THE HILL COUNTRY TOWN OF MASON IS EMERGING AS A NEW HUB OF THE TEXAS WINE INDUSTRY
Updated: Nov 25
by Andrew Chalk
In 2020 I wrote that the quaint but tiny town of Mason was emerging as one of the next wine industry clusters in the Texas Hill Country. Two years, and one pandemic later, and the trend in that direction has resumed. In May, I visited to check up on the progress.
There are now more wineries and vineyards in Mason County than ever before. Tasting rooms have established an undeniable presence downtown. However, it wasn’t always like this.
Don Pullum started the industry in Mason County with his Akashic Vineyard growing 1 acre of grenache, followed by 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 Winery.
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. That is, 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 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. My first encounter was his work at Sandstone Cellars a decade ago where he made outstanding wines. 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 as “Hi, my name is Don Pullum, and I am a winemaker from Mason, Texas.” His interlocutor, Ludo Lefebvre, said “I deed not know zer vas wine from Texas!” Now, Pullum’s showbiz activities have continued by co-hosting a bi-weekly radio show on local station KHLB.
Mason is 40 miles northwest of Fredericksburg, the putative capital of the consumer end of the Texas wine industry. Logistically, a straight shot on picturesque US-87 out of Fredericksburg.
The forty miles embodies a lot of changes. Altitude imperceptibly, without the aid of a phone app, increases to 1,500+ feet.This contributes to a large daily diurnal temperature range. The summer diurnal temperature range is 25-30 degrees Fahrenheit. So a summer day peaking at 100F will be followed by a nighttime low of 70-75F. This helps grapes retain acidity during ripening.
The soil contains quartzite sands that are fine to coarse in texture, rich in micronutrients, including up to 10% iron in areas (which explains the copper to red colors). One observes schist, chert, granite, and even a few outcroppings of non-commercial marble.
The biggest viticultural problem in Mason County is late spring freeze. Critters can also be a problem. Racoons wait until the grapes are sweet – then eat them. Birds eat them anytime. Deer feed on young vine growth in the spring (they enjoy the tender shoots). Feral hogs are just all around badly behaved, digging in the vineyards and uprooting vines
Small town quaintness is guaranteed by virtue of it being the county seat of Mason County and therefore having the obligatory (in Texas) Victorian courthouse. As of this moment, Mason has the embarrassment of the courthouse having been burned down by a disconcerted convict who lost his child custody case. It is being rebuilt.
The town might be loosely described as being on a long bend in US-87 as it morphs into US-377 to Abilene. Mason is much smaller than Fredericksburg and a couple of blocks off the main square to the east you are out of town. In fact, a few blocks in any direction leaves town. A decade ago, half the storefronts appeared to offer game processing, reflecting its location in a popular hunting area. Now, that is still around, but the prominent east side of the square (including off-square) has three tasting rooms and the north side (including off-square) 4 tasting rooms. Just off the square are some bona fide wineries where production takes place, alongside tasting.
Is Mason hampered by not being on the wine tourist bus route? Not in the view of Dilek Parr, owner of Parr Vineyards with her husband Robb, who regards it as an advantage. Wine tasting should be a serene, leisurely, and contemplative experience, in her view, maybe over good conversation with like-minded enthusiasts. She refers to recent visitors who lived in Fredericksburg and wanted to move somewhere quieter.
Most of the wineries would like an intown hotel to complement the 36 B&Bs in the city, and there is a problem accessing commercial airports.
Vineyard acreage is growing. In addition to the aforementioned Akashic Vineyard there is a growing list of others.
Owned by Robert and Dilek Parr, was planted in Streeter, Texas in 2006 with tempranillo and mourvèdre. They've expanded planting to 16 acres over the past 15 years with tempranillo, mourvèdre, touriga nacional, and semilllon, roussanne, and viognier. Don Pullum used Parr Vineyards fruit in the fusion blended wine at Pontotoc Vineyard. Parr's grapes have been vinted into stellar wines by William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars, and Lewis Wines. Parr Vineyards Winery uses only estate grapes.
PETER'S PRAIRIE VINEYARD
Ten miles north of Mason, was planted by Bob Cartwright in 2000 to syrah, primitivo, barbera, and Pinot Grigio. There are 10 acres under cultivation. The vineyard was planted with close spacing. Bob died suddenly and the vineyard was purchased by Becker Vineyards who later sold it to the current owners in 2019. Becker made a successful 2006 vineyard designated Peter's Prairie barbera, 2008 Peter's Prairie Vineyard designated pinot grigio and a vineyard designated Peter's Prairie 2010 barbera.
A 2¾ acre vineyard in Pontotoc, Texas planted, of 5 acres total, to tempranillo on two rootstocks. Carl and Frances Money planted the vineyard over two years 2005 - 2006. It is the Mason County vineyard with the highest elevation. The elevation and good air drainage has made it less susceptible to late spring freezes. The first grapes harvested were sold to Sandstone Cellars Winery. As winemaker at Sandstone, Don Pullum was pleased with the character of the fruit and used it for blending in several Sandstone Cellars wines. Carl and Frances started their winery (production facility) in Pontotoc in 2011 with Pullum as winemaker. The tasting room Pontotoc Vineyard Weingarten was opened on Main Street, Fredericksburg because of the established wine tourist traffic in the town. They made essentially three wines: a 100% Estate tempranillo, a tempranillo blend (75%) with 25% other varieties that changed with the vintage, and Carl and Frances were kind enough to allow Pullum to continue his penchant for fusion blending, producing a third wine with any number of grape varieties that were intriguing. Pontotoc Vineyard Winery was the second Mason County winery to receive recognition from the San Francisco International Wine Competition, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. The vineyard produced Mason County's first Double Gold medal wine (2014 Pontotoc Vineyard Estate tempranillo) conferred by San Francisco International Wine Competition. The 100% Pontotoc tempranillo is always estate only fruit.
ROBERT CLAY VINEYARD
Planted in Streeter, Texas by Paul and Nancy Buist. There was no Robert Clay. The vineyard name is a combination of their sons' first names (Robert and Clay). Nancy and Paul planted chardonnay (3 acres) and merlot (7 acres, comprised of three different clones). One acre of experimental varieties. A little bit of viognier and, finally, 3 acres of touriga nacional. They planted the touriga nacional because Paul was fond of Port. Don Pullum made wine from their touriga nacional at Sandstone Cellars. The vineyard became undermanaged due to Paul's failing health when he contracted cancer, and Dan and Jeanie McLaughlin bought it and restored it over several years (see below). Paul, sadly, passed away recently. The grapes from Robert Clay Vineyards are represented in award winning wines from various wineries.
This vineyard deserves special mention as an exceptional source of grapes in Mason County. Grower Drew Tallent supplies grapes to wineries all over the state including Becker Vineyards, Bending Branch Winery, Brennan Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery, Murphy Creek Cellars, Pedernales Cellars, and Spicewood Vineyards. His eponymous vineyards total 70 acres and are currently planted to over 10 vinifera varietals.
Don Pullum puts Drew Tallent and Tallent Vineyards in historical context.
“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”
Located in the little town of Art, Texas in the Art General Store on Highway 29 east of Mason (still in Mason County). The General Store was owned by Randy Hinckley's great great Grandfather, passed through other owners, then Randy bought it. The winery is owned by Randy Hinckley, farmer and brother of former long term Mason Mayor Brent Hinckley. Katherine Hassler, Randy's fiancee, manages the tasting room and B&B. Described as a “cute place with wine, chocolates, wine related bric a brac”. They host live music and a food truck pretty regularly. The wines are tasty and are currently made by Perissos Winery from High Plains fruit. Randy planted a vineyard off Texas Ranch Road 1900, hence the name of the winery. He's planted tempranillo, mourvedre, alicante bouschet, tannat, dolcetto, and malvasia bianca, which should start producing next year.
FLY GAP WINERY
The quirkily-named Fly Gap Winery is 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.
On our visit we started, since it was around breakfast time, with the ideal breakfast wine: ‘Pet Nat’ (pétillant naturel). That is, a sparkling wine made in the bottle. This particular one was 2020 Alicante Bouchet, Texas Hill Country. It had a yeastiness on the nose and a strawberry fruit aroma. It refreshes the palate and, as I frothed it around my mouth, it struck 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, mouthfuls of chewy tannins, and 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 your 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 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.
My other badass mofo mentions go to David Baverstock and the Esporão family. They took me and my best friend in, and that is our wine family forever. Adam Nelson and myself built the Esporão 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.
MURPHY CREEK CELLARS
Occupying a former legal office on Mason town square is a relatively new winery, Murphy Creek Cellars. Founded in 2017 they have their wines made by winemakers at other wineries. The first one, Jesse, was a Robert Clay Vineyards blend of barbera, merlot, and tempranillo and totalled 21 cases. Owner, Lisa Ruthven, laments not entering it in competitions. After these grapes had been harvested from Robert Clay, the vines were removed so they are no longer capable of reproducing the wine from that vineyard.
Their Katie's Miscela wines from Robert Clay have won gold and silver medals at the Lone Star, San Antonio, and Houston wine competitions. They were a blend of grapes from Perissos Vineyards.
They are now producing a malbec with Tallent Vineyards grapes and Bending Branch Winery will be responsible for winemaking. It should be released within the next 9 months.
Robb and Dilek Parr, founders of Parr Vineyards, can say exactly when their futures became interwoven with Texas wine. It was when Robb was stationed in England with the US Air Force and they would eat at a local restaurant where the owner paid attention to the wine list. That ultimately lit the blue touch paper and led to them planting vineyards and producing grapes of such quality that they are regularly used in award-winning wines by wineries across the state. However, that was down the road.
The gentle bucolic lifestyle of vinegrower was not always Robb Parr’s lot. His first career got faster as it progressed through the USAF. He flew three generations of fighters. At the start of his service he piloted an F-100 Super Sabre, the first USAF jet capable of exceeding the speed of sound in level flight. Then he saw a major increase in speed when he was assigned to the almighty, all-conquering, F-4 Phantom. It did Mach 2 and, at one point, held just about every fighter world record. His final assignment was the technically refined F-16 Fighting Falcon.
There was no way retirement could be faster still, not that he did not try. His first ‘project’ was building his own plane, an RV-8. It took six years because he designed-in so many additional safety features and refinements. One day he flew over some vineyards. They were so beautiful he went home and said to Dilek ‘We are going to plant a vineyard’. She pointed out the cost, irrigation, and countless other issues, but in 2005 they bought land in Mason County and, in 2006, planted their first grapes.
At first, it was the latest iteration of the family background in agriculture, and they just sold all their grapes to other people. Among their customers were Pedernales Cellars (their first customer), William Chris Vineyards, Lewis Wines (Lewis named them as the source on the label) and, more recently, Adelho Vinho (of Stonewall), and Slate Mill Collective.
As a grower, they ran into the problem that besets all growers. They were barely making any money. Like many before them the solution was to expand vertically into winemaking. For their wines they used, then and now, only their own fruit. Thus, a trip to the tasting room just off the main square in Mason today entails a joyful plunge through a flight of Parr Vineyards Estate Bottled wines. Grape sales to other wineries are still important at about 60% of total output. Two important outsiders are Fritz Westover, Vineyard Advisor, and Robert Nida, winemaker.
They want that estate fruit to be the component that shines, so oak treatment is limited. They have 10 hectolitre and 20 hectolitre French oak vats that have been used enough to be neutral in terms of phenols, etc. and just permit natural micro-oxygenation of the wine as it ages.
They grow mainly red grapes. Tempranillo, touriga nacional, and mourvèdre are the stars. The tempranillo winemaking style is to age for three years in neutral French oak (they find American oak too heavy). Dilek describes the 2015 Touriga Nacional as the wine she wants to cook for. It has smoke, tobacco, stone fruit (cherry and dry plums), attributes that touriga nacional also contributes to table wines in Portugal.
The white grape vines are younger and the Parr’s are still working out their favorite styles for each of the roussanne, sémillon, and viognier.
They make 1200 cases/year. Enough wine that they can distribute it all ‘from the cellar door’ (tasting room and web site) and supply the local restaurants that are their on-premise customers. They do not go through distribution or have any intention to do so.
Hospitality from the tasting room has expanded so much since the end of the pandemic that the normally unflappable Dilek, who prepares Mediterranean food and leads cooking classes, says ‘some days I feel like I’m crazy’. That was part of what persuaded them to expand to an area over three times the size of their old tasting room. That, plus the fact that it has a kitchen and is on the main square, implying much better customer exposure.
So what is the connection between flying at Mach 2 and making wine? According to Dilek, Robb “is meticulous, incredibly focused and passionate about the end product in the Vineyard, as well as the cellar.” That helps at any speed.
PETERS PRAIRIE VINEYARD
Along the east side of the Mason town square is a row of shops that are gradually being overtaken by tasting rooms. In a former Dry Goods Store that is a historic landmark, having been built in the 1890s, is the tasting room of Peters Prairie Vineyard, the August 2018 creation of Kim and Kurt Henderson. They had come from Midland where they worked in the oil industry.
The vineyard is 22 acres out of town and was originally planted in 2000 by Bob Cartright. He harvested about 50 tons from it before he sold it to an out-of-town owner who tried to farm it remotely with the result that output collapsed to 8 tons.
The 2019 vintage was Henderson's first harvest and consisted of syrah, malbec, barbera, and pinot grigio. They also did some new planting with mourvèdre, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot. They are keeping old vines and interplanting the others. Vineyard manager is Lex Fleming and Operation Manager is his wife Katie. Grower Drew Tallent is a kind of running consultant on the exigencies of being a grape grower.
The harvest is trucked down to Bending Branch Winery in Comfort and Bending Branch makes the wine. Long-term, winemaking will come back to their winery at Hwy. 87 and Sandy Lane in Camp Air.
The Hendersons’ favorite wine is their syrah, on account of the power due to the vines being the oldest, at 22 years, and biggest.
Medium-term plans include a wine club. A tasting room in the vineyard for a new experience. They have made a statement about their Mason County commitment and the county's unusual terroir by purchasing 150 acres for future vineyard expansion. When established, this will make them one of the biggest, if not the biggest, growers in the county.
ROBERT CLAY VINEYARDS
Dan McLaughlin could have stayed in his comfortable, air-conditioned life in the Texas tech industry in Austin. However, a compelling pull to be a farmer drew him into farming vines and, subsequently, winemaking.
Grape growing began in 2011 when he went to The Vineyard at Florence (technically, just north of the Hill Country). The developers saw it as an upscale housing development targeted at Austin tech. executives and retirees who would rather have their home in a vineyard than the more common amenity, a golf course. Dan Gatlin was the winemaker there and the first winemaker Dan had met. He loved the job. Only bird-netting was a pain. Overall, he describes the experience as ‘frickin’ awesome’.
His path crossed with Bill Blackmon, the world’s most low-key winegrower and the ‘William’ in William Chris Vineyards, and David Kuhlken, winemaker at Pedernales Cellars. They have been informal advisors and Bill, in particular, something of a consigliere over the years.
In 2012 he and wife Jeanie started to look for land using a realtor for advice. His wife was dead set against it. It seemed so remote to Georgetown where they had a daughter in high school and a son in junior high. They went first to US-290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg because that is where they saw vineyards and wineries. They did not know anything about wine, vineyards, “or that most of the vines we saw on 290 were only show vineyards for the ambiance of the winery, not growing grapes to make wine”, says Jeanie. When the realtor realized they only wanted to farm, she quickly said they needed to go to Mason as that was the best place to grow grapes. “I immediately stopped looking at land and school districts in Johnson City and Fredericksburg and started researching Mason” says Jeanie. Blackmon and others also said Mason was the place to grow. It was Jeanie who first found and forwarded information about the Robert Clay Vineyard being for sale.
Dan went to see it and met owner and founder Paul Buist and his wife Nancy. They had planted it in 1999-2000 and put in 15 acres. Paul had contracted cancer and he had not left the house in two years, so they were forced to sell. It was after a period of five years during which the vines had not been pruned or sprayed. Bill Blackmon’s advice was “’doze it”.
Dan, naively, thought he would work the existing vines to test drive farming, and see if he liked it. He had next to no appreciation for the decrepit state to which the vineyard had fallen. He came up with an innovative offer on the spot. He offered to work the vineyard using his labor, tools, and supplies and, if it appeared he could turn it around, he would buy it from Buist at a pre-agreed price. Buist asked him how much he was going to pay to lease it while he worked it. When McLaughlin said ‘nothing’ Buist turned him down flat, and in a tone that lacked ambiguity.
McLaughlin continued his search. Two weeks later, he got a call from Buist to accept his deal and McLaughlin’s path into vineyard ownership was sealed. He set up a trailer and lived in that when he was at the vineyard while commuting midweek from the family home and his day job.
Blackmon said if the McLaughlin’s weren't going to bulldoze the vineyard and start fresh they needed to cut back 2 rows to the graft union and see how they did. Those 2 rows did not produce any fruit that year, but they did grow like mad and proved that they could cut everything back to the graft and the vines would grow back fast and healthy. They would only lose one year of crop during the regrowth and training.
Using this plan, Mc Laughlin pulled out truckloads of deadwood in order to get two producing rows. Local growers Drew Tallent and Robb Parr became regular advisors.
The work was backbreaking and the results were a lousy three tons of grapes from the 2012 vintage. This, from a vineyard that used to produce 40 tons. This was a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. The McLaughlins had to move the family out to the vineyard and work it full time, or cut bait and do something else. They bought a house in Mason and moved there on December 27th, 2012.
In two years he learned all the things not to do. Like cutting back and not putting in grow tubes. There were 16,000 vines to deal with. Looking at the abundant crop on the two rows he had cut back in 2012 kept his spirits up.
By 2014, yield was up to 22 tons. By 2016 he added five more acres, bringing total plantings to 20 acres and 11 varietals. Examples are ruby cabernet, syrah, chardonnay, grenache, mourvedre, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. He was also getting high praise from Bill Blackmon. He still does his own vineyard work, though nowadays in collaboration with his son.
Drew Tallent’s advice was that he did not need a winemaker, grow great fruit and the wines take care of themselves. He now makes 5-8 barrels of wine, or about 140-222 cases. He helped Rob Nida, who brought experience from three continents and local knowhow from working at Parr Vineyards, in order to learn winemaking. Blackmon and his partner at William Chris, Chris Brundrett, also advised on winemaking. Despite his IT savvy he did not take online UC Davis or Texas Tech. courses, rather preferring to use Google. Dan had also become friends with quite a few winemakers in the industry and was able to ask them questions and bounce ideas off them. Among that group were Chris Brundrett, David Kuhlken, Lewis Dixon (La Cruz de Comal Wines), Tony Coturri (Coturri Winery), Deirdre Heekin of Vermont and Maureen Qualia. Maureen lives in Mason and has her lab in the McLaughlin’s building.
He reminds me of Dan Gatlin in the singularity of his objectives “I want the best wine possible” and he is committed to what he calls slow winemaking techniques. 2015 was his first vintage and he bottled only 15 tons of grapes. He ages wines two or three years in wood without any qualms. Bottles sell when they are ready to drink for whatever they cost to make and can be over $130. For his port, he first used the grapes to make the brandy to be used to fortify it. For the wine, the 2020 grapes were left hanging until November (normal Hill Country harvest is in August) and when harvested they were ‘like raisins’.
He has never been to Napa and, although his favorite grape from Mason is merlot, he has never tasted the great merlots of Bordeaux’s right bank, considered the best examples in the world. This is something I took him to task on. If he wants to get the best from the grape, he has to know the art of the possible. Château Pétrus, 100% merlot, and the most expensive wine in Bordeaux, might just reveal a thing or two. Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc may show possibilities in blending with cabernet franc. In California, Duckhorn’s ‘Three Palms Vineyard’ might reveal New World possibilities with the grape. Italy and Australia also have impressive merlot wines.
Robert Clay Vineyards opened a tasting room in Mason in 2021. Since their approach to aging reds is to sell them when they are ready to drink quantities are still being built up. After all the hard work, McLaughlin thanks Bill Blackmon for suggesting Mason. It turned out to be a good choice.
Saba Winery is another new winery on the square. Their well-restored tasting room is located in a building dating back over a century. At times it was the office for the building owner, a Dr. Pepper distribution center, and a dry goods store, among other uses. Scott and Mirta Leon Monette founded Saba. They opened in 2021, although a lot of the groundwork was done in 2020.
Saba has connections all over the state. Their vineyard land is 15 acres in adjacent Menard County. They also aggressively buy fruit from the Texas High Plains, currently from Tad Daniels and Buena Suerte Vineyards. They are planting at a rate of five acres per year. One acre to each cultivar with grenache, graciano, carignon, bobal, and an undetermined white grape next to go in..
Winemaking is led by consultant John Rivenburgh and Scott and Mirta are in Rivenburgh’s incubator program at Kerrville Hills Winery. Scott’s focus is on blending, as part of the mission at Saba Winery is to produce a ‘house style’ rather than a pristine expression of varietals.
An example is their Presidio Red, a blend of 80% tempranillo and 20% souzau. Although a small part of the blend, the souzau, as Scott describes it, “dominates the approach and mid-palate. The structure of the tempranillo shows itself by carrying the wine to a nice long finish of darker fruits. Given cellaring, maybe 2-3 years, the tempranillo should assert itself more in the mid-palate, opening to a more nuanced finish of leather and spice.”
As you enter Mason from Fredericksburg you cannot miss Sandstone Cellars Winery and adjacent Tasting Room hugging the corner of US 87. The latter is a Victorian house that would fit comfortably inside the family room of many a North Dallas McMansion. It is known as the Lucia Holmes House, on account of it being the ‘Sunday House’ of local landowner Lucia Holmes in the 1870s, and it is the second oldest building in Mason. Winemaking is on a similarly diminutive scale as well. The total production area is only 300 square feet, limiting output to around 600 cases of wine per year. The winery does not currently own any vineyards but sources grapes from growers in nearby Streeter.
Sandstone Cellars was bonded in 2004 after a 2003 Texas constitutional amendment effectively allowed the sale of wine from a winery in a dry county. Scott Haupert and Manny Silerio, owners of award-winning Mason restaurant Santos Taqueria teamed up with neighbor Don Pullum who grew grapes (he planted his first ones, grenache, in 1998) and made wine. Haupert, like most taqueria owners, has a Masters in Music Performance from Yale University.
Pullum had worked with warm climate red wine grapes and that is reflected in the Sandstone product lineup: monastrell (mourvèdre), syrah, tempranillo, primitivo, nebbiolo, and touriga nacional are the grapes that are included to make the wines. Previous vintages have also had garnacha (grenache), sangiovese and barbera. These may return in the future. Such is the recent popularity of Mason County fruit that Sandstone is being outbid for some varieties by larger Texas wineries.
The soil composition resembles several Old World viticultural areas but perhaps most closely Bandol, the tiny enclave on the French Mediterranean coast near Marseilles. Based on soil alone, one would expect mourvèdre, the major grape of Bandol, to do well. The mourvèdre used in the Sandstone wines is the Beaucastel clone, a successful clone cultivated by the winery of the same name in Châteauneuf du Pape, France.
Sandstone’s first vintage was a blend of 80% syrah and small amounts of grenache and mourvèdre from 3 year old vines. As the partners racked their brains for a name for what they foresaw as a line of red blends produced from 2004 onwards, they found all the names they wanted were taken! In frustration, Manny suggested they just number the wines in the order that they were released. That is the reason all Sandstone wines have a number (in roman numerals, to boot) rather than a name.
The Sandstone team sat me down in the Lucia Holmes House at the bar that Lucia would doubtless not have approved of, and offered a tasting of current and library offerings. All the bottles had been opened 12 hours previously, about four ounces of wine removed, and re-corked to allow breathing. As an aside, notice the design on the Sandstone label? That is Kindred Spirits by Hill Country artist, Bill Worrell.
Sandstone quickly started to be recognized and to win awards. The world’s best-known wine critic, Robert Parker, listed Sandstone as one of the six best wineries in Texas in the 7th edition of his Wine Buyer’s Guide.
With such small production, Sandstone’s wine is sold directly at the wine bar and through the web site. Since 2014 they usually made one wine per year but will put out two of the 2021 vintage.
THE WINES OF DOTSON CERVANTES
The Wines of Dotson Cervantes sounds so much more compelling, so much more dramatic, than Dotson-Cervantes Wines. It could be the sequel to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. In practice, it is the singular product of Alphonse Dotson (a former NFL defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders) and his wife, Martha Cervantes. In 1997 they purchased over 80 acres and named it Certenberg Vineyards.
My introduction to them was Fall Creek’s Certenberg Vineyards Chardonnay which has been one of the best chardonnays in Texas for many years. Despite the visibility of that wine, Dotson and Cervantes do actually produce a full line of over 16 wines, typically given proprietary names like Angelina’s Smile, in recognition of Martha’s mother, or Delilah’s Grace, named after their younger granddaughter.
HIGH SCHOOL VITICULTURE PROGRAM
The first High School Viticulture Program In the State was started in 2015 by Dan McLaughlin in collaboration with Mason High School. Mason students study vineyard planning, soil types and cultivation practices. It is early days, but it is hoped this encourages more young people to grow grapes in Mason County.
HICKORY SANDS AVA APPLICATION
The Mason winegrowers are preparing an application to the Federal TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) for The Hickory Sands AVA (American Viticultural Area). The AVA is named for the quartzite sands soils of the area. They are fine to coarse in texture, rich in micronutrients, including up to 10% iron in areas (which explains the copper to red color of the soils), They are fast-draining (grapevines do not like a wet root system).
The soils are unique to Mason County and southern central McCulloch County around Voca, Texas. Underneath the sand is a layer of clay that retains moisture and provides grapevines with macro-nutrients. The area has pre-Cambrian outcroppings (550 million to 4 billion years ago), the oldest outcroppings of the earth's crust.
One observes schist, chert, granite, and even a few outcroppings of non-commercial marble. The Hickory Sands are neutral to slightly acidic in pH. A neutral pH is ideal for nutrient uptake in grapevines.
Mason also enjoys the Hickory Aquifer. The Mason area, historically, has been a favored hunting ground for indigenous peoples (Lipan Apache and Comanche). Mason had (and still has) plenty of game, attracted by the water (Llano River, James River, San Saba River) with feeder creeks and even artesian springs. Farming in Mason County has a long history.
Historically, Mason has had an average rainfall of 30" (this has changed with droughts). The winter temperatures are usually mild but can have one to two weeks of warm weather followed by cold weather. Warm weather in the winter may encourage water flow in the grapevines. If followed by very cold temperatures, the water will freeze in the trunks and arms of the grapevines and may cause winter freeze damage. The summer temperatures have been warming over the past 25 years. However, the summer diurnal temperature range is 25-30 degrees Fahrenheit. So a summer day peaking at 100F will be followed by a nighttime low of 70-75F. This large diurnal range helps grapes retain acidity during ripening.
Don Pullum described the differences in soil across major areas of The Hill Country
“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.’”
COMING DOWN THE PIKE
There is no Mason County winegrowers association of any sort at present but it is in the formative stages. The changes that have taken place are profound when you take them as a whole. Don Pullum puts it best
“Twenty-four years have passed since the first grapes were planted in Mason County and the viticultural experiment continues. There have been significant challenges that naturally accompany introducing a new agricultural industry to a small community. Vitis vinifera had no history in Mason, Texas and it has taken a great deal of trial and error, failure, education, and re-education for this small group of grape growers to persuade mother nature to allow wine grapes to find their place, their balance, alongside cactus, mesquite, and oaks. With the introduction of more acreage and wineries, the Mason industry is now at a critical juncture. The growers and winemakers who have developed friendships and working relationships are engaging to coordinate their efforts by developing a trade association. I think it's coming along nicely.”