The wine industry is a funny business. You’re constantly meeting new people and tasting new wines. The business never gets old as a result, and it certainly keeps you humble, as you learn something new every day. As I’ve said before…what a great way to make a living. Last week Kathy and I had the chance to meet a new friend, Tim Hogan, who represents a neat little winery from El Dorado County in northeastern California named Lava Cap. As we tasted his wines, he told me the story behind the wines, and their unique geologic background. As he was relating their history, it reminded me of another winery that had the same geologic tie-in…also a neat little Texas winery by the name of Pilot Knob. I thought it might be a fun competition to compare and contrast California versus Texas wines sharing similar growing conditions. So with a nod to one of Kathy’s favorite movies (Dante’s Peak), here’s my comparison of the two.
I wrote a little bit about this winery back in the July issue of Explore last summer. Located outside of Austin, near Bertram, Pilot Knob (www.pilotknobvineyard.com; 512-489-2999) is one of the newest wineries in the state. Craig Pinkley is the visionary who was inspired by a trip to the Napa wine country in California. He had the pleasure of visiting the “old” Sterling vineyards in 2006, and doing a comprehensive tasting of their reserve tier. Located at the north end of Napa, the winery is perched high above the valley floor…on a clear day you can see all the way to San Francisco. Tasting thru the portfolio, he became a believer… the wines and the view inspired him to return to Texas, and become part of the modern Texas wine industry. But as Craig put it…”I had more passion than knowledge at that point”. He embarked on a carefully planned path to increase his knowledge by bringing in vineyard consultants, Ag specialists, etc. while he concentrated on the perfect location. Just outside of Bertram, he found the perfect parcel…112 acres perched on a ridge overlooking the rolling terrain of the Hill country, with panoramic views for miles. As he looked to the southeast, he saw the unique geologic formation called a Pilot Knob just 6 miles away, and knew he had the name for his new winery. Over 70 million years ago, most of central Texas was part of a vast marine shelf (Gulf of Mexico). Volcanic activity during this period created the unique mixtures of nutrient-rich soil that exists today, providing rich mineral content, and excellent drainage. There are approximately 75 of these sites scattered throughout the central part of the state, with the one outside of Bertram being one of the best known. The master plan is to plant 92 acres to grape production, with up to 6 varietals. First planting was Cabernet in 2008, with Tempranillo following in 2009. Part of their mission statement is to use 100% Texas fruit, either their own or from surrounding growers. Kathy and I had the opportunity to taste two of their newest releases, their Viognier, and the PK Cuvee. Viognier is rapidly becoming the signature white grape for Texas, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The winery is experimenting with Acacia barrels instead of the traditional oak. This adds a special creaminess. The perfect descriptor for this varietal is its perfumey and floral characteristics. Your nose intimates that this will be light, soft, and possibly sweet, but your taste buds will be pleasantly surprised by this rich, medium bodied alternative to the classic Chardonnay grape…excellent with chicken fajitas, or almost any seafood from the Gulf. The PK Cuvee is a unique blend of Muscat, Viognier, Chenin, and Pinot Blanc. A perfect “P” wine for the porch, pool, or patio…served icy cold; this is clean, crisp, and refreshing. Their Cabernet is now estate grown, and they have a Tempranillo/Merlot blend called Franco-Rojo, in addition to these two whites. We’ve discussed in the past how the big guy wineries are dominating the wine market, especially in Texas. My research indicates that the top 30 wineries in the U.S. control almost 90% of wine sales. Even if we shrink it down to the top 4, they still control 50% of sales. These folks still produce some very nice wines that are technically correct, and cover a broad range of price point, but for me…where’s the soul, the history, the people. It is extremely hard for small producers like these to break-thru the clutter and reach the target consumer who appreciates wine with “soul”. Let’s try and help those folks that really need our help…those producing a true boutique product. Texas wines are reaching that important threshold of being able to consistently over deliver. The folks at Pilot Knob and Lava Cap demonstrate that commitment to quality, and small batch production, lovingly crafted because it’s what they do. It’s their passion, not page 352 on an earnings statement.
And at the other end of the America’s is the Lava Cap winery (www.lavacap.com; 530-621-0175). And as in the Texas Hill country, the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northeastern California reverberated with the same type of volcanic activity. Centuries later, a family of esteemed geologists headed by David and Jeanne Jones searching the area for the perfect site for their family vineyard, discovered a unique formation, rich with volcanic sediment, perfect for grape growing. Dr. Jones had searched for the perfect site for several years, using the academic skills he acquired at Yale, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. The specific area is in the El Dorado AVA just outside of the town of Placerville, a smaller (2000 acres) sub appellation of the Sierra Foothills AVA, established in 1983 and one of California’s largest growing areas (2.6 million acres), growing over 50+ different varietals. This is where California struck gold for the second time. After the initial gold rush (1848) excitement at Sutter’s Mill at the American river died down, many of the fortune hunters turned to farming, and by 1870 it was one of the largest wine producing areas in the state. The advent of Prohibition killed wine production until the mid 70s. The Jones family established the 2nd winery in the area, which now boasts over 50 wineries. The divergent topography, coupled with the higher elevations and nutrient rich soils enabled them to develop over 13 different varietals when they started planting back in 1981, harvesting their first vintage in 1986. Almost all of their wines are estate grown, produced, and bottled, an increasing rarity in the wine country as the mega corporations take over more and more land. Their son Charlie has taken over the reins, and in conjunction with winemaker Joe Norman (who worked at a little winery by the name of Heitz Cellars before this new home), continues to produce varietally true wines, sustainably grown using integrated vineyard management practices. In tasting through the portfolio, 4 wines in particular stood out. The interesting part of doing a portfolio tasting is that there are always wines you want to revisit…simply because they’re that good. I guess it surprised me that Kathy and I could narrow it down to just these four…this entire portfolio is lovingly crafted. The American River Red was a beautiful blend of Syrah, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Zin. The Petite Sirah was blended with small amounts of Grenache, Merlot, and Barbera, from their Granite Hill vineyard. Their Zinfandel Reserve was a big hit…powerful, bold, and perfect with BBQ. Lastly their Chardonnay showed great attention to detail. Handpicked and sorted lots are vinified separately, then blended for an enhanced Burgundian style aging regimen, including battonage (stirring of the yeast lees), and extended barrel fermentation in French oak. A great little portfolio, with interesting variety of types and style, and best of all reasonably priced for what’s in the bottle….these also over-deliver.
And at the end of the day, I’m just glad neither one of these wineries was named Dante’s Peak. But then again, the last volcanic eruptions for either of these two sites was over 83 million years ago. So feel safe sitting down to enjoy these wines without any worries about ash making its way into your glass…just remember to use your TBWC wine tapas.
Some of these wines are already in the shop, or can be special ordered for you…Thank you for your ongoing support as we move to year five of serving Boerne, and the surrounding Hill country markets.
Lastly, special thanks to Frank for putting me in touch with these two great wineries…I really appreciate your effort.