THE BADASS OF MASON COUNTY
by Andrew Chalk
An early summer stop at the quirkily-named Fly Gap Winery where Brock Estes makes around 800 cases of wine a year in his way, honoring the rules in the breach, rather than the observance. He started as an intern at Sandstone Cellars. Became an assistant winemaker at Grape Creek Vineyards for 2008-10, before selling wine in Houston for Bevco.The recession put Bevco out of business so he struck out on his own. There are no ‘Napa Style’ opulent tasting rooms in Mason. In fact, most would probably be condemned under some Napa County building regulations. This is ‘startup country’. Fly Gap, a block off the square, is a converted feed store.
We start, since it is around breakfast time, with the ideal breakfast wine: ‘Pet Nat’ (pétillant naturel). That is, a sparkling wine made in the bottle. This particular one is 2020 Alicante Bouchet from the Texas Hill Country. It has a yeastiness on the nose and a strawberry fruit aroma. It refreshes the palate and, as I froth it around my mouth, it strikes me as an ideal Prosecco or Champagne celebratory substitute.
Alicante Bouchet has form as a teinturier in Mason wine. Don Pullum employed it first when he used the 2012 Gotneaux Creek Vineyard, at 27 brix. The same vineyard was the core of the Fly Gap 2020 Gotneaux Creek Vineyard Alicante Bouchet, Texas Hill Country red wine. Brock opened a bottle, releasing chocolate and blackberry aromas and mouthfuls of chewy tannins, a subversively late fruit explosion of blackberry in the mouth.
With that I asked questions, running the voice recorder. Here he is in his own words.
Q: The name 'Fly Gap'. Where did it come from?
BE: The name Fly gap comes from local legend. Fly Gap is a half mile west of Ranch Road 1900 and twelve miles northeast of Mason in northeastern Mason County. According to legend, the community got its name from an incident involving a band of settlers who were pursuing some Indians as they retreated from a raid somewhere south of the Llano River. The settlers hid in ambush in a gap in the Kothmann Mountains and tied their horses in a nearby thicket. The outcome of the ambush is unknown, but when the men returned to their mounts, they found that the horses had been badly bitten by horseflies, and the spot was consequently named Fly Gap.
Q: DANK was your first label. What made you choose that name?
BE: In 2012, when I started, I noticed no-one in the Texas wine industry was targeting a younger crowd, or doing anything Edgy. We chose DANK, because it's a term associated with top quality. Mostly used in association with Mary Jane, but it was a slang word that only my generation knew. I specifically chose it for its negative attention factor.
I started on a shoestring budget, so I needed to get attention somehow. I feel like if people are glued to the mostly negative news, then maybe all attention is truly good attention. However, more importantly, it fit my criteria for any brand I create. Must be a strong one but no greater than two syllable brand name and, at the time, it was a highly searched word on Google, and it was only 10 cents per click to market to someone searching that word. I guess because Mary Jane was way less legal back then.
I studied buying habits at Specs on Smith St. in Houston for a year. People never forgot one or 2 syllable brand names. Can't tell you how many people per day would come in and say ‘I had this wine, it was called…’ and they couldn't remember the name! The only other saving grace would be the label. But if the name was long, and the label was unimpressionable, then forget about it. They would just have to pick something else.
Q: Some of his wines have a UV-sensitive label. How did that come about?
BE: The first UV-sensitive or blacklight label I created was DANK-Lights Out back in 2014. That label was solid black, and I spray painted every bottle. Last October we released 3 new Fly Gap Wines. They are all 3 UV-sensitive. Part of the label is visible in normal lighting. The other half shows up under blacklight. We have blacklights in our glass coffee tables at the tasting room.
Q: What is your favorite grape to work with?
BE: That's a tough question to answer. I don't at this point have a favorite per-say. Of course working with any Mason County fruit is special to me.
Thinking about the question makes me super grateful I worked with tannat in the early years of Fly Gap Winery. Tannat is very unforgiving. It can be hard to tame. It's like a wild stallion: Are you gonna’ break it in, or is it gonna’ break you? It broke us a few times. At the very end I kicked its ass. I haven't worked with it in years, but that grape has made me a better winemaker.
Currently I'm really attracted to the petite verdot coming out of Mason. OmG, get out of here. Apparently it doesn't ripen up in Bordeaux like it does here. Maybe that's why it's just a blender grape mostly. It's got power, backbone, structure, and those floral notes around here.
I worked with baga in Bairrada, Portugal. Very tannic like tannat. Would only grow well in the high plains or the Davis Mountains. I'd like to work with a grower to bring that to Texas. UC Davis is the only nursery in the states that has any.
Q: Any heroes in the industry that you are inspired by?
BE: I don't know if I have any heroes in the industry. I've got badass mofos that I love and am grateful for. Just asking questions when I met Don Pullam in 2006 and seeing his vineyard and going through the wine process is what got me into this beautiful fucked up mess to begin with. So I'm extremely grateful for that experience. He had me dive straight into Rhone. I think my canvases are what I learned under Don, and then I just paint whatever spills out of my heart. I'm doing a way better job of working with what the fruit gives me. I really don't start the art process until it's ready anymore. Back in the day I would go against the grain by tooling ideas prior to the fruit being ready. Nowadays, I get inspired when the fruit is in the bins and ready to be made into wine. I don't turn on my creative switch until then.
My other badass mofo mentions go to David Baverstock and the Esporao family. They took me and my best friend in, and that is our wine family forever. Adam Nelson and myself built the Esporao brand in Texas. We spent 3 weeks working on wine in Portugal. Learning under David Baverstock was a blessing. It's a full blend of Barrosa meets Douro, and it's unique and awesome. That's where we picked up the submerged cap fermentation technique we apply to our wines sometimes.
I'm super grateful for John Rivenburgh. I was going through a very tough time in my life, and I had outgrown the Fly Gap Production facility at the time. He let me be a part of his incubator concept for a year. That was probably one of the greatest things anyone has done. It allowed me to just focus on the fruit and escape reality for a while. Had I not had that and dealt with my own shit show at the time, who knows if I would have made it out. If John reads this, he's gonna be 7ft tall playing for the spurs so watch out, but it's true, and I'm extremely grateful.
Last but not least, I have this weird connection with Chris Brundrette. I met him in 2008 when I was assistant winemaker at grape creek, and he was making wine at Woodrose. They came to borrow equipment, and we both spotted each other and it was like, holy shit, another person in their 20's. Everyone in the industry was like 115 years old at the time. Right off the bat I knew I was way cooler than him, and ever since then, we've had a good friendship. I think he gets frustrated with me sometimes because he's trying to get me to drink water and I'm like, naw fuck that water. I ain't drinking it. I'm super grateful to call him my friend. He's the best.