Between Natural and Conventional – The Cowboy Wines of Dan McLaughlin

I met Dan Mclaughlin at a wine dinner at Hemlock, in the Lower East Side in New York. I’m still relatively young to wine at this point, and this dinner is a big deal for me – one of my favorite restaurants, hosted by Alice Feiring, and two of my favorite winemakers, Olivier Cousin and Deirdre Heekin. We’re all seated communally and introductions are going around, and the fellow to my left tells us he grows grapes in Texas. I had tasted a Texas wine at RAW that year – La Cruz de Comal, the wines of Lewis Dickson – and I gushed about how exciting his wine was, and what a strange and charismatic character Dickson was, and Dan tells me that Lewis is buying his grapes from him. (Dan also sells to Southold, easily the most hyped wine from Texas amongst the natural circles, and he collaborates with Krista Scruggs.) We chatted all night – myself from the perspective of wine sales, him from the perspective of the grower – and he’s just a knowledgeable, curious, down-to-earth kind of guy. It turns out he has an ongoing relationship with Heekin, who is satiating his curiosity about organic agriculture and natural wine making.

Dan bought Robert Clay Vineyards 8 years ago. He’s in IT, and at the time, he’s living in Austin with his wife and two kids, with this sneaking feeling that he’s going to be unhappy if he’s in an office for the rest of his career. He imagines himself as a farmer, and after touring Robert Clay, he calls his wife and says ‘that’s it, I’m growing grapes,’ and moves his family out to Mason. At this time, Robert Clay is conventionally farmed.

(A short note about conventional farming – a truly frustrating term. We’re talking about a trend only 1-2 generations long, that includes the dark histories of pesticides, insecticides, and the growth of GMO. Monsanto is conventional. It’s agriculture that happens from a lab. I don’t need to editorialize too much on a subject I only have a passing understanding of, but in the face of thousands of years of agricultural tradition, the agricultural trends that emerged in my mother’s lifetime have somehow become ‘conventional,’ as opposed to the ‘radical’ views of ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ agriculture.)

Dan’s a man of science and intuition, and he’s learning in stride. I would describe his farming style as organic-ish: he’s not taking huge risks for the sake of ideology, but over the years he’s made choices based on which chemicals are clearly harmful – to people or to the grapes – and increasingly favors natural nutrition and anti-fungal solutions over synthetic, chemical options. My instinct tells me that he wants to prove, in numbers – to himself, to onlookers, to competitors – that these natural solutions are not just hype or trend or superstition, and by the end of the decade, I suspect his entire vineyard will be practicing organic, if it isn’t already, though I doubt he will go far enough to please the biodynamic types. (I helped spray his vines with Oxidate, an OMRI-listed fungicide, which he says “kills everything, good and bad.”)

On 20 acres, Dan will produce about 25 tons of fruit. He’ll keep somewhere between 5-10 tons for his winery. Dan has never sold a bottle of wine.

Dan is sitting on about 1800 cases of wine – very little of it bottled, some in barrel for 4 years already. He says things like, “I am not a winemaker.” People (myself included) have insisted, it’s past time that he begins to sell, and he stands firmly that he’s not ready, the wine’s not ready, and when it’s ready, it’s ready. He’s not interested in selling fun experiments in rose and petnat. He wants to sell Serious Wine, he wants to sell whole barrels, perhaps to restaurants and chefs for exclusive rights to each barrel. He wants to sell only in magnum format. I’ve tasted about 10 of his experiments.

His wine is like his grapes – increasingly headed in the direction of natural. He understands that millenials are shifting the market, and he thinks there are scientific ways to minimize the amount of correction needed in the winery. But, he has little patience for the natural community’s sense of what constitutes ‘intervention,’ and often has barbs for what he thinks of as ‘wine where you do nothing at all.’ He likes oak. He just does. He told me about a funny conversation he had with Feiring, who was, by his account, furious about the amount of new oak he applies to his merlot. On his conventional wines, he uses wood chips. He adds tartaric acid. (“In France, they chaptalize. In Texas, we acidify.” As of this writing, it’s 106 degrees outside, and we’ll be picking at 24-25 brix, 3.4-3.5 PH, by the first week of August.)

July 13 – the numbers reveal that the syrah and the grenache are at almost 19 brix, 3.1-ish PH, and Dan (along with Julian Kelly, our resident Napa cellar rat) determine that now’s the time to play. We wake up at 4 am, and hand-pick 840 pounds of grapes – 80% syrah, 20% grenache. We’re going to make 2 carbonic roses – 1 natural, 1 conventional. To Dan’s mind, this is the way to draw conclusions about process, and he constructs an experiment. In one, everything goes in – I mean everything, absolutely unsorted, so there’s all sorts of little green secondary that will contribute acid. In the other, we spend 3 hours hand sorting, pulling out all the bird-peck and green fruit, and he adds in a commercial yeast. Both are pumped full of C02. When they complete primary, they’ll be free-run, and Dan will acidify the ‘conventional’ batch. I can nitpick his experiment, as no doubt many readers will. But, I admire his commitment to experiment, and despite his tough-talk about chemistry, I believe he is already leaning towards natural production. I bet him $100 that if he blinds his wife, she will prefer the natural wine.

(password is ProFor2013 – this is a funny pilot for a proposed reality television show called Texas Wine Wranglers, and it documents Dan’s story and some of the early years, as well as some of the culture of Mason.)

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