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Kim McPherson: A Life Putting Texas Wine Making On The Map

The Director's Cut




by Andrew Chalk


On January 20th, Wine Industry Advisor named Kim McPherson on of "Wine's Most Inspiring People 2021". I wrote a few words describing his achievements. After my first draft I realised that it was 50% over the available space, and I had to edit it down for the final draft. That meant that there was lots of Kim McPherson on the cutting room floor, as they say. Rather than leave it there I thought that Kim's omitted achievements deserved to see the light of day, so here it is -- The Director's Cut.


There are few people better known in the Texas wine industry than Kim McPherson. Winemaker at his eponymous winery, McPherson Cellars, unattributed consultant to other wineries making wines “Produced and Bottled in Lubbock, Texas”, collaborator with Dave Phinney on the widely distributed ‘TX’ member of the ‘Locations’ series of wines (later bought by E&J Gallo), son of one of the greats in the Texas wine industry, ‘Doc’ McPherson (the Texas Tech University chemistry professor who jointly introduced vinifera grapes to the Texas High Plains), mentor and muse to at least two generations of Texas winemakers. Now in his late 60s, it seemed like a good idea to do a career appraisal. However, I found he was showing no signs of slowing down. As we sat down he was just reading a review that a friend had forwarded of his ‘EVS Windblown’ wine in The Washington Post (which rated it as “extraordinary/sublime’’). We sat down and discussed his life, his observations, his philosophy, starting with his college days.


COLLEGE AND EARLY CAREER

He graduated from Texas Tech in 1976 with a degree in food science but while there took an interlude at a job developing new products with a large dairy in Los Angeles. After a couple of years fate intervened when they laid him and others off, something that actually came as a relief as he was not excited about the job. Nonetheless, he recommends food science as a degree to school leavers to guarantee a job. “We all eat three times a day” he says.


He headed back to Lubbock with the one good thing to come out of that stint - he met his wife, Sylvia. Back home, Doc announced that he was sending him to the University of California, Davis to study oenology. Kim did not want to do a master’s degree so he enrolled as a concurrent student.


Back then, in the late 1970s, Napa was in its first post-prohibition ascendancy. The 1976 Judgement of Paris had put the region on the map and there was palpable electricity in the air. One result was that Kim’s Davis class was one of the largest ever to that point. Classmates included Randall Grahm, an iconoclast even at that age, Dan Seghesio, Bruce Cakebread, and Doug Shafer.


Kim's Father, the late 'Doc' McPherson
Kim's Father, the late 'Doc' McPherson


WORKING FOR ‘THE MAN’

Post-Davis, fate intervened again. At Llano Estacado, partly owned by his father, the winemaker was homesick for California, leaving Doc without a winemaker. Kim offered to step into the breach.


Next up was Texas Vineyards in Bonham, although Versailles may be a more apposite name for the property. Backed by celebrities from the Dallas Cowboys, professional golf, and affluent professionals from Dallas, the property was built almost without regard for cost. Despite being in Bonham it featured an ornate wood-panelled tasting room that they hoped to use for weddings. The winery design was by an engineer who had designed the Robert Mondavi winery. McPherson was attracted by the facilities, and an ownership stake through his dad. It went bankrupt..


Doc McPherson pulled out with his original investment prior to the bankruptcy. Kim got Tacia’s exclusive on Doc’s vineyard removed in return for signing a non-compete agreement. One corollary was that he went out to California and started making a 350-case Chardonnay in Santa Maria on the Central Coast at a custom crush named the Central Coast Wine Warehouse. Dan Berger, wine reviewer for the LA Times, made it ‘Wine Of The Week’ and ‘I sold all of it in about an hour and a half’ he recalls. ‘Chardonnay, if you have nice fruit, is really easy to make’.


THE GENESIS OF McPHERSON CELLARS

Fate intervened again. The bank holding the note on Teysha was run by a man named Alan White, who Kim grew up over the street from. He called Kim in California and asked if he would like to run winemaking at Cap Rock Winery (as Tacia was now known). He offered a good salary ‘he put my daughters through college through the Texas Tomorrow Fund’, says McPherson, he got great bonuses, and White readily agreed when he said he wanted to ‘have his own label someday’. Everything was hunky dory until the banking regulators came in and were puzzled that the bank had, as one of its assets, a winery. They were patient, but eventually insisted it be sold and that was when things went wrong. The buyers were an investment group out of New York who proceeded to sell off the assets: bulk juice, equipment, everything. Grower Neal Newsom had to sue them to get paid for some grapes he sold them. McPherson saw the writing on the wall and started his own label. The wine was in Cap Rock’s tanks and had to be moved. As a stroke of luck Greg Bruni, winemaker (now Director of Winemaking) at Llano Estacado Winery, called and offered tank space. ‘That was very gracious of him’ says McPherson who was able to eventually get the stored wine bottled and sold.


McPherson needed his own space. He settled on his current downtown Lubbock building, an ex-Coke bottling plant. It was run on a shoestring at first. The tanks were outside in the Texas sun. Kim and two employees (who are still with him) did all the engineering including insulating tanks and welding their own catwalks. That was thirty years ago and just last year he installed two custom-built Italian tanks but says ‘That’s it. I don’t have any more space for one thing’.



CONSULTING

McPherson’s list of consulting clients reads like a Who’s Who of Texas wineries. In addition there are a large number of small wineries whose Texas wines are indicated as “Produced and Bottled in Lubbock, Texas”. That is a sure sign that they were made by McPherson. Beyond this, two large contracts for national brands have preoccupied McPherson in recent years.


The Federalist, a brand from Terlato Wines. He used to do the Texas wine in the line. He loved working with Terlato but the passing of Tony Terlato last year has put the future in doubt.



GALLO

The biggest and most visible is the ‘Locations’ brand of wines, for which McPherson does ‘TX’ from Texas Rhône grape varieties. Originally conceived by Dave Phinney, an old friend of Kim’s, who started Orin Swift Wines, Locations was designed to offer ‘typical’ wines from regions all over the world. Originally, Phinney may have thought that the population of 28m Texans would sustain the brand. Phinney sold the Locations brand to E&J Gallo three years later in 2018 and Kim waitred for the ‘inevitable’ contract cancellation. You could have knocked him over with a feather when Gallo emailed asking if he could up to 30,000 cases next vintage (from 2,700 cases). That one brand would be more wine than all but a half dozen Texas wineries make. Nowadays, Locations is by far the biggest single national presence of any Texas wine brand (the 2020 vintage was skipped due to COVID issues).


Also, Gallo turned out to be not just an email address. They stay close to their producers. One day, when a Gallo team was due in, McPherson’s team were bottling. Gallo representatives watched the process closely and afterwards conceded that they had not known what to expect and, before they visited, had considerable apprehension about dealing with a winery in Texas. They left blown away. Impressed with the cleanliness and having no qualms about the quality of the wine. They returned to California with five cases and had a huge tasting where the wines favorably impressed their colleagues. “Well, we can do good wine in Texas, if we have the right fruit”, McPherson explained to them. In fact, Gallo’s suggestions related to non-wine items like consistent label placement. Gallo is very picky about exact label placement on the bottle. In Texas we, maybe not so much. “They have a huge quality control system”, explains McPherson.


McPherson sees the Locations experience as very important for the whole state. “That’s a big thing for Texas. I can’t get people, you know, it’s not about me. It’s about...this shows that you can make wine in this state that’s good, and can be a national product, with the fruit we have. It’s that tide that will rise all boats...but I don’t know if people get it”.


I ask why Gallo, or another large California winemaker, does not buy vineyard land in Texas. That would show a long-term commitment to the state. Kim makes a point about the approach by describing how a viticulturist who manages 50,000 acres for Gallo and went to Texas Tech returned to Lubbock one weekend and asked him “Why in the hell do you guys plant so many varieties? Why is there just five acres of this and three acres of that and ten acres of this?” He replied that he didn’t rightly know except that “if some guy comes up here with a winery down in the Hill Country and wants 10 acres of Pinot Noir or 15 acres of Riesling then these guys are gonna’ grow it”. McPherson points out to me that he has had visitors from winegrowing states visit who say that it is the biggest area they have seen if someone wanted to grow grapes. There are actually over 8m acres in the AVA. The issues are freezes and late spring frosts (particularly the latter). Kim knows that several large out-of-state growers have looked but thus far it appears that they can still grow grapes more efficiently elsewhere. “You need someone like a Chateau Ste. Michelle who can produce a lot of wine...That has been one of my dreams is to get a couple of big growers here and set up a huge winery and make stuff like Windblown [his national brand] that could go all over the country...We produce a quality wine and we can do that all day long here if someone is willing to put up the money and build a big winery, but you’ve got to sell it”.



GOING NATIONAL

I mention that we are getting into the area of how Texas wine sells itself outside the state. In-state you can always ‘invoke the flag’ but in say, New York City, you compete with wine from all over the world. Kim’s wines are very aggressively priced, often around half of competitor’s wines. Why do they not charge similar prices to him? He makes a telling point about where we are now: “Texas is a tasting room state, like Virgina. They have some distribution but many wineries here will say that they do not need distribution. They say they make more money selling direct [tasting room and Internet] than they would ever do through distribution”. Kim also ponders that, at 68, does he want to start a national brand? He is already paying it forward, staking his three assistants in EVS (Earth, Vine, and Sky), the producer of the Windblown Brand, while keeping just a small equity stake as a pension pot.


Kim’s brother Jon also studied food science at Tech but went to practice winemaking in the Temecula area of California. His specialty is sparkling wine. Situated between Los Angeles and San Diego there is a big difference in visitorship. They get 25,000-30,000 visitors per month. They also fill up their villas and spa. It illustrates how far we have to go.


HEROES

Among winemakers: Tony Soter. He consulted at Cap Rock. He was instrumental in getting him to go into warm climate fruit. Robert Craig, also a Cap Rock consultant. Randall Grahm. Took a lot of risks and was a rebel. He helped him take on new varieties. Dr. Richard (Dick) Peterson. Gallo enologist. Has forgotten more stuff than he will ever know. He was Tselicheff’s handpicked protegée when he was only 20 years old. Still active in his late 80s. Dave Phinney, mentioned earlier. Dave Ramey, was at Davis at the same time as Kim (but getting his master’s, and already had a philosophy degree!). Dawnine Dyer at Domaine Chandon, who taught him and Jon a lot about sparkling wine making.


In the industry but not a winemaker: Freddie Franzia. Got a lot of people to drink wine. Jim Tresize for his advocacy for the industry. His professors at Davis who taught California so much about winemaking. His Dad. Started the industry with Bob Reed. He faced such opposition from the temperance movement when he built Llano Estacado that he built it of brick, so that the bullets would not penetrate the walls. For the same reason, all the tanks were inside.


LIFE CHOICES

If he were all-powerful, what practice in the wine industry would he change? He wishes the High Plains had settled on just a few varieties of grapes. Those that worked. He recognizes that all varieties can be made to grow, but considers some better than others. For example, Zinfandel works better in California. Pinot Noir in Oregon and Central Coast California. Riesling in cold climates. He considers Mourvèdre a better choice for the High Plains. Grow it in volume and get economies of scale because, he says, pricing is a huge issue. “We’ve got to get the wine quality and the pricing together” he says.


What would he be if he could not make wine and was starting over again? Probably own a bistro with his wife, although he would rather be a professional golfer. If he was ‘banned’ from the wine business now, what would he do? Something with food. Maybe growing crops.


On the non wine making abilities to be a good wine maker? Speaking in public. Whether to a room of wholesalers, or a consumer dinner, or at an awards ceremony.


WINEMAKING PHILOSOPHY

Varietals: What varietals does he think work best in Texas? Sangiovese is his clear number one. Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petit Sirah, Cinsault, Alicante Bouchet and Tempranillo. The whites: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc.


Stylistic preferences: Over 80% of wines in the USA are consumed within six hours of purchase. So make wines that are ready to drink.


Oak: Gentle use, and always French. Just a little new oak each year. He buys a lot of barrels that are 18 months old so they still have some flavor components. He makes the point that he induces a lot of the flavor in his white wines using lees stirring. They are often on the lees 8-10 months.


Yeasts: He makes a natural wine, a Viognier, that has taken off like a rocket. For sale only on the East Coast. Total 100 cases. However, he will not make much natural wine as it is tricky to make and very fragile prior to bottling.


He mainly uses cultured yeast from the locations where the grapes originated. A small winery “can’t afford to let $40,000 of Viognier go down the toilet because you were too proud to use cultured yeast.”


Organic Grapes: No organic growers in the sense of being certified. However, disease pressure is so low in the High Plains that there is very little spraying used. Fruit must be irrigated. Most use drip irrigation for fine control. He is impressed with the quality of Texas growers. They have a deep bench of experience.


Cover crop philosophies differ among growers. He hasn’t noticed an advantage to mowing cover crop and eliminating it


Biodynamic farming: If you proposed a High Plains farmer fill a cow’s horn with preparation 500 you are likely to get shot.


Filtration: He is a firm believer that everything should be sterile-bottled. That means that it is filtered prior to bottling with a filter fine enough (typically 0.45 microns) to remove all yeast and bacteria. Not doing this would run the risk of fermentation restarting in the bottle and spoiling the wine (and maybe popping corks).


Cryomaceration: Does not use but does not have a view on it.


Floatation: Loves this technique for clarity in white wines. It involves bubbling an inert gas (nitrogen) through the juice immediately after crush after the juice has been treated with agents to make solids agglomerate. The solids float to the surface and the tank is racked from the bottom. The process lasts 30 minutes. It is a more rapid alternative to cold settling.


Flash détente: Does not use.


Microxygenation: Only occasionally. Do not rely on it.


Cellar adjustments (sugar, acid): Never sugar but hot climate fruit can need some acid added at the crusher.


Press wine: Only adds back 10%-15%;


Blending: He is a big fan. They are essentially to wine what portfolio diversification is to finance. Risk reduction.


What defines the taste of a Kim McPherson wine? “Varietal correctness. An old-world feel. Tony Soter taught this. Maintain consistency, consistently”.


The UC Davis shibboleths: I have heard winemakers tell me that the moment you graduate and start your first job you unlearn what Davis has taught you. He recalls that when he attended, Davis was all about production (i.e. volume). Now it has realised that that can be the enemy of quality and teaches with a broader perspective.


Is good equipment important, especially given the garagiste movement of recent years? He does not use a concrete tank (they are a maintenance nightmare) or an egg. He is a big advocate of a clean winery. It eliminates brettanomyces and volatile acidity problems. There is plenty of scope to be creative within traditional equipment.


THE STUDENTS

Three students did extended stays at the winery over the years. Kyle Johnson, currently. Co-owner and Head of Wine Production at Haak Winery in Sante Fe, TX, worked there from 2011-2013. As a college student he knew that he wanted to be a winemaker in his home state of Texas and researched winemakers as potential employers. Kim McPherson kept coming up as not only highly respected in the state but also nationally. Looking back he feels that almost everything he knows about winemaking he knows from Kim.


Tony Offil started at McPherson ‘knowing essentially nothing about making wine’ that wasn’t in his biochemistry degree. He feels he learned an incredible amount, especially specifics of making wine in Texas. ‘Texas fruit and high pH winemaking’. He is now winemaker at William Chris Vineyards in Hye in The Texas Hill Country.

David Mueller echoes the knowledge gained but makes reference to Kim’s lively personality that made work such fun. Mueller started serving in the tasting room and moved to the winery. he calls his three years at McPherson his ‘Ph.D. in wine’. He is now winemaker at English Newsom Cellars in Lubbock.


SUMMING UP

To sum up. Tony Soter emphasised to Kim the importance of consistency. That is the first thing I think of when I think of Kim McPherson wines. They are consistent. Not just in being the same over vintages, but in everything he releases being consistently a good, indeed formidable, example of its type.

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