Discovering Texas Wines
Grape Creek Vineyards
Grape Creek Vineyards
Winemaker Jason Englert
Wineries in Texas change hands just about as often as the Alamo. That is to say, never. Yet it happened at Grape Creek Vineyards in February of '06 when Federal Express executive Brian Heath purchased the operation from the Simes family.
Grape Creek was established in 1985 by Ned and Nell Simes. The Simes' started with the modest goal of creating the dry French-style dinner wines they enjoyed. "If we couldn't sell them, at least we could drink them," Ned explained.
The couple hired noted wine making consultant Enrique Ferro from Temecula, Calif. to help them get started. The Grape Creek location along Highway 290, just east of Fredericksburg, was chosen for its microclimate and the high traffic flow. The vineyard was planted with six acres of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Over the years the Simes family added 11 more acres of grapes on the 100 acre estate. The land also supports a five-acre peach orchard.
Above the winery is a small bed and breakfast.
The family continued to battle Texas' unpredictable weather and Pierce's disease (a bacterial pathogen that kills grapevines) until Ned's death in 2004. The loss of the Simes patriarch marked the beginning of the end of the family's involvement.
Jason Englert was brought in to replace Simes as the winemaker and in little more than a year, a new owner was found.
Englert earned his degree in biology from Texas Tech before apprenticing at the Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock. "Greg Bruni is the winemaker there. He had a lab position that I took. Wine making became a passion for me and 10 years later, here we are." Englert's first priority has been to update the winery's varietals.
"A lot of the wineries back in the 70's and 80's were making French wines," Englert explains. "We've kind of learned over the years that the best Texas wines are blends.
"We have some new wines we've just released; super Tuscan, merlot, sangiovese and cabernet. It's hard to make a solid varietal wine in Texas. The weather is so unpredictable and the viticulture industry in Texas is so young that we're still learning a lot about what grows best here. We buy most of our grapes from other growers."
Grape Creek Vineyards WinesThere are more changes planned to the winery but Englert says some things will stay the same. "We're going to continue to make Bordeaux style wines. That's probably going to be our most premium style but we're also going to make Italian wines."
Grape Creek also offers a selection of lighter reds. "Because we're in Texas, we make some semi-sweet and sweet wines. That's where the beginning palate seems to lie here. We have a Muscat canelli and we make a cabernet blanc out of cabernet sauvignon grapes. That's done in a white zinfandel style but with a little higher quality fruit. We're the only winery in Texas making a cabernet blanc. That's our major seller."
Most recently, the winery's 2002 fume blanc, 2001 merlot and 2002 Muscat canelli won gold medals at the 2003 Texas Open Wine and Food Festival.
"We'll make a fruit-forward style without so many tannins that you have to lay it down for months before it's ready to drink. I want to make our wines approachable. We'll make some wines that are meant to be aged but most of our wines are bought by tourists who are going to drink it with dinner that night. We understand who we're selling to and we want to meet their expectations."
The new owner is also planning to revamp the vineyard. "There are only about four or five acres of grapes left. We're so close to Grape Creek, which is a perfect habitat for the insects that carry Pierce's disease, that we've had a lot of damage. We've also had a lot of freeze damage over the years." While there's no planting schedule yet, Englert says the plan is to add Pierce's resistant Black Spanish grapes to the winery's mix.
"Pierce's disease can be managed. The bacteria is all over the world. It's certainly here. All you need is a vector to move it around. Right next to a creek, we have plenty of vectors. With proper techniques, you can keep your losses to a minimum. A lot of the problem in this area is that it wasn't managed properly and it just sort of snuck up on everyone."
There are also plans update and enlarge the winery itself.
"We're going to expand the tasting room and add some new production facilities. We're going to keep the bed and breakfast above the winery. The long term plan is to turn the current winery into a standalone bed and breakfast and build a new winery. We want to make the entire facility more user friendly.
Englert adds that the winery will increase its production from the current 3,000 cases to around 12,000 over the next five years. That means Grape Creek will continue to buy the majority of its grapes.
"Our goal is to buy all our grapes in Texas, but it's getting tough because of all the wineries opening up. It's getting harder to secure grape contracts. But that's good. The more wineries there are in Texas, the more people discover them and the more they want to experience them. It's good for all of us."
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