TEXSOM Tempranillo Tasting: the $100 Texas Wine Question
By Guest Author, Miguel Lecuona, Wine Marketing and Wine Tourism Instructor at for the Texas Tech University
Editor’s Note: Fall Creek Vineyards was privileged to have our ExTerra Tempranillo Salt Lick Vineyards Texas Hill Country 2016 included in an educational session at TEXSOM, an educational conference for beverage professionals. The session, “VARIETY FOCUS: TEMPRANILLO,” was hosted by speakers Sarah Jane Evans MW, Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, and Jessica Dupuy, who guided participants to evaluate 13 different Tempranillo wine examples from the classic producing countries of Spain and Portugal and forays into the United States, Australia, and Argentina, others.,
Following the conference, a participant posted the following in a wine group on Facebook, “Fantastic tasting on Tempranillo, but to my Texas friends, there’s a lot to be said when Fall Creek charges $100 for the “Saltlick” to be followed by Muga Prado Enea Gran Rsv, $75, and Vina Real Rsv, $60. Something is wrong with that picture, need to come back to reality if they want the Texas wine industry to grow.” The post spurred a lively discussion with more than 60 comments. Some people agreed with the post, while others disagreed with his assertion.,
A few days later, Miguel Lecuona, a wine judge, wine instructor, wine marketer, and co-owner of Siboney Cellars, a Texas Hill Country Winery, penned his own response to the post. His thoughtful and thorough analysis of the factors that impact wine pricing deserves a broader audience. We are publishing it in its entirety here.,
There’s a brief pause in our harvest schedule, with many grapes literally just hanging around, getting a little riper day by day. That’s perfect, as we are not in a hurry. So, with a bit of time between vineyards, I wanted to take a minute to respond to an interesting post and exchange on this forum (Texas Wine Drinkers Facebook Group) from August 29. The post, from a wine industry professional, referenced an amazing TexSom Tempranillo tasting, which included Fall Creek Vineyards and Winery ExTerra, Muga, and other internationally sourced wines. And while he appeared favorable to the Texas wine itself among those famous labels, one statement struck me regarding the objection to the $100 price point for ExTerra: “Something is wrong with that picture, need to come back to reality if they want the Texas wine industry to grow."
I think it’s understandable in the context of an international tasting to consider such conclusions, but it’s overly simplistic. In fact, there's more than $100 worth of misunderstanding and incorrect premise in this statement. There’s a lot to unpack here, so allow me the privilege of your attention for a few minutes to make my case, then you can tear this apart as you like!
OK let’s start with a few of those realities. Let’s take Rioja.
Muga — what a great historic bogeda, beloved the world over. I was in Rioja early this spring, driving through Haro, en route to an appointment. Did you know that Muga owns or controls over 1000 acres of vineyards — more than the entirety of vineyards in the Texas Hill Country. Another major Tempranillo grower, Marques de Riscal makes splendid Riojas, wines I have shared with many who read this forum, including vintages from 1964, 1961, and 1952. Those old blends include a fair amount of Cabernet, by the way. Do you know how many barrels they manage in their winery? 37,000. Not cases… BARRELS. They have a guy - a barrel guy - whose sole job is to move barrels from the lower chamber up 5 steps with a hydraulic lift, roll it 20 feet and down another lift to be washed and recycled. All day, every day.
The scale is, well, staggering is not too big a word for it.
So is it fair to say that maybe these producers have more than just history on their side — that they are quite a ways down the fixed cost curve? They are very large, worldwide producers. (Bonus points if you post below how many bottles of wine can be made from 37,000 barrels!) Have they perhaps also benefitted from decades of protectionist tariffs against imported wines and favorable export tariff markets by comparison, to say nothing of time-tested AVA-level rules (which can be both a help and a nuisance, but that’s a topic for another time!).
Here’s another reality — Texas.
The post fails to define what is actually meant by growth. I hope readers will forgive me for being obvious, but this needs to be stated, apparently. The Texas Wine industry is, in fact, growing. Boy, is it growing. By any objective measure — new acreage under vine; winery permits; tourism; Tour Operators; wine club member growth; new wineries and tasting rooms; destination marketing; investment; media coverage — the Texas Wine Market is growing, thriving, hustling and bustling. TexSom itself is a sign of the vibrancy of the Texas Wine Industry. My TexSom classes were taken at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin over a decade ago!
While it’s not without numerous challenges, the industry is growing in all directions at every price point. A huge chunk of this growth continues to serve the vibrant Direct To Consumer sales market, to which Texas Wineries take a back seat to nobody. So unless you are actually in the market, you won’t observe this thriving arena of wines, experiences, dinners, offerings, and exclusive programs on your supermarket shelf or on many wine lists (another topic which bears a full on discussion). Examples abound: in the last 12 months since Exterra was introduced, Texas wineries have opened a smashing new tasting room just for club members (William Chris Vineyards); an entirely new winery dedicated 100% to Sparkling (Grape Creek Vineyards); a tasting room for destination tourism dedicated to classic cars (Wine Garage); a winery spa and resort hotel (Carter Creek Winery Resort & Spa); a new 60 acre estate vineyard with tasting room and production facility (Augusta Vin); and this week, the rebirth of a former small winery into another interesting concept/venue driven by one of our top wine makers (will let them unveil their program at their own leisure!); and soon, a winery that sold & will re-open under a massive new investment scenario that will include an ancillary wedding venue, more vineyard acreage, custom crush facility, and talented wine professionals, as a destination venue (the “Family” project of Chase Jones et al). And this is all within a 30 mile stretch of Highway 290! Two other healthy signs: (1) Numerous strong High Plains Winegrowers have committed to advanced farming practices and rigorous testing, and invested in frost protection, hail netting, state of the art harvesting, and the ability to crush close to the vineyard location. Even 10 years ago, this was not the case. And (2) we have great vineyard growers opening their own tasting rooms and making their own wine labels - Lost Draw Cellars, Betty Bingham, Neal Newsom, Nikhila Narra Davis, Farmhouse Vineyards. This will make everyone better at growing grapes and making quality wine.
A third reality
Fall Creek Vineyards and Winery. This is, I believe, the oldest winery in the Texas Hill Country Wineries AVA, with the first grapes planted in 1975 and bonded in 1979 by Susan and Ed Auler, who after traveling to France to assess a potential expansion of their cattle ranch, gave up that dream and went all-in for wine. They founded the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. And it was their application to the US Government that granted the legal basis for the Texas Hill Country AVA. A producer of Texas wines from 100% Texas grapes, Fall Creek’s portfolio includes wines from $12 to $50, and the new trio at the range-topping ExTerra line at $100 - Tempranillo, Mourvédre (which is brilliant) and Syrah. The wine maker is Sergio Cuadra Schlie. Any self-proclaiming professional taster owes themselves a delightful visit to taste with Sergio. You will learn a lot, and understand the seriousness and discipline with which he approaches this project. The vineyard site itself is quite young, and at present not very large. And yet, it is already kicking out world class wines. That a 2016 vintage could sit on the same table as a Grand Reserva and live to tell about it is itself an achievement. All three of the ExTerra wines are knock-outs by any standard, and critically acclaimed. The production quantity for the whole program in 2016 is a scant 250 cases — no more than 10 barrels!
That said, in fact the price point is well under $100 if you’re a wine club member and might be more if you taste it at the Four Seasons, or Biga on the Banks, or Cabernet Grill. You can also pay more for Muga at these competing locations. So much depends on how we define “the market”. I actually like the price point. I mean granted, I'm not stockpiling wine at this price, but I am happy to buy and share this wine of stellar quality. This is not a daily drinker. It’s not for everyone. It means this wine won’t quickly disappear down the memory hole in three months before serious collectors and evaluators can buy and hold some and track this label through the vintages over time. So the $100 price isn’t a flaw, it’s actually a feature.
The final reality - History.
To be frank, and with respect, I think the original poster has it exactly backwards. ExTerra is not a case of unreality. It’s actually another welcome sign of recognition for the potential that exists to produce world class wine in Texas and builds on the progress demonstrated by other wineries. Inwood has sold $100+ Texas wine in their fine portfolio for many years, and that has not stopped their growth nor stunted anyone else’s. And, it is BECAUSE the Texas wine industry is growing and thriving that we are attracting the talent, investment, energy and commitment to produce world class wines from the very sites that many tasting professionals reflexively maintain can’t yield such wines, and should never seek to price them above their place. Seriously, if the objection to this wine is price, because we don’t have the history and don't deserve to think so highly of our wines, let me show you dozens of wines in Bordeaux, and Rioja, that do have the history, and are in fact, inferior. Or invert that. I can show you many Bordeaux wines that do NOT have the legacy of a historic classified growth Chateaux and make brilliant wines, often selling for even more.
History does not make wine. As the French say, making great wine is easy -- Its just the first 200 vintages that are hard. Well, Texas has been busy in the last 200 years, granted. But now we are focused on this wine business. And ExTerra is just the latest #TxWine to confirm that it is the confluence of wine maker, owner, site, farming persistence, and passion that makes great wine. I hope owners find many more sites like the block at the Salt Lick, adjacent to Onion Creek and depository of complex soils, and put grapes in the hands of skilled wine makers like Sergio Cuadra and Joshua Fritsche who really see what’s possible to create.
Happily, we are putting our money where my loud mouth is - we are getting into it ourselves, with Siboney Cellars. My wife Barbara Lecuona is winemaker, the 2019 is our third vintage. In May, we closed on a 52 acre site situated on a limestone plateau between Hye and Johnson City. The site sits at 1500 feet of elevation, rising 100 feet above 290 entrance, is north facing, and features limestone terraces as well as favorable soils. Having lived and worked in Bordeaux and tasted everything since 2008 at the very highest levels of Primeurs, working with the best wineries in the Hill Country since 2011, and tasting hundreds of #TxWines with Daniel Kelada Texas Wine Journal for many years, I am very proud of what the Texas Wine Industry has achieved so far. We are thrilled to explore the possibilities of this site, and are rigorously examining everything for root stock, clone and layout. Meanwhile we are thrilled to work with vineyard experts like Fritz Westover, and a slew of passionate growers who help us to realize our own dreams while making the best wine we can possibly make. We look forward to welcoming everyone to Siboney in 2020. Just. You. Wait!
Photo by Miguel Lecuona