Week 3 in Mason, Texas, running a vineyard and a winery with vigneron Dan Mclaughlin. The time is flying by and I see my final days rapidly approaching. I don’t write every day, in part because it’s so busy here, and it makes me feel guilty to steal away time to hide in my trailer, in the air conditioning, just so that I can upload photos to WordPress. I don’t know whether my work as a documenter is more valuable than my work as a picker, and I don’t know if detail is as important as the overview. So, I’m going to cover a lot of ground here.
It hit 110 degrees yesterday. In Fredricksburg, the surface temperature was recorded at 133 degrees. Our harvest is earlier than anyone else’s in the country. In California, they’re barely seeing verasion. We mostly pick between 6am and noon; tonight/tomorrow, we’re doing an overnight pick, starting at 1am. I might be the cook, depending on how many volunteers we have. Instant cafe con leche by the pitcher, breakfast sandwiches at 3am, a pot of oatmeal for the weary breaks, breakfast taco feast by noon, with pulled pork. We have an Instant Pot and I already know I need one in my civilian life. In the future, this operation might need a camp mom/stay at home dad. Good for morale.
Lewis Dickson, La Cruz de Comal, Canyon Lake, TX
I can only describe Lewis Dickson as a dandy. In some circles, he’s literally known for his custom cowboy boots; he boasted about his bad-ass-ery in this way: “I know I’m a badass because I wear the shirts I wear, and I’ve never had my ass beat. And people have tried.” He’s a Texan, in origin and affect, and speaks in long monologues about the deleterious effects of sulfites (“sulfites are like emptying a choir: you select only a handful of top singers, and slowly eliminate everyone else.”), before segueing into soliloquy about the power of the American Constitution. Yeah, he’s that Lewis Dickson, the son of a District judge and a former star criminal attorney, whose firm handled cases like Robert Durst and Tom DeLay. No shit.
Dickson peppers in hints about his lifelong wine education, including summers backpacking through France with the all-stars of Burgundy, but he doesn’t need to justify his background. His wine is incredible.
Dickson grows on 3 acres, in clay over limestone. He started with 10-15 varietals to see what worked out, and most of them succumbed to Pierce’s Disease, a bacterial infection which is endemic to Texas and deadly to vines. The ones that stuck were blanc du bois, a hybrid vine developed by the University of Flordia, and black spanish, an ‘unintentional’ hybrid distantly related to the Madeira grape, jacquez. (The emergence of Serious Wines made of hybrid grapes in the United States has recently been covered in detail by two writers – Mark Stock, and Peter Weltman. Great reads.) Both of these grapes are unaffected by PD, though they still often carry the disease. Without certification, his vineyard is completely organic, with biodynamic habits. He is a believer in, and prophet for, the American natural wine movement, and arguably makes the greatest wines in Texas.
Dickson met Mclaughlin because the first ever wine made at La Cruz (with the help of Tony Coturri) used grapes from Robert Clay Vineyards, a few short years before Dan bought the property. Their rapport is cool; their skillsets and personalities are complimentary. Dan brought us down to Dickson’s estate, where we sampled the goods in a tasting room that smelled of fresh cedar, slept the night in his very stylish home, and then woke up at 6am for a harvest of the blanc du bois. There were around 25 volunteers for around an acre of work, so this was breezy and fun. We knocked it out in a little over 2 hours, and celebrated with Modelos.
There are two of Dickson’s wines I want to cover in greater detail –
“Shango,” a Yoruban deity, and also a childhood nickname for Dickson, basically sidesteps the Serious Conversations about Serious Natural Wines, in favor of pure sensual pleasure. He ferments his blanc du bois, doses it with brandy, and then aromatizes it with herbs and fruit rind, much of it estate grown. His instructions are to serve it with a single ice cube and a grapefruit peel. It’s a classic aperitif, almost a vermouth, with an intoxicating citrus aroma, tons of acid, and packs 18.5% alcohol. I suggest using it to make a negroni, in place of any of the three ingredients. If you can find a bottle. It’s mad good.
Ok, this wasn’t exaaactly one of Dickson’s wines. Felton Empire was a short lived winery in the 80’s in the Santa Cruz mountains, on the historical Hallcrest Vineyards, overlooking the small town of Felton, California. Dickson was a minority owner, and he busted this gem out for us. He filtered it through a paper coffee filter into a decanter; he passed the decanter around generously. The wine had just passed its peak, but had entered what Dickson described as the ‘wisdom’ phase, ‘which is far more important than knowledge or intelligence.’ The fruit had since faded, but the acid still remained; leather and soft tannin, a gentle aroma of dust and tobacco, and the beginnings of balsamic concentration. I didn’t have much to say. I soaked up the cedar and sat drunk in contemplation and gratitude.
Regan Meador, Southold Farm + Cellars, Fredricksburg, TX
Almost every Sunday in New York, I eat lunch at Four Horsemen in Brooklyn. It’s my little treat, ok? It’s the best meal you’re missing.
The day before I left, I told them I wouldn’t be seeing them for some time, because I was going to make wine in Texas. Without hesitation, the server pulls a bottle and pours a glass, and it’s Southold’s Foregone Conclusion, a deep red made of alicante bouschet from the Texas High Plains. I hear the servers murmuring; one talks about not realizing Texas Wine Is A Thing, and the other tells her about how Texas Wine Is About to Transform The Industry.
The wine was so good.
Later that week, I’m chatting with Ricky Taylor of Alta Marfa, and I’m asking him who I should check out in Texas, and the first thing he says is, “Southold is incredible.” So the reputation of this place is building, and a week later, I’m in Texas and I ask Dan, can we go visit this place called Southold? He laughs, and says we’ll be selling them our grapes, and we’ll be working with them in their winery. Don’t worry, he’s still laughing, you’ll see plenty of Regan.
So far, he’s visited us a few times, bringing us beer and donuts, and we’ve been to his place twice. The last time, he tasted us on a few wines he’s playing with, but one really stood out – a roussanne, in one of his few barrels, that he stuck out in the sun to see what would happen. Well, it concentrated, a lot. It oxidized. It’s got a little flor-type thing growing over the top. Definitely more Jura than Jerez. It’s got VA to the nose, but tastes clean – nutty, earthy, deliciously acidic, and rich. “Maybe I’ll bottle it,” he shrugs. Anyway, he’s bought something like 10 tons of fruit from us – tempranillo, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, viognier, and merlot
Regan relocated his operations here after some problems with licenses and zoning in Long Island, New York. He’s kind of a Big Deal for natural wine in Texas right now, and he seems pretty ok with that. His winery is definitely state of the art, and his property is incredible. It sits on this steep slope, over limestone. He’s planted rootstock for 6 thousand vines, and he’s trying to dry farm; once they grow, he’ll graft. He’s hoping to have fruit within 3 years, which seems optimistic, but really, what do I know? Very little.
Some things I do know
Dan’s made a big deal out of the distinction between farmers – those who grow the grapes – winemakers – those who buy the grapes – and vignerons – those who grow the grapes and make their own wines. He’s picky about who gets the distinction “vigneron,” because lots of people own vineyards and wineries, but they don’t actually tend the field themselves – they have a staff. Me, I hate strict-constructionist ideas about words in general, but I’ve grown to appreciate the distinction he is drawing.
This, in part, is because I drink and sell wine, and so much of both is about story-telling. I’m often hearing people say things like, “at the end of the day, it’s about how the wine tastes,” as though the story weren’t part of the flavor. Here’s a story – Dan took a case of empty bottles and a corker to a children’s lemonade stand and bought them out, filled up and corked the bottles and brought them to the team to Ross-test while we picked. He interrogated me after about the flavor of the lemonade, and I said Dan, that’s not the story here; the story is you chose to support these kids, to fill wine bottles; you chose inefficiency in favor of principle and style; the lemonade tastes great. When I’m table-side, or pouring wines for friends, I do save special reverence for the men and women who grow and vinify their own grapes. But, it is only one distinction among many that I value.
Speaking of these valued distinctions – as everyone else in the country, we are daily arguing about the significance and definitions around “natural wine.” I read a description today – was it Rachel Signer? – who said merely that natural wine was organically grown grapes, vinified without additions other than minimal sulfites. Another – James Sligh – rebutting Jon Bonne’s ideas about “tradition.” (If you aren’t following natural wine gossip on Instagram, do you even drink wine?) Just yesterday in Grubstreet, Maureen O’Connor accused sommeliers of being “obsessed” with “notes of poo.” If you search “natural wine (insert small town here),” you’ll find a half-dozen hastily planted articles in local publications asking about “these funky wines everyone is talking about.” Then there are the zealots out there – partisan pundits, really – who are making the definitions around “natural” more and more strict.
I want to make only two contributions here.
There’s a Texas winemaker here, who I won’t yet call out – he is branding himself as a vigneron, with lots of photos of himself posted on his website and instagram, picking grapes and standing next to vines and big cool winemaking equipment; lots of copy about small-lot, estate grown, naturally made, etc etc – but it’s known that he purchases the fruit, passes it to a larger commercial facility, instructs them not to sulfite it, then puts his own label on it. In California and elsewhere, this process is known as “custom crush,” and although it doesn’t carry the dignity of being a winemaker or vigneron, lots of completely tasty, reputable wine is made this way. The problem, with this Texas “winemaker,” is that he hides this from the audience. Regan Meador said it clearly – transparency is everything. “You could be spraying your vines with Reaper [a toxic pesticide] a day before harvest, and although I won’t drink your wine, as long as you’re transparent, we can still be friends.” (Based, unfortunately, on a true story.) If you’re lying about any part of your process, you’re out of the club.
The other thing, is about a term related to the “natural” and “traditional” wines – intervention. Non-intervention is conflated with natural; both terms eventually bottom out into something scientifically and philosophically indefensible, but the ideas around intervention have become increasingly frustrating for me. The basic argument goes like this: wine is made in the field, and human influence should be minimized or eliminated altogether in order for the wine to be truly of its terroir. The confusion here has led to things like: Dan saying, “if it’s aged in oak, it’s not natural,” or skeptics saying things like, “natural wine is when the winemaker doesn’t do anything. It’s lazy winemaking.” Look – we follow the spirit, not the letter. There are daily decisions made in the field that impact the bottled wine. There are split-second decisions made during harvest – should I pick at 20 brix, or 21? will the PH increase if I wait another day? should I pick at 1am or 1pm? is there a machine harvester available? how much stem do I want? should I sort the bird-peck? – and ongoing decisions made over the first few days of vinification – how many days of carbonic? of skin contact? what temperature is my facility? what kind of container should the wine go through primary? through malolactic? – I mean, we could really get deep into the weeds here before we ever introduce a conversation about additives, or age of oak, or lees contact. The decision to leave wine alone is still a decision – an intervention. It’s not constructive to act as though the human involvement in winemaking is somehow unnatural. Humans are part of the terroir of wine.