Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wine Wednesday: Pedernales Cellars 2009 Merlot

Last week, I found myself with tendinitis in my left arm and was placed on some serious meds -- ones that cautioned against even a single drink. This week, I am better and still taking some medication, but they say to limit alcohol. So with the prohibition lifted, I rifled through my collection of bottles looking for just the right one. After Sean's and my recent visit to Pedernales Cellars, as well as their kind visit to the Better Block Party in San Antonio, I knew I had to open one of their bottles. I side stepped my horde of Block One, which has been sold out since March, and  somehow came to the 2009 Merlot we bought a while back during a visit to Vinously Speaking. Ah, when I opened this wine this week -- after nine days of no wine -- I felt a relaxing satisfaction.

Pedernales Cellars 2009 Merlot


This wine is subtle and surprising. When I took a few moments with the aroma, I caught scent of rich chocolate that was emboldened by the sweetness of dark fruit (more the sweet smell associated with the fruit rather than the fruit smell). After swirling and lingering, the strength of the wine moved forward, one of tobacco and earth. The scent went from lush to deep in just a few swirls.

The rich aroma gives way to flavors that are more subtle than rich. Honestly, I had been avoiding Merlots for a bit; I had gotten bored by them, especially the relative blandness I kept finding. When I tasted this wine back at the shop and this week, I was reminded about the interesting nuances Merlot can manifest when grown and matured in Texas. In this case, the flavors connected to the aroma -- the chocolate, the dark fruits, even the tobacco and earthier flavors -- are light and soft. They dance on the tongue and slide right by. Even as I sat chewing at the wine, I still had to hone in to find these flavors. They were only hints at first, but with care, they dance and mingle together.

What was noticeable was the warmth, or burn, in the wine. I was surprised that as I began to swallow, the heat suddenly picked up. It was a pleasant surprise that played with the tobacco in the wine. But even this strong sensation melded away. This wine enticed my palate but made me eager to drink more. It was as if there were hidden treasures still waiting for me or lost pleasures to be revisited; I had to dive right back in.


Heat brushes my skin.
Across the sky, clouds slip and shift.
I stop to note it. 

This week saw me back to full time work (which means trying to teach six writing heavy college courses). My summer is past, and I find myself embracing the word Fall -- all this despite the heat outside that constantly reminds me that Summer doesn't end for at least three more weeks (officially) and will likely linger for a few more after that. And so it was no surprise that vacation was on my mind. But what was interesting was the sort of summer night that came to me as I pondered over this enticing wine.

I see a warm, dry summer night. The heat from the day is slowly dissipating but it still lingers on as night settles in. But it is the heat of night that is comfortable and just noticeable -- like the subtle flavors in the wine. The dry night whisks away the few beads of sweat that form, so there is just enough time to notice and feel the heat but not enough to be enveloped or overtaken by it -- and this is just like the heat I tasted as I drank the wine. There is a comfortable, relaxing quality about this sort of summer night. It is so easy to just sit outside and gaze up at the night sky.

Gardens by Moonlight -- San Antonio Botanical Gardens

And the night sky is full of long, thin clouds. The clouds swiftly move across the sky, shifting the colors just slightly: one moment it seems a flat black or maybe a dark charcoal gray, next a midnight blue peaks through, at another time it is a deep purple that spreads along the space. This fluctuating color is slow and subtle, despite the clear and constant movement of the clouds. But the clouds not only give way to different colors but also different views. Sometimes the sliver of moon shines bright or is obscured by a circle of clouds. Sometimes a cluster of stars, or maybe a rogue individual, blinks in the sky. And then there are the times that there seems to be nothing but open sky.

A glimpse of the moon -- William Chris Vineyards 2012

This subtle and slow change in the sky is matched only by the activity that surrounds me. An animal's call may pierce the quiet, but it always fades away. The laughter of playing children breaks the silence, but they quickly return to it knowing that they need to make sure their parents don't remember what time it is and force them to go in and go to bed. The sounds seem to appear suddenly, but they do not break the mood, and they fade away naturally. And just as they appear and disappear, so do the birds that sweep out of the trees from one branch to another. Or, maybe, without warning, a bat glides into view and moves smoothly from one peripheral to the other. This is a night of natural and smooth peaks and valleys.

Out in the open, I sit and enjoy this, concentrating on every stimuli I can. The ground around me has seen the worst of summer; the grass comes in odd shaped and sized clumps of faded green and crunchy brown. There seems to me more dirt than grass. But that is okay; it gives me one less thing to focus on. It is stable and simple. In this open space, I can feel the heat as it seems to breeze by. I can follow the clouds on their trek across the sky. I can listen for the sounds that murmur and crescendo. I can watch as the world moves on.

I remember so many nights like this as a child. The kids on my block would come back out after dinner. With the day cooling, it made for a great time to run. And with the dark, hide and seek became a real challenge. Even a good journey into the realm of make believe was aided by the darkness and its sensations. As we gathered to play, our parents gathered to chat. They would come together in someone's driveway -- lawn chairs and cool drinks in tow -- to share the news of the week. I made use of those summer nights and wish I could recapture them. As I sipped and savored this wine, I felt they were back again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wine Wednesday Hiatus

There will be no Wine Wednesday review this week - I was planing on enjoying another TX Malbec this week but that got interrupted.

In fact, I struggle to write this -- I really am struggling as I am not supposed to use my left arm, and I prefer to type two-handed.

I have been struggling on and off since February with a problem in my left shoulder. I thought I had licked it, but it reappeared a few weeks ago. I went back to my old treatment and soldiered on, hoping it would subside. And it did, for about three days. Luckily, one of those days was the grape stomps I attended this past weekend. However, I woke up Sunday morning with the pain back, and it progressively worsened through very early Tuesday morning. The pain got so bad I couldn't put any pressure on it.

I went to the doctor yesterday afternoon to be told I have tendinitis in my shoulder -- right at the joint where four major muscles meet (all of who have been in pain for days). I was given a few strict orders. The main one was not to use it for a few days and then SLOWLY start using it again. That has put a bit of a crimp in about everything.

But the best of all, at least to help me, is my medication. I was given a cortisone shot and prescribed an anti-inflammatory. They have done wonders. However, they restrict drinking. That would be fine, except I need a bit of help with the pain at night, in order to sleep. That has come at a steep price. The painkiller, much like Valium with Alieve thrown in, recommends no alcohol during use. Since I would normally drink in the evenings with dinner (at least during the week), that makes it next to impossible to spend time with a wine.

This leads to one thing: no Wine Wednesday. I hope to see some major improvements by the weekend, which should bode well for next week.

Until then, cheers,

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Grape Stomp 2012, Day One?

The grape stomp season is in full swing, so I decided to enjoy the first day of Hill Country festivities by visiting Pedernales Cellars and William Chris Vineyards for their stomps (they will continue the fun on August 25 & 26). Sean and I revisited some fine wines and felt the grapes squish between our toes.

Both stomps I attended were relatively low key. Pedernales enjoyed a steady stream of visitors, especially groups, as they headed out into the field to leave their purple foot prints. Despite the numbers, the stomp was not the focus there; the wine and enjoyment of the slightly cooler weather on the porch seemed to predominate. When we arrived at William Chris, Hye Society members seemed to be most enjoying the stomp -- we ran into some familiar faces while stomping. The clam day allowed us to unwind and relax as we caught up with people we hadn't seen in awhile.

Stomping at Pedernales

At Pedernales: A Texas tub of Tempranillo

At Pedernales, an old claw-foot tub was filled with Tempranillo. We had to wait a bit, as when we prepared to stomp, they needed to bring out some new grapes. The wait seemed to go on, but it was well worth it. Before stomping, we got a chance to try some of the Tempranillo. The grape was rich and full. Though not as juicy as the Tannat I had at Bending Branch several weeks ago, the flavor was wonderful. It coated my mouth with a deep fruitiness that hinted at spice. Sean commented that he never expected the grape to hint so much at the wine (one we had just enjoyed with a picnic on the porch).

Finishing my stomp

Sean leaving his prints

The great taste wasn't the only benefit gained from waiting. The new grapes were cool and full. As I stomped, the grapes enveloped my feet in a cool veneer that was quite enjoyable. The grapes squishing between my toes and the exfoliation of the seeds made the stomp a pleasurable experience.

My big purple foot prints

The steady stream of stompers continued to gather out under the trees in sight of the porch, waiting for their turn to stomp. The music from the porch made its way down to the trees, providing a soundtrack for the stomping. In fact, it was unusually pleasant. A light cloud cover and breeze kept the heat at bay. I almost forgot it was August.

Stomping at William Chris

The juicy grapes at William Chris

We were greeted by what seemed like everyone at William Chris and made our way to the stomp by the barrel rooms. Under the awning, we stomped a mixture of Cabernet grapes and store bought grapes (they had few grapes to use for the stomp, so they made it last by adding a little extra). I got lost in the conversation as I stomped, but I did concentrate just enough. Knowing that store bought grapes don't make the best imprint, and after viewing some weak prints from previous stompers, I made sure to crush the Cabernet, stomping up and down the metal tub of grapes. Sean thought I was being silly, but the proof was on the shirt; my prints came out clear and strong.

Beginning to stomp

The humidity was rising, and so despite the cloud cover, it was getting warm; in fact, Andy (who helped me stomp) was already getting a bit red from the heat. We escaped inside for the tasting. The rooms were packed with tasters. Just like at Pedernales, the guests were much more interested in the wine. We had to wait for our tasting, but it was well worth it again. We had a chance to see some of the work on the expansion taking place, but then we got an entire tasting bar to ourselves. We lingered over the tasting, chatting with our steward.
My prints
 We ended our day early so we could go to dinner. Though we could have pushed on to Texas Hills (they will continue stomping August 25-26) for one more stomp, we quickly turned home -- I had scored some great dinner reservations for the Culinaria Restaurant Week in San Antonio (which runs until through Saturday, August 25). We left behind a sky heavy with rain clouds yet not yet raining to head for dinner. We hope to be back for the Becker stomp (Aug 25-26 and Sept. 1-2), and maybe even Chisholm Trail or Westcave. Even if we don't make it, we have the perfect wardrobe for next month's wine club pick-up parties.

Upcoming Stomps

Sunday, August 19, 2012

36: Rambling Rose' (Culinaria)

36: Rambling Rose'
Deceptive pink gem:
your soft flowers on the nose 
belie crisp fruit depths.

San Antonio's annual Culinaria event at Becker Vineyards took place Saturday, August 11. Rambling Rose' invited guests to blind taste six rose' wines picked by the panel of experts. This lesson in wine was a great place for beginning wine drinkers and experts alike.

The Event

Rambling Rose panel (Dr. Becker center) and guests

Dr. Richard Becker presided over a collection of wine experts, aided by Steven Kreueger, Resort Sommelier for the Westin La Cantera. Joe Becker joined his father on the panel with a San Antonio wine retailer (Vintage 2.0), a wine connoisseur and friend of Dr. Becker's, a San Antonio food and wine writer (John Griffin from Savor SA), a Houston area chef, and Becker's new winemaker John Leahy. (Note: It was sometimes difficult to hear and keep up, which is why I do not have everyone named. I honestly feel horrible about this. If anyone knows who I left out, please let me know so I can make the change). These knowledgeable gentlemen guided the assembled group through six roses they helped choose, including Becker's Provencal.

Our six wines

We were provided six roses, ranging in color from a nearly white pink to a deep magenta pink. The group went through them, one at a time. Members on the panel described their responses to the wine and encouraged the rest of us to do the same. In addition, they gave lessons on roses, discussing each wine's merits as roses. They also happily welcomed questions about rose' wines and wine in general, answering the questions as completely as possible. At the end, we found out that most of the wines, with the exception of two, were French roses.

Food provided by Chef Brand

Before we started, we were welcomed to enjoy an array of fine cheeses and crackers. Towards the end of the tasting, what was actually a bit poorly timed, was the arrival of our hors d'oeuvres. We enjoyed lamb, carrot tar-tar, and a stone fruit with mustard salad prepared  by John Brand (Las Canarias and Ostra in San Antonio).

The Wines

At the end of the event, things got rushed. First, the food came out later than anticipated and interrupted the panel. And with all that, the wines were introduced quickly. And as I do not speak French, I struggled to get the wine's names (and had no chance to see them afterward as they needed to prepare for the 3 o'clock sitting).


First, what is a rose' wine? Basically, it is general a red varietal or blend that has limited contact with the grape skin (as I learned at Grape Creek later, it can be as little as a few days). This causes the wine to have a soft tone or hue to develop that can range from just a hint of pink (looking more like a white) to a more magenta and robust pink that is more akin to a typical red wine (these are deep or high roses).

Steven Krueger, Westin La Cantera Resort Sommelier

The panel shared some interesting trivia and info about this wine. First, in Europe, it is not uncommon to see a group, after a hard day of work, to sit down and enjoy a nice rose' (here it would more often be a beer). This wine is a part of the culture of France and Italy.

The other interesting topic was temperature. Here in South Texas, we don't mind this wine being cold. However, the panel said for the best result, it depends on the wine itself. A rose' can be enjoyed anywhere from slightly chilled to cellar temperature. In our gathering, with the heat just outside the doors of the Lavender Haus, we all would have preferred the wines a bit cooler (they were probably set out a bit early). One key thing to keep in mind when choosing temperature was flavor. The colder the wine gets, the more the fruit flavors actually diminish and the mineral flavors come out. Again, Texas drinkers are comfortable with this, as we have come accustomed to wines rich with minerals.

The Tasting

1: Becker Provencal

Wine one, one of the most popular in the bunch, turned out to be the Becker Provencal (the only Texas wine in the bunch, which I found a bit sad). It was one of the lightest in color, with the hint of pink matching the light floral aroma. This proved to be one of the most delicate with subtle fruit flavors (strawberry is just noticeable). For me, this wine was a cool spring day. I could easily see the early wildflowers in bloom, especially the light yellow and pink slips that can blanket fields.

2: Provence Rose'

Wine two, from Provence, was a bit darker with more a stronger floral bouquet and fruit tones. Here, fruits like cherry slipped in and turned earthy towards the end. This wine was like swimming on a hot summer day. The pool keeps the heat at bay, but there is still the warmth just above the water line.

3: Mondavi Deep Rose'

Wine three was a Mondavi high or deep rose' from Napa. This wine looked more like a light red than a rose', but it was pleasant nonetheless. The redder color gave way to a richer fruit aroma (versus the more floral ones) and taste. Stronger fruit flavors, like a touch of blackberry, came through. To me, this wine was like picking fruits in the early morning at the peak of the season. It is still cool but the sun is quickly warming things up and sending the smell of oozing fruit into the air.

4: Languedoc Rose'

With wine four, we returned to France and the lighter colors. This wine, from Languedoc, was a solid pink or salmon tone that smelled mainly of fruit with a hint of the floral. This wine had a fullness of flavor that the others didn't -- they were mainly a bit subtle. This wine ended up dry with a nice blend of fruit and minerals. It was a smooth wine from start to finish. This wine was a playful and yet relaxed one. This wine reminded me of the Texas coast in October. Though it is fall, the days are still warm and so is the water. It is my favorite time of year because I can go swimming by day and enjoy cool strolls along the beach at night.

5: Cape Bleue

The next wine (five) was Jean Luc Columbo Cape Bleue (I'm glad I got this one right). It had a darker tone than our fourth wine, but it was obviously a rose'. The floral tones took center stage, pushing the fruit aroma to the back. The same can be said of the taste. This wine was the earthiest and driest of the bunch. It was crisp and acidic, which caused the fruit to be light and minimal. This is a perfect spring day. The sky is an almost-white blue with only a few very thin clouds. Even the sun seems lighter in color than normal. The cool winds are still blowing and the world seems lighter.

6: Chablis region Rose'

Our last wine (six) was the second darkest, but its dark pink color was a trick, as the aroma was light and more floral than the other dark wines. This 2011 from Chablis was complex and relied on the Syrah to provide the more developed fruit flavors not as noticeable in the aroma. There was an underlying earthiness, but the deep fruit flavors like plum stood strong throughout. This wine is a summer evening; the heat of the day is slowly being washed away as the sky turns purple. The breeze picks up and is cool. This is a respite from a long summer day.

All done!

These six wines were an interesting tour of a type of wine that I am just really getting into. In fact, this has been my summer of rose'. I started focusing on this wine as the days grew warm. During my May trip, I searched for some nice, cool roses, but found that close to home I found the best: Becker's Provencal, Bending Branch's High Plains Rose', William Chris's Current, and Pedernales' Rose'. After all of this, I know it will be my go-to wine next summer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

WW: Brennan Malbec

This past Saturday, Sean and I made a quick visit to 4.0 Cellars. I was eager to try the recent WOW -- Wine of the Week. The Fall 2008 Comanche Vineyard Brennan Malbec was everything I was looking for and more.  I expected a strong Texas Malbec, one with a subtle complexity and minerality. What I instead found was somewhere between the best Texas has to offer and the smooth deep Malbecs of Mendoza Valley Argentina.

Brennan Malbec

Tasting Notes

From the beginning, this wine is a shock. It's aroma matches that of most Argentina Malbecs, rich and fruity, but deep and not sweet. It is a seductive aroma. This wine asks to be tasted.

The taste sits somewhere between Texas and Argentina. The wine starts with the smooth, rich, dried fruit flavors of an Argentinian Malbec. The fruit forward nature fills the mouth and is rich and heavy. As the wine moves over the palate, the complexity deepens. The smoothness is a bit rougher as the minerals and earthiness of a Texas Malbec rounds out the flavors; however, the typical smoothness of the Malbec is never lost. It is a journey from the South to the North (funny to think of Texas as North).

A Texas Winter

Languid ripples lap 
the feet of towering trees.
The sun keeps winter away.

The first part I noticed was the consistent richness of the wine. Through this whole process, the richness from the beginning is the most cohesive part, as if it is the glue that joins the smooth fruit flavors at the beginning to the complex mineral tones at the end. But what stood out most to me was what can best be described as temperature. The wine gives the impression of being cool. When it is first tasted, there seems to be something light and cool in it. But that is deceptive. There is a warming undertone that grows more noticeable as the mineral and earthy flavors take over. This kept nagging at me as I drank it; I couldn't place it.


East Texas Lake @ San Antonio Botanical Gardens (late Fall)

Before long, an image of a lake came to mind. The lake was encased by tall pines and water friendly trees. I knew I was seeing the lake in the East Texas zone at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. This popular retreat resembles the forested areas along the Eastern border of Texas. It makes me think of driving to Plantersville for the Renaissance Festival in the Fall. The highways are lined with these tall looming pines and other wet climate trees. They always seem much taller than the trees here in the Central region. They always seem so green.

This was the first image I clearly got. I noticed that at the end of the wine, the Texas part. The minerals and earth hold the more delicate flavors in, just like the trees ringing the lake, a fence so the lake could stay safe and protected. Here, the richness starts to take shape. I start to see the earthiness in the trees: the deep roots, the rugged bark, and the great greenness.

A Winter Egret at the water's edge (SA Botanical Gardens)

But then there was the richness of the front-end of the wine, the fruit richness. This is the rich, dark soil that overpowers the senses. The soil in East Texas zone of the gardens is potent; before I even reach the lake, I can smell a mustiness, but it becomes deep and moist in its scent -- just like the scent of the wine (minus the mustiness). But the actual feel of the ground beneath my feet makes me think of the deep, rich fruit flavor of the wine. The ground here is dark and soft (a bit spongy) underfoot. It feels so dense, so deep. This is the fruit flavors and richness that I taste early in the wine.

Cool Tinged Warmth

Then there is the wine's temperature that so attracted me. What was it? It was so much like a visit Sean and I had to the gardens last winter, late fall. The sky was clear and crystal, brilliant blue. My first thoughts, being that it is supposed to be fall/winter, were it must be chilly; the night before must have been equally clear, which should lead to a crisp day. And when I first step into the Botanical Gardens and the light North wind blows, I am touched by the cool of the day; I relish it. When I first sip at the wine, there seems to be this same coolness.

Wintering ducks at the East Texas lake

However, this is Texas, and it never gets truly cold this far south. As I slowly move through the wine, the warmth becomes more and more noticeable. The same with late fall, early winter. On those beautiful clear days, the heat sneaks up. Slowly but surely, it is impossible not to feel at least a bit warm. And if I am out at the Botanical Gardens, I know I will get warm. When I leave the shade and cool of the East Texas lake, the open fields of the Hill Country show up. Here the sun beats directly down. Before long, even with a light breeze blowing in from the North, the sun warms things up. This is Texas after all, and even in the coldest parts of the year, it is not odd to have days reach a high into the seventies. Early winter is the most deceptive time of year, as this is when it seems cool and a bit chilly, but before long, it can be quite warm (a comfortable warm). This is no different with this enticingly tricky Malbec.

The Winter sun beating down in the San Antonio Zoo bird exhibit

This wine so fascinated me as I drank it. There was so many interesting aspects in play, but I couldn't quite put my finger on them. I spent much of my second glass slowly swirling the wine in my mouth. My eyes closed, I searched for the illusive image that was just out of reach. I knew, without much effort, that the wine was a journey that moved down the mountaintops near the Mendoza Valley, snaked up the South American rivers, crossed through harsh desert terrain, and finally rested in the limestone beds of Texas. I knew it was more. It reminded me of some of my favorite sensations; at that point, I knew it was a peaceful escape into nature during my favorite time of year. And right now, an escape to a cool day in the shade sounds perfect.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vitis Poema on Facebook

My blog now has its Facebook page. I hope to dedicate this page to updates on posts, but also questions, discussions, and similar points that don't do well in the blog format. Please Like me.

Monday, August 13, 2012

35: A Saturday Afternoon Tour (Touring Grape Creek)

This Saturday was a big day on 290 for me. The focus of my day was San Antonio's Culinaria event Rambling Rose' at Becker Vineyards (coming up in a post later this week). Afterward, we headed back down the road to take the tour at Grape Creek Vineyards. Sean and I took advantage of their online special -- tasting and tour for $15. This tour was educational -- much like Wine Words from Jeff, a regular Facebook post from Grape Creek -- and fun. By the time I left, I knew a bit more about wine and a lot more about Grape Creek.

The tasting rooms and courtyard at Grape Creek

Quick Tour Info

Special: Through today, visitors to the website can purchase this great offer ($15). Normally the barrel tour is $20 with an additional tasting fee for $10, making it $30 total. For those wanting to take advantage of this special, it must be done TODAY, Monday, August 13 and online. One advantage though is that the certificate is good for any day and any time during August, meaning there are two more weekends and a total of eighteen days to take the tour.

Basics of the Tour: Guests hop on a tram to drive by the vineyards where they are dropped off at the crush pad. From there, a lesson on the crush occurs before heading into the tank room. After that, guests visit the barrel room where they get to taste the same wine from three different types of barrels. If the tour includes a tasting, guests move into a section of the barrel room where they enjoy the normal Grape Creek tasting but done in private with the group. This entire journey lasts about an hour.

A Saturday Afternoon Tour

A quiet vineyard
means a bustling winery:
grapes change into wine  

We left the beautiful Tuscan patio near the Grape Creek tasting rooms at 3 p.m. The summer sun didn't stop the small group of eight from getting on the tram. Our guide, Gordon, pointed out key areas of the vineyard as we drove by, especially the Montepulciano, harvested the week before, and the Aglianico. These two Italian varietals are combined at Grape Creek to make their Epiphany wine; Gordon told us that in Italy, this blending is not allowed, making Grape Creek's wine a unique one.

A picked line of vines

The Crush Pad

As we came upon the crush pad, we were provided a little history. Grape Creek is one of the oldest wineries on the 290 trail. But the Grape Creek many now know and love is not the same one. In 2006, Brain Heath bought the winery and moved it forward. I remember the winery back around the change. The tasting room, now part of the B&B, only held about 10-12 people before it became uncomfortable. Besides the space, I also felt uncomfortable visiting, and the wines didn't draw me back. Sean and I made a return visit (four years later) in 2010, and found the wonderful winery that Brain helped to build. The entire area has been expanded: two beautiful tasting rooms, patio/courtyard, and a new production facility. While the old tasting room is now the B&B, the old production facility, with space below it, is now the barrel room. The expansion was also in varietals, as the winery switched to more Texas friendly grapes and unique blends. And of course the addition of Jason Englert as winemaker aided the winery. Now, there is a lot more here; and best of all, this is a friendly and beautiful location with great wine.

Merlot debris post-crush
 At the crush pad, we got a chance to see the remnants of the de-stemming and crush of estate Merlot (done that morning). The residual debris from the harvest rested in the blue bins: stems, leaves, and small berries. Before our crush lesson, we were informed that Grape Creek likes to rely on their estate grapes, but also purchases grapes from Mason and the High Plains; about 80-85% of the grapes they use are from Texas. They do have one non-Texas grape; their Reisling is purchased from a vineyard in New Mexico.

Gordon explaining the crush process

This lead into the crush process. At Grape Creek, they start with one machine to loosen everything up. From there, the grapes are removed from the stem. The machine used for this starts by having the heavier items -- in this case the grapes -- fall through a grate and drop into a bin below. After that, the grapes and juice are separated. A machine uses a bladder to press the grapes so that the clear juice can come out and be piped off to a holding tank. In the case of red wines, the skin is kept around to add color, flavor, and tannins. As of right now, Grape Creek can process 10,000 pounds an hour.

The Tank Room

We were then ushered into the tank room and wine facility, which is going strong on its second harvest (one of the newest members of the Grape Creek family). Since it came online, it has doubled Grape Creek's production. In the tank room, we were able to get a look at the tanks in action -- one was covered with frost. The liners on each tank -- the bumpy texture -- is actually what is used to control the temperature of the wine during fermentation. At Grape Creek, they send the wine down to 24 degrees for 12-72 hours in order to kill the yeast. Gordon provided a neat fact at this point that Louis Pasteur didn't come to this technique from working with milk but with wine (and some of his other techniques were learned by experimenting with beer, or so many of the TexSom tweets seemed to say). After this, they add a yeast that best suits the varietal in the tank to help with fermentation.

Learning about tank fermentation

It is in the tanks that the skin and no skin issue is resolved. For whites, the skin is not kept around. But in order to add color to the rose's and reds, the skin is needed. For rose' wine, the skin is kept around for 6-7 days, but for red wine, it is kept around for 7-9 weeks.

The tank process continues depending on the wine. For a lot of whites, many wineries will keep it in the tank through the entire prcoess, staying in for 11-15 months. Some whites will be moved to barrels -- Chardonnay is often barrel-aged -- but most will stay in the tanks at Grape Creek. The reds don't spend much time here. Normally, they keep the reds in tanks for 10-12 weeks (and of that, only 1-5 are without the skin). From there, the reds move on to resting in the barrels where they will age.

At Grape Creek we saw another building/room but did not enter it. The recovery room is used to store wine after it is bottled. They keep this room set at a constant 67 degrees to help avoid bottle shock. How long it stays in this important resting place will depend on the wine. All of this is a necessity for good wine straight from the bottle, as bottle shock can damage a wine. In the movie Bottle Shock, the Chardonnay in question turns brown because of the light exposure to oxygen the wine got while being bottled. Luckily for them, it just needed time. After the wine recovered, it was beautiful, clear, golden wine. To avoid this and similair probelms, Grape Creek stores their wines for a bit after bottling.

The Barrel Room

The imposing barrel room at Grape Creek

As we stepped into the barrel room, the racks of full barrels loomed over us. We learned there was more in a downstairs facility, and we would later find out that there were more barrels hiding behind a sliding door. At Grape Creek they use three types of barrels -- American Oak, French Oak, and second vintage American Oak (aka used once before). All the barrels are toasted on the inside. This technique can add flavor and sugar to the wine, and it is used by other neighboring wineries like Becker. What was great about this part of the tour was the lesson in how the barrels were different and how they affect the wine.

Three barrels -- American, French, and second vinatge American oak -- of Cabernet Franc

Barrel Characteristics:
  • American Oak: These $600 barrels are easy to acquire. They are ready to go and tend to do best when used to age wine 11-15 months. They are also good to use a second time (and Grape Creek does that).
  • French Oak: The $1200 price tag is a result of transportation and growing (the trees used for the barrels take longer to grow than American Oak). However, this growth is great for aging wine, as the tighter grain positiviely affects the wine. These barrels are best used to age wine 15-24 months.
Cabernet Franc

In order to help us see the differences in effects, the tour has a comparison tasting of the same vintage from three barrels. We were tasting a Cabernet Franc that was put in the barrels in late December of last year, where it will stay for at least a six more months.
  • New American Oak: This wine was the earthiest of the three. The wine was strongest mid-palate and focused on the richer flavors of smoke, earth, and minerals.
  • Second Vintage American Oak: This one was the most fruity of the three. The fruit was strongest on the aroma, but strong alongside the earthy flavors that were more powerful in the aftertaste. This one was showing interesting complexity, making it one to watch for in the future.
  • French Oak: At this point, this barrel provided the most balanced and clean wine. In the aroma, the fruit is more pronounced than the earthier flavors, but the two are smoothly combined and mingle more during tasting. At this stage, this is the one I would likely drink right now.
Private tasting with Gordon and Shawn

As we were on the special tasting tour, Sean, I, and our group were brought into an adjoining barrel room to enjoy a tasting of six wines. We moved towards the end of the table and found oursleves being lead through the tasting by one of Grape Creek's wine club members, Shawn. She told us that she helps out from time-to-time because Grape Creek is her favorite winery; that and they pay her in wine. She provided an enthusiastic journey through the wines, sharing stories of Grape Creek and her other wine experiences. I have to admit that I love doing tastings in groups. In a group, you can get great ideas from others, but you also get to share. Every group tasting I have been a part of ends up getting loud, filled with stories and laughter. That is exactly how this time ended, and I couldn't be happier.

Jeff and I in the tasting room

After returning back to the hustle and bustle at the main tasting rooms, I did get to end my day with a very special meeting. Gordon introduced me to Jeff, the wine educator of sorts at Grape Creek. It was a delight to finally meet him in person after regularly following his Facebook posts (if interested, just like Grape Creek on Facebook). I also got to meet the vineyard manager. She informed me that they have been very busy as of late, but things seem to be calming down. These last two introductions topped off a great expereince that I think I will do again soon.

Friday, August 10, 2012

To Craft Wine: Bending Branch Part 3

Right now, harvest is in full swing -- Bending Branch's Tannat was harvested last week. When I log onto Facebook or Twitter, my newsfeeds are dominated by harvest news and pictures. Despite the scorching heat and odd weather, it seems to be a magical time here in Texas. And as the grapes leave the safety of the vine, they begin a more wondrous journey. The creative aspect of wine is at the forefront, as wine makers begin the process of turning grapes into a magical elixir. At Bending Branch, they continue with their hands-on development as the wine-making stage begins.


And these next steps are crucial. At Bending Branch, they don't have a normal crush, de-stemming and crushing the grapes before fermentation begins. After harvesting, they de-stem the grapes but not crush them. Instead, the juice and whole grapes are generally left intact to ferment. Bob Young explained that starting the fermentation in the berry helps to bring out more of the flavor. And if there is one thing Texas wines are good for it is their complexity and depth of flavor.

De-Stemmed Malbec

The fermentation process continues once the grapes are placed in their bins. To do this, an individual will press the grapes by hand three times a day. Using a press, the individual will press down on the grapes, sending the grapes down and the juice up. This process can increase alcohol content quickly. When we were visiting, the Malbec I had the chance to hand-press had already increased in alcohol content in only three days. Now, this process seems time consuming -- and it is -- but Bob explained how it aids fermentation. During fermentation, the grapes release CO2. The hand press actually helps to release it from the grapes and juice, aiding the process along while maintaining more of the grapes' flavor.

Malbec being hand pressed
The CO2 by-product of the fermentation may need to be released from the grape, but it is still useful in the process. If a layer of CO2 covers the grapes and juice, oxygen cannot get to the grapes. This is something that is not wanted. Oxyidation hurts the wine -- no one wants vinegar that early in the process. But worst of all, oxygen breeds bacteria. By keeping a layer of CO2, the fermenting grapes stay bacteria-free. At Bending Branch this is done very simply. Every bin is covered by a cotton bed sheet that is kept in place by bungee cords. Right after the pressing, when the the CO2 is released, the bins are covered, sealing the CO2 in, and the layer of CO2 and bed sheet help to keep the oxygen out.

Covered bin to seal in CO2

The final stages at Bending Branch are also inertesting. I have read blogs about barrel rooms that are stacked high -- Jeff Cope recently found out that Messina Hof has 800 filled barrels. Well, there weren't that many here, but the long rows of three to five barrels high and seven deep provided a good view of what is coming at Bending Branch (if this year's harvest is any indication, they will have more barrels). At Bending Branch, they have a preference for American oak because of the tastes that the oak brings to the wine. I did notice a number of French oak barrels and found out that they were actually secondhand; I was also told they have some Hungarian oak too.

Barrel Room

But there is more to barrel aging than the wine resting in a barrel for a specific number of months. An interesting fact I learned was the need for topping. Over time, the wine in the barrel will decrease. The remaining space, unfortunately, becomes a nice haven for the oxygen (and then we have oxydation and bacteria issues again). To make sure the barrels stay full, there is wine kept aside for topping off the barrels. At Bending Branch, they rely on used Anheuser-Busch kegs to hold the wine that is used for this. I am not much of a beer drinker, so I am all for using kegs for wine.

Kegs filled with wine for barrel topping

After the barrel aging is complete, the wine is hand botttled at Bending Branch. Their simple system starts with putting nitrogen in the bottles to prepare them for filling. Then the bottles are taken over for filling. Here, they can do five bottle at a time. When we visisted Texas Legato back in May, they could only do two at a time. This five-bottling system was a big step-up. Also at Bending Branch, they had machines to help with other steps, such as putting in the corks, sealing the bottles, and labeling. Again, this is an improvement from what we saw at Texas Legato; there, a single peson used very simple equipment to do one bottle at a time (and they put the labels on by hand, no machine). However, bigger operations have them dwarfed. Bob mentioned that the machines used by bigger operations start at about $300,000; a reason they chose this more simplistic system. I have seen smaller versions of this. At Becker vineyards in the barrel/tasting room and Duchman in Dripping Springs, they have the more fully automated systems. These systems rely on a conveyor belt to move bottles along the process (from preparing the bottle to labeling). At Bending Branch, the convyer belt is the people that run each machine lined up together.

Bottling machines

And when all this is said and done, award-winning wine is produced. To be honest, Bending Branch is one of those wineries where I can say I like every wine. Learning about their process, their dedication, the time, and the passion they put into each and every grape and bottle explains why. I hope things stay this way at Bending Branch; their hands-on approach produces wine of incredible quality.

Straight from the barrel: Texas Tannat

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

WW: Bending Branch Souzao

After my recent educational visit to Bending Branch, it has been hard to keep my mind off of their wine and work. Last week, I revisited the last vintage of their very unique Souzao. I remember my first time tasting this wine. It was a dreary and cold Sunday afternoon. Sean and I had been seeking out something new and inspiring. Our tasting at Bending Branch was exactly what we were looking for. As we wrapped our mouths around the Portuguese name, we lingered over this deep, inky wine. We were so taken by it that we took a bottle home. Since then, it has been one of our favorites. My opinion of this wine has only deepened over time.

The exact vintage of the Souzao (2009) that we recently drank is sold out at the winery -- though there are a few bottles hiding at a variety of HEB's in San Antonio and now Bulverde (I bought the bottle in question at HEB Alon Market in San Antonio when Jennifer was doing a Bending Branch tasting). After my visit, I saw the upcoming vintage in the barrels, so the next round is coming. And like this current one, it will be from all California grapes from the Silvaspoons Vineyard. But as I mentioned in previous posts, John and Bob have Souzao in the Comfort vineyard slowly growing (they are a few years from their first harvest).

Tasting Notes

The Souzao is best with a bit of time; letting it breath allows it to open up nicely, releasing the less sweet undertones. It is fine right after opening, but just a short wait (we let it sit for about half an hour) is best.


The first thing that comes to mind when I drink the Souzao is a dark chocolate berry or cherry truffle. During my first few sips, the flavor that comes through cleanly is that of dark chocolate (in fact, it reminds me of the vanilla touched 80% dark chocolate they sell at the winery). This chocolate is dark and rich, but it isn't particularly bitter.  This even chocolate flavor is the foundation for the wine. Layered on top of it is a dark cherry or berry like flavor like those found in a truffle. Even this, like the chocolate, is smooth, and seems to be most noticeable at the times when the wine feels silky and soft in my mouth. Again, all I can think of is a well crafted truffle.

This chocolate also reminds me of Christmas. That may seem strange, but during Christmas, chocolate takes over my kitchen. For two days or so, I melt, mold, and experiment with chocolate. The time I spend working with the chocolate reminds me of this wine. This is a free form time for me. Chocolate gets on everything -- my hands, my arms, my face, the refrigerator door, the counters, the floors, etc. -- and it quickly solidifies in the cool kitchen (I actually chill the kitchen when working with chocolate). Slick, shiny streaks of chocolate glisten under the kitchen lights. The chocolate essence found in the Souzao is like the streaks of smooth chocolate dotting my landscape. It is everywhere but not the dominating force; it is just out of the corner of the eye, but it is definitely there.


A brown leaf drifts down;
it settles in a pile 
with the reds and golds.  

A breeze whistles through the leaves;
and the brown leaf flies away.

This wine is more than a dark cherry chocolate truffle; there is something cool about it. The primary image I get is autumn. Now, I am eagerly awaiting fall; the heat and returning drought is depressing, and fall is the answer to that. Fall is a time that represents so much. It is a time of change, from warm to cool, from green to chestnut. Souzao is a wine that seems like it should be spicy but comes across more as cool; it seems as if it should be lively and vibrant but is instead subtle and sneaky. But there is more to the wine. It isn't just the change, it is what fall changes to.

When I drink the Souzao, I can sense the first cool breezes of fall. Under the last visages of the summer sun, as the day turns to evening, the breezes creep in. They sweep around a corner, and they are upon me without warning. But they are a cool kiss on my skin; they release me from the warmth and soothe me. They make me open my eyes wider; they make me want to seek them out. I want to keep them close, to follow them if I have to. As the wine moves, I feel this sense of surprising coolness; it is the hint of cool at autumn dusk.

It is also the leaves of autumn. It is the changing colors. The green leaves turn to gold, to orange, red, and finally to a nutty brown. They are subtle tones that meld into one another, all related and held together by the primary colors of yellow and red. In the wine, the chocolate is a flavor that lingers throughout, never fully slipping away.

The Souzao is also the leaves themselves. The leaves' colors make them seem earthy, but they are not. They are light and free but with substance. The leaves of the trees have weight as I collect them at my feet, but they also take flight at a moment's notice. The Souzao is a wine of weight; this is clear in its deep, inky tones. But the wine is subtle and freeing; it isn't heavy like so many reads, rich with earthy flavors and heavy with spice. Underneath the weight of the chocolate something rests, but it is illusive, like the leaves. Is it a autumnal spice; is it a hint of oak? I can't say, but it is there and not there.

The Souzao is both known and is not known. It is a wine I think I have grasped as I enjoy the truffle, but I am also searching for the subtler tones hiding just beneath. To me, this wine is autumn. And in the heat of late summer, I look to autumn for release. And I am eager for the autumn cool, the autumn colors, and the return of the Bending Branch Souzao.