THE FATHER OF MASON COUNTY WINEMAKING
Don Pullum’s Efforts Bear Fruit After Two Decades
by Andrew Chalk
Don Pullum started the industry in Mason County with his Akashic Vineyard growing 1 acre of grenache. He followed with three acres of primitivo, three acres of sangiovese, and two acres of mourvèdre. He was also the first commercial winemaker in Mason County, making wine at Sandstone Cellars Winery.
The first grenache harvest was sold to Alamosa Wine Cellars (RIP), who made a vineyard designated grenache. Primitivo was sold to Texas Hills Winery, who also made a vineyard designated wine, and subsequent grapes were sold to Sandstone Cellars.
The 2005 Sandstone Cellars II, was awarded a Bronze from the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
It was the 2006 Sandstone Cellars III, Mason County, TX. A mongrel made from mourvèdre (52%), primitivo (21%), and grenache (16%) all from Akashic Vineyard. Touriga nacional (10%) from Robert Clay Vineyard, tempranillo (1%) from Robert Clay Vineyard, experimental row, that he sent to Robert Parker for inclusion in the 7th edition of Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide. Parker reviewed it and that got Mason County noticed nationally as an emerging wine area in Texas. Put more directly: A winery only two years old, using grapes from two vineyards, only three to six years in production (depending on variety), and a self-taught winemaker with only three years of commercial winemaking, was included in the 7th edition of Parker's Wine Buyer’s Guide.
Pullum started much earlier. He made his first wine, contrary to college regulations, in his dorm room at Harvard. After a career creating companies he ‘retired’ and parlayed his skills to several wineries in Texas. As well as Sandstone, at Pontotoc Vineyard, in Mason County, his 2014 Estate Tempranillo received a double gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition (scoring 95) in 2016.
He now takes on the roles of town seer, historian, and wine advisor. He had a brief flirt with Hollywood when he appeared as a contestant on ABC’s The Taste, hosted by the late Anthony Bourdain. When he introduced himself with “Hi, my name is Don Pullum, and I am a winemaker from Mason, Texas.” His interlocutor, Ludo Lefebvre, did himself no favors when he said “I deed not know zer was wine from Texas!” Now, Pullum’s showbiz activities have continued by co-hosting a bi-weekly radio show on local station KHLB.
He is constantly asked for his advice, which is sanguine, and generous in giving the credit to others. For example, on Mason County grower Drew Tallent, he says “Drew Tallent, Tallent Vineyard, is important to the Mason County Wine Industry. He is the first Mason County farmer with a presence in Mason County for five generations to plant wine grapes. It was important to have a local, generational farmer invest in the Mason County Wine Industry. Tallent Vineyard is the largest vineyard in Mason County at 70 acres”.
Many members of the Mason County wine community have significant memories of him. For example, upcoming winemaker at Fly Gap Winery, Brock Estes, when asked who was most influential on him, says “ 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 Pullum 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.”
Scott Haupert, co-owner of Sandstone Cellars, says “Most of all, Don is a teacher.” He describes the help he gave he and partner Manny Silerio getting Sandstone from dream to reality. “He helped us get thru paperwork, plan how to adapt a pre-existing building into a functioning winery, purchase all necessary equipment and supplies, learn how to make the wine, learn how to market the product (sometimes gorilla style), how to conduct a proper tasting and just about every aspect of appreciating all styles of wine...and understanding flawed wines”.
Not forgetting that “All the while, we managed to have a lot of fun, even when pulling an all- nighter while we learned how to best operate our hydraulic press.”
Pullum is currently involved in the effort to secure AVA recognition for the Hickory Sands area. As he puts it:
“The altitude range in Mason County is from 1,300 feet to 2,200 feet. My vineyard is 1,600 feet to 1660 feet.The elevation of Gillespie County along highway 290 (where many of the vineyards are planted) is from 1,411 to 1,509.
The Hickory Sands is different from the rest of the Hill Country. We have predominantly sand. Gillespie County soils range from limestone in the hills, loam along the Pedernales, and clay in other areas. If you compare the old stone building construction in the two areas, Mason has
sandstone construction and Fredericksburg has limestone construction. Both are good for wine grape growing but produce different wines. My experience with grapes from the Hickory Sands is that the wines produced are highly aromatic, displaying complexity, and are medium bodied with lighter alcohol content. Most of the wines I made had alcohols between 11.5% to 13.5%. I
usually did not chaptalize the wines I made from Hickory Sands grapes because the wines were balanced at lower alcohol. I call the wines made with Hickory Sands grapes ‘elegant.’”
Moving forward, he thinks some kind of Mason Winegrower’s Association would help the area. It is too easy at times, given the Mason wine and grape industry’s apparent youth, to realize just how far Pullum’s creation has come. Wine and grapes define the town now, but Scott Haupert recalls “When we opened Sandstone Cellars 18 years ago, Don was the driving force and the idea of a boutique winery in Mason was way ahead of its time.”
May the next 18 years be as successful