sole subterranean storage room in the whole
of Texas wineries. Filled with double layers of French and American
oak barrels, much of the vineyard’s red wine was patiently waiting
its turn at the bottling machine-some destined for release in a
few months, some still needing another year or more. Anticipating
production growth, several new casks stood at the ready, plastic-wrapped
and waiting for the next vintages of red wines that Grape Creek
will produce this next season. Even with twelve constant, annual
varietals, Heath is looking to increase the winery’s production.
At least one blend will highlight an Italian varietal in keeping
with the “Tuscany in Texas” theme.
Standing in the chilled warehouse where the vineyard’s white wines
are stored and aged, I had the feeling that I was participating
in something inherently unique. As Mr. Heath poured out samples
of a few different white wines I was impressed by his excitement
and enthusiasm for his product, his business. Each cask’s offering
brought its own tale of odyssey, risk and accomplishment. Each sip
provoked smiles and raised eyebrows all around. However, not every
wine was ready for inspection. Of one sampling, a merlot that had
only had a few months in the cask, Heath took a sip, declared it
“way too young” and with that, slapped the remainder of the liquid
into the room’s sink.
Grape Creek Vineyards is an extraordinary winery in an area of the
state that is already well known for this
business. In fact, Texas is quickly
becoming one of this country’s greatest wine producing states with
many wines far superior to those offered from other states with
much longer grape producing histories. Grape Creek illustrates that
effort as well as any winery. It is Brian Heath’s efforts, along
with his wine-maker Jason Englert, that are undoubtedly the reason
for this achievement, although, we shouldn’t be surprised by this
success. As Ms. Evenson stated, “Brian can turn any business into
a great business.”
So, sometime soon, find the time to visit one of our wineries. Find
one with a cute label and give yourself plenty of time to explore
and enjoy a uniquely Texas product. Trust me- it’ll be fun.
Copyright Byron Browne
Notes From Over Here
December 6, 2009 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com