For those of us who remember the early days of the modern Texas wine industry, we had a definite problem being taken seriously by the world’s wine community, and especially in the United States. California had a pretty good head start, and with the added momentum of the Judgment of Paris results in 1976, never really looked back. Texas, Oregon, and Washington all started their modern phase of wine history about the same time, but for a variety of reasons, the latter two states pulled ahead of us in terms of acreage and acclaim.
So with October being Texas wine month, I thought it might be interesting to touch on the local winery that has really helped put the Texas wineries onto the front stage of world winemaking. That winery is our friends at Bending Branch in Comfort. To say they’re on a roll is quite the understatement, especially in light of their recent critical acclaim in the press, and wine competitions, not only in local wine competitions like the San Antonio Stock Show, Houston Livestock Show, Dallas Morning News competition and the TexSom events, but national events like the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Kathy and I headed out one beautiful Friday morning recently to meet Dr. Robert Young, patriarch of this family run winery. In hindsight, I should have been more aware of the Texas harvest schedule (visitor tip #1: try NOT to visit a winery during the harvest season. It’s an incredibly busy time, running from dawn till dusk straight through until all the grapes have been picked, crushed and put into tank). But Dr. Young was most gracious with his time and sharing his insights into Texas winemaking. We met Dr. Young (“Bob”) in the tasting room (thank you again Dana and Linda for your gracious hospitality that day), and after a quick overview of the wines and different tiers for pricing, it was off to the vineyards.
For a winery that was conceived in 2009, they’ve developed a lot of history in a very short amount of time. First stop was the site of the original homestead. The early plot was a land grant after the war with Mexico in 1836 to Christian Johns and his family, who built the original cabin in 1840, and then added on in the 1860s. The winery itself is located a few miles outside of Comfort. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision how desolate this part of Texas was back then, with Comfort being founded some 14 years later, and indians (not referring to the baseball team), the Comanches, who roamed the area. But now, it’s the updated, expanded, and modernized homestead for Bob’s daughter Alison, her husband John Rivenburgh (both important parts of the family winemaking team), their two children, Jackson and Chloe, and the mandatory winery dogs: Oreo and Cazador.
As we circled back past the tasting room and headed up the hill to the vineyards, Bob pointed out that the site was actually the first winery production building; a simple structure built in 1920, where Bob and John made their first wines. Heading up the road on the left, we saw what Bob referred to as their “petting vineyard,” with very young vines that are easy to exhibit to tour groups. Here you could see the remnants of the juice cartons covering the base of the young plants.
In the early years, some of the tour groups jokingly asked if they were growing orange juice. The actual answer was that it was part of the winery’s master plan for sustainability. Using recycled juice cartons to cover the baby grape plants helps protect them from insect pests and the small ground animals that love to nibble on the young shoots. When the plants have outgrown the need for the early protection, the cardboard naturally bio-degrades itself. From electric golf carts to cork-recycling programs, environmentally friendly glass bottles, rainwater collection tanks, custom drip irrigation, using native stone and wood from the property, and more are all part of the master sustainability plan.
Moving up the hillside, the next small vineyard on the right-hand side is a stark reminder of the immense difficulties in growing any crop in Texas, but especially grapes. Despite all of their efforts, this small vineyard succumbed to the intense heat of the summer of 2011. Currently lying fallow, it will be eventually re-planted and continue the cycle of life that is grape growing.
There is something magical about driving through the vineyards as we hit the top of the hill and see the main plantings. The total property consists of 56 acres, with 16 acres now planted to vine, and new plots being developed for the first ever Charbono and Sagrantino planted in Texas. The majority of the vineyards are hilltop, which allows for more airflow, and also offers a better degree of frost protection. Bob and John had tinkered with the idea of winemaking here for several years, and while they looked for a suitable site, they decided to take a fresh look at grapes for Texas.
Working up a spreadsheet, they compiled their “profile” for varietals that would work in our climate. Their requirements included late bud break, later harvest date window, drought-resistant, heat tolerant, best color/tannic structure (for their red program), and lastly, a varietal that would make great wine. The first 12 types soon grew to 16 different varietals, with Tanat, Picpoul Blanc, and Souzao showing the most promise (and winning the most awards).
Each block of the master vineyard is impeccably laid out with great attention to detail on sun orientation, irrigation systems, and a variety of trellising techniques. Seeing vines that date back to the initial planting in 2009 all the way through today show the spirit of experimentation, a strong science background, and the ability to think outside of the box; the ultimate expression of south Texas terroir: Por Que No! I hadn’t ever seen head-pruned vines in Texas (I don’t get out much), and the effect was quite beautiful, probably the most natural way for wines to grow. There were also plenty of trellising using VSP (vertical shoot positioning) to route the vines and grape clusters, and even a new variation on the head pruned technique they refer to as the “Stairway to Heaven” variant. It’s always nice to meet a winemaking family with a sense of humor.
About halfway thru the vineyard tour, we headed past the current winery production facilities, and saw one very impressive piece of vineyard equipment: a custom made winery on wheels, and another first for Texas. It includes a sorting table and a crusher/destemmer installed on a trailer, which essentially brings the winery directly into the vineyard site. It was being prepped for the long tow to the High Plains AVA for the additional fruit that they source for their wines. No matter if it’s their own estate fruit or sourced from their wide collection of preferred growers, Bob and John want to see, sort, harvest and crush for themselves. Their goal from day one has been providing the best grapes to make the best wine they can.
Technology, science, and a lot of hands-on, labor intensive steps make for some spectacular wines. They’re looking to eventually max out their production at around 6000 cases a year. Their yields average 1-4 tons of grapes per acre, unlike the volume wineries that average 8-12 tons; lower yields, generally much better wine.
Next stop was the current production facility, with their own wine lab, and a barrel storage room…always a nice place to be visiting when it’s 100 degrees outside, but a cool 58 degrees inside the barrel room. The sight of all that wine stored in barrel to the ceiling is impressive enough, but the aromas take your breath away.
This was technically the last stop but I couldn’t resist asking Dr. Young about his newest piece of equipment from Italy…their brand spanking new Flash Détente unit from the Della Toffola Group. The technicians had literally just finished installing the semi-tractor rig size piece of machinery the night before. And no, I’m not all knowing about everything in the world of wine. I had sold the technician’s group a box of nice cigars from The Boerne Wine Company the night before. They were celebrating the installation of the unit and when I asked, they replied they had just installed a very hi-tech piece of equipment at the Bending Branch winery; the very first for the state…talk about a small world.
A few years ago Bob and John experimented with a process called cryo-maceration for their red wines. The goal was to extract more of the color agents, flavor, and tannins from the grapes. Traditional wine making techniques generally extract only 40% of these components. Their experiments with the cryo method added only another 25% extraction. Then they read about the European technology called “Flash Détente” which had been around the E.U for almost 20 years, but was relatively new to the U.S. with only 5 in the entire country. After researching the technology, they became convinced this was the next level for them to aspire to. This technology extracts almost 100% of all the “good stuff” ( a rarely used winemaking term) by heating the skins for a short time, then passing them into a vacuum chamber which literally pops them open, and allows for almost complete extraction.
The early tests suggest that their red wine program, which is very, very good, will move into the fantastic category. And in the true spirit of the Texas wine industry, Bob and John are offering to share this technology free for the next vintage with other local wineries interested in exploring this new approach, then charging a contract fee down the road if they are interested in continuing. The unit sits at the site of the new, number three, wine production site that will give them even more room to work their magic with the vines.
Stepping back into the cool of the tasting room, Kathy and I proceeded to taste our way through the current offerings. At the end of a very informative tasting with Dana and Linda, we headed out with our fair share of bottles to enjoy later. But as we headed back into Comfort, the realization hit me that I was running out of space for Ben’s October issue of Explore magazine. Better to keep the publisher happy, and see if I can coax him into a second part of the article. There was still plenty of the story to tell. How could I leave out the famous saddle trophy, Susie and the tasting room, John and Sheema, the High Café, Mr. and Mrs. Carroll, and the wines themselves? I sincerely hope you folks have enjoyed the story so far, and will look forward to Part Deux.
And since this is Texas Wine Month, please remember those hard working winery folks across the state, and support their efforts. The wines keep getting better at an incredible rate. Help that along by pulling a few corks and literally enjoying the fruits of their labors. And I’m sure the Young and Rivenburgh families wouldn’t mind a bit if more than a few of those bottles had a Bending Branch label.