Most of us have read his famous quote on his father…“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” And that was a great point to start my winery profile of McPherson Cellars.
Kim founded his namesake winery in 2008 after a long career in the wine business with projects all the way from Napa, back to his roots in the high plains of Texas. But the story really starts with his dad, Clint, affectionately called Doc. He had been tinkering with grapes since the late ‘30s, a real novelty for someone who had been born and raised in cotton country. WWII, starting a family, acquiring a degree, and finally teaching chemistry at Texas Tech all put the grape thing on the back burner. But then a lunchtime conversation with a fellow teacher in the ‘60s brought it to the forefront again.
Doc and Bill Reed, a horticulture professor at Tech, were discussing ways to supplement their meager teaching salaries during the summer months. Over their PB&J sandwiches, Doc recalled his peach wine experiments in the dorm during his undergraduate years. His thought was they could grow grapes and sell jelly at the local farmers market. As luck would have it, the university was pulling out some old, neglected grape vines that were planted around the greenhouse on campus. These reclaimed vines found a new home on Doc’s back patio. As these matured and began to bear their early fruit after careful pruning and nurturing, he took the original idea to its logical conclusion for a chemistry professor. ”Let’s make some wine.”
Now I’ve heard the term “P” wine used before…heck I’ve used it myself to describe wines that I’ve tasted that I thought would be perfect for enjoying on the porch, by the pool, or on the patio. Well it seemed the first harvest consisted of red grapes of unknown origin, so Doc simply christened them “patio red”. A short time later, Doc was able to put together a research program in the basement of the chemistry building where he continued his research with Bob Reed. He continued his work with his “patio” grapes, converting part of his garage to a small wine-making lab. Kim has even conceded he and his friend in the neighborhood would sneak in on occasion to take in the whole process, and probably some small samples. Since wine has become truly a global product, Doc was probably the inspiration for the “garagistes” movement for the “Vins de garage” wines that became all the rage in the new millennium for innovative wines in France and California.
The next step for Doc and Bob was to acquire more land and continue the experiment. Together they acquired 20 acres, and Doc proceeded to plant over 140 varietals, trying to find by trial and error what varietals would work best in the west Texas soil and climate. Their experiments proved successful, and with some seed money, they founded the first winery since the end of prohibition: Llano Estacado in 1976.This is one of the top wineries in Texas today, but has an interesting connection to Kim years later. Doc continued to work his original vineyard, and in the early ‘80s tore everything out and started from scratch with 2 varietals he thought would work the best: #7clone Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Mirrasou clone Sauvignon Blanc.
Still tinkering, in 1984 he replaced the Sauvignon Blanc with the first Sangiovese planted in the state. Today, over 30 years later, Kim sources his dad’s Sangiovese for his uniquely styled wines. He even makes a little Cab from the few vines left. Kim says, “I still do a little Cab since it’s my dad’s fruit”.
Now for Kim, it was a round trip in the world of winemaking. Growing up in the McPherson household was an education in itself. Kim graduated from Tech in 1976 with a degree in food science. But the pull of the vine was strong, and with his parents support, he completed his degree work in oenology from the University of California, Davis before landing his first job with Trefethen vineyards in Napa, California. I guess it would be hard to not get wrapped up in the California wine culture, but it’s even harder to take the Texas out of a native born son.
With the wonderful addition of his new wife Sylvia, Kim returned to his Texas root as the new winemaker for Llano Estacado. There he continued to hone his craft, until he received a call from an old childhood friend from the old neighborhood. Now a respected banker, he told Kim about an opportunity at the old Teysha winery, now renamed Cap Rock.”Remember how we used to sneak into your dad’s garage…well here’s the chance to show what you can really do as a winemaker.” The result was a 16-year run at Cap Rock, producing innovative and award winning wines.
In 1998, he and Doc were inducted into the Who’s Who in Food and Wine in Texas, the only father/son combination so honored. Kim continued to preach the potential of Texas wines to anyone who would listen, or as Kim described of the early days, “trying to throw rocks uphill.” He still managed to produce a small amount of his own wine and in 2008, took the final step and opened McPherson Cellars. Doc and Kim both fervently believed in planting the right gapes for the soil and climate of the Texas high plains, a trend embraced worldwide as terrior.
Kim says, “Anyone can grow grapes and make chocolate, strawberry and vanilla wines (Cab, Chard, and Merlot) with enough time, money and patience. I’m trying to discover the grape varietals that will do the best in Texas. In the end…we’re not Napa, and we shouldn’t try to be.” Kim and Doc had looked at the globe in the study and drew their fingers in a loose arc from Texas across to Europe. That path traversed southern France, northern Spain, the Rhone region, and the northern part of Italy; all regions that have climate and soil conditions very similar to Texas. The popular varietals that grow there thrive in that warm climate and soil. They both looked at the varietals that were native to the area, and came up with a list that became the blueprint for the McPherson portfolio. Today Kim produces Tempranillo, Viognier, Roussane, Albarino, Syrah, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Doc’s beloved Sangiovese as either stand alone bottlings or artfully blended. Kim was one of the first to see the potential of Viognier, and develop it into the signature white of the Texas industry.
A funny anecdote concerning Viognier. I was attending a trade show highlighting the wines of a small distributor. You had the chance to taste (and spit) a wide variety of wines from a large group of wineries. Most tables had someone pouring and answering what questions they could. I came up to a table, and the gentleman asked me which wines I’d like to try. I asked for a sample of the best white on the table. His response was to pour a small glass of something I had read about, but have never really tasted: Viognier. He indicated it was a new grape to Texas, but thought it had tremendous potential, and asked what I thought of it. Three tables earlier, I had tried another Texas Viognier, and tried to do a quick comparison in my head. And of course, in my ignorance, put my boot firmly in my mouth and declared it was the second best Viognier I had tasted that day. We all remember that scene in the Hulk TV series (yes, before the Age of Ultron in the Marvel movie franchise), where David Banner says you don’t want to see me get angry and is quickly transformed into the Incredible Hulk. That’s what happened to the gentleman at the table as he asked me which one was the best. When I meekly mentioned the competing winery, he smiled and quickly shrank back to his normal size. “No harm done…I made that for them when I was consulting. I’m Kim McPherson” as he extended his hand for me to shake. Tasting wine with a winemaker is an incredible experience, and Kim graciously took the time to walk me thru the highlites of his wine. This wine is certainly one of my favorites to sip, as it pairs so well with many of our summer favorites, and is one of the original ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) alternatives to those burned out on your typical Chards.
I had read about his Roussane, and discovered that he also does a reserve bottling. The Wine Spectator had done a restaurant profile on the Pappas chain out of Houston, and included some of their favorite recipes for the summer combined with wine pairings. Looking for it after the issue came out, I quickly discovered that it had quickly sold out (always a good sign). Comforting myself with the regular version (which was very good), I put myself on the waiting list for the next release. It was more than worth the wait. Today, almost 2 years later, it is still the best Texas white I’ve ever had. Kathy and I had our first bottle with Thanksgiving dinner and it paired beautifully. And we’re back on the list for more.
Seventy percent of Kim’s current production is geared to Reds, and his DBS is a great choice for almost anything coming off the grill. This is his uniquely styled blend of Dolcetto, Barbera and Sangiovese. Now I have no idea where Kim sources the Dolcetto and Barbera, as he has a knack of finding small growers who farm the varietals he loves. Of course, he’s able to source his dad’s Sangiovese which certainly adds the crowning touch to his cuvee.
I had the privilege of selling Kim’s wine for a small distributor for several years and asked him what would be the trick to selling this new release. His response was a simple one. “Sell it the way you’ve sold all my other Texas varietals…brown bag em!” So the next day, I hit all my best accounts, with the DBS wrapped in a paper bag. I tasted my buyers, had all the technical sheets on the wine, and broke down the pricing. I shared it was made by a top winemaker, but didn’t disclose where the wine was from. After commenting on how much they loved the wine, their curiosity took over. As I pulled the wine out to show them this Texas blend, they were stunned…but almost every account ordered the wine. Later the rest of the world caught up as Kim was named one of the top 100 winemakers in the U.S (#20!) by an industry trade paper. As Kim puts it, “It’s not Italian, but it’s McPherson, and that’s enough.”
And to finish, McPherson Cabernet. This is a labor of love for Kim, as he sources the fruit from the few remain Cab vines his dad planted back at the beginning. “He put his heart and soul into his Sagmor vineyard. I just had to do a Cab for him”. Kathy and I have just a few of his older vintages left, and save them for special dinners. Just as with the whites, this is the best Texas Cab I’ve tasted to date.
So over the years, Kim and I have managed to keep in touch, tell some stories, and swap some good natured half-truths. I even had the pleasure of working with him on a private label for a local retailer. Nice at my age to be able to scratch one of my biggest bucket list items by working on that project. Certainly not as simple as it looks from the outside, but worth every bit of time and effort to see it to fruition. A little intimidating to tell a world class winemaker what you’re looking for in the blend, but Kim hit a home run with the first release, and continues to work his magic on the subsequent bottlings.
As usual, I pass on the call to support our Texas wine industry by buying more Texas wines. As Kim acknowledged recently, the industry has come a long way. It’s no longer “tossing rocks up a hill”. So find yourself a nice bottle of Texas wine, pull the cork and enjoy with family and friends. And if it’s a McPherson bottle, save a little bit for a toast to Doc and Kim…they’re the ones who “brung us” here!