Friday, March 29, 2013

A Texas Soul: Visting Kerrville Hills Winery

In 2012, my New Year's resolution was to visit all the wineries on the Texas Hill Country trail. I started well, visiting six within the first month. I followed up, in May, with other trips, finally making it to the top of the trail and near Austin. However, it took nearly a year, January 2013, to head out east to Kerrville Hills Winey. And after that visit, I started this post three times; I didn't know exactly what I should say.

Why did it take so long? Well, I didn't know how to approach a post about a winery that wasn't primarily using Texas grapes. In fact, that has been a highly debated topic these days: what constitutes a Texas wine and even a Texas wine drinker. Some purists will say that unless a wine is made from 100% Texas fruit, it isn't Texas; most will compromise with the 75% needed to get the Made in Texas designation. Both of these ideas place Kerrville Hills in an awkward place. As of right now, only one of their wines, the Blanc du Bois, is made from Texas grapes; all other grapes are outsourced from Shannon Ridge in Lake County, CA. So how to go about talking about a Texas winery that, in essence, is making California wine? Here, I have to say the soul of Kerrville Hills is purely Texas, even if the grapes aren't.

Winery Entrance

A Soul in the Hills
Take the path that winds up
the hill
to reach the home
at the summit.

Inside the walls, you will 
find all the comforts
achieved through hard work,
made precious through dedication.

Sip the wine as you marvel
at its creation. Behind the windows,
it is born, nurtured,
a careful hands brings it to life.

Don't be afraid to love
this soul
as it moves along its journey.


So as the saying goes, "Home is where the heart is," so that means that Kerrville Hills' heart is found imbedded deep in Texas. Winermaker and owner Wayne Milberger is grounded in Texas. His family hails from Houston and has long been involved in Texas agriculture. And for those from San Antonio, the name Milberger isn't unique. In fact, it's Wayne's family that owns and operates Milberger Landscaping and Nursery on San Antonio's Northeast side. To top that off, Wayne Milberger has long been associated with Texas wine, having joined the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association in 1981. There is a deep rooted sense of Texas here, despite the lack of Texas grapes.

The Winery site just before construction

But the physical home also has a Texas soul. The winery sits on the foundation of an older Texas farmstead. In the 1960s, the property owners had a very large farmhouse. The life of this family can still be seen on what is left of the original structure. There is little left today due to a fire that struck the house. What has been left, a chimney (that is being reinforced for safety) and the floor provide great character to the place. This is the soul of the winery.

The original farmhouse chimney in the tasting room

The chimney is a large brick construction that stands in the middle of the tasting room and creates a center for the friendly space -- besides a tasting bar, the room provides plenty of comfortable sitting space and room to walk about. However, the chimney is not in the best of shape, so winemaker Wayne used his engineering skills to reinforce it. This one item is a great representation of what this winery is about. Kerrville Hills does not grow any of its own grapes, but this is still a Texas winery. The chimney is the tasting room's centerpiece, it's physical heart. This has been reinforced by the owner's own dedication to the entire winery.

The floor is a different story. When work began to build the winery and tasting room, it was suggested that the floor be scrapped. Brenda Hardy, the Tasting Room Manager who also decoarted the space, said that was not a good idea. The concrete floor was still in great condition. The problem many saw with it was the discoloration. Some areas saw a bit too much heat during the fire, but mostly, the scars of it as a residence are more noticeable. Areas where water leaks occurred or pipes were laid, etc., have left marks. Some of the clearest can be found back near the bathroom where pictures of the property (as it grew from the rubble) line a back wall. The shapes and colors are an odd work of art that Brenda has made a part of the rest of the tasting room's decor. The floor is a lifeline in this spot in the hills near Kerrville.

Back half of the tasting room with obvious floor discoloration


When Sean and I went through our tasting, I was disappointed by the lack of Texas grapes. Even later as I talked to Wayne, I was a bit disappointed that, for now, there is no plan to get more. Wayne is happy with the the grower he has. In fact, we were given a photo tour of the Shannon Ridge vineyard, seeing where much of the Cabernet is grown, as well as the new Petite Sirah. But, I have to look beyond the lack of Texas grapes to find a Texas soul. When it comes to winemaking, Wayne Milberger has a Texas soul.

Texas is a can-do sort of state. In Texas, we take what we have and make the best of it. The wine industry, especially the grape growing, follows this model. We have great soil, but our weather is eradicate and unpredictable. California's Napa and Sonoma Valley are blessed with consistent weather, both with temperature and rain; they have nice cool nights and warm days. In the Texas High Plains, there are many days like that, but too many that are not. And it is hard to think of Texas these days and not think of drought; though last year's perfectly timed drought and rain may have been a great boon for the industry. Add in the high winds, hail, and other destructive natural phenomenon, and the recipe for great grape growing just isn't there. Somehow, though, Texas pulls through with quality product. This sort of soul is Texas and Texas winemaking; it is also seen at Kerrville Hills but in a different way.

The bottler
Wayne sees to everything himself. This not only includes all the work that goes into turning grapes into wine but also all the other work that needs to help keep the wine in motion. Wayne showed Sean and I around the winery. He seemed very proud of the little area where the bottler was. The small machine, like many, has had its share or problems. Wayne has done a lot to make it not only run but run better. So just as our daring grape growers struggle with mother nature, Wayne struggles with the nuts and bolts to help produce his wine. He is as dedicated to making the machines run as he is to the winemaking. In fact, Wayne provided us a lot of technical insight to the machines and his work. At the time, I can say I had enough science background to not get totally lost. However, my background cannot even begin to help in communicating it all. What I can share is his enthusiasm. He could provide intricate details about the workings of the machines, as well as the work he has done to them. This is love. 

The Wine

Wayne Milberger admitted he wants to make wine, not grow grapes. I can respect that. There is a devotion to craft here. And as with every craft, there are lessons to learn and goals to reach. At the end of our journey, we discover our soul. So as one surpasses one test here and makes a mistake there, the journey teaches us about who we are. The work from the grape to the glass, and all of its steps and missteps, helps to make clear who we really are. That journey here is one of Texas.

Petite Sirah in tank
One test that looks to be a future success is a forthcoming Petite Sirah. During our visit, Sean and I got to sample some straight from the tank. This relatively new wine came out dark. It's flavors, its bold fruit, made me think of the Petite Sirah from Bending Branch. If all goes well during the aging process -- Wayne likes to really age his wine, allowing them quite awhile in the barrel and the bottle before releasing them -- this wine will prove to be a fruity dream. And the journey to that dream is a part of this winery's soul.

And of course, no journey has no perils. One such peril is when the wine escapes. It seems that once, there was a bit too much wine in a tank (considering all the other components and actions going on). As the wine began a new part of the process, it started to move closer and closer to the top edge of the tank. Before long, the wine came gushing out; instead of good 'ol Texas T, Texas W reached towards the very high ceilings and flooded the floor in a rich purple. It must have been an exciting sight and something to remember. A lesson was learned on how much wine to put in a tank and how to handle it so as not to repeat this event. So the Texas gusher taught a good lesson.

The Kerrville Hills line-up as of Jan. 2013

Now, I know most Texas wine drinkers will turn away from many a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot; these grapes are not very Texas friendly. And there are others who will only drink 100% Texas. But we have to face facts. Texas only has about 4400 acres of farmable grape land in production (Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association). There are California vineyards that far surpass our state's total acreage. Let's add to that we are #4 on the list for wine consumption -- but only 5th for production (Texas Tech). These numbers are just not adding up. So we have to look beyond the grape to find Texas wine. There is more to Texas than the land, right? Texas is a state of mind, it is something about the soul. Kerrville Hills has that soul. The wine is imbued with the love and sweat of a Texan winemaker. So maybe the grapes may hail from the land of perfect grape growing weather, but it is here, in Texas, that it is shaped and formed into a new creation. My very writing falls into that same category. The words I use are English -- born in the heart of an other country -- but I can form them to make something uniquely American, very Texan. The same can be said of each bottle of Kerrville Hills wine.

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