It's not easy being a winemaker in Texas. It takes a lot of patience, determination, creativity and plain old hard-headedness. Franklin Houser has all of that, including the hard-headedness. Still, he's not willing to fight a losing battle against insects that outnumber him by millions.
"There was a study done of several wineries around the state where the agriculture department measured how many of the Pierce's disease carrying insects there were. My property was the highest in the state. It was amazing. We had something like 10 times more of the disease carrying bugs than any other winery in the state."
Houser, the owner of the Dry Comal Creek Winery in New Braunfels, knew when to cut his losses. Pierce's disease is a bacterial pathogen native to the gulf coast that kills grapevines. Two types of grapes that have proven resistant to infection are black Spanish and blanc dubois, affectionately known among Texas viticulturalists as Blanche DuBois.
"I've grown some white grapes over the years but I'm not optimistic about their survival. I had a big field of norton grapes and we tore them all out. They were supposed to be immune to Pierce's disease but after about 10 years I could see they were starting to deteriorate. We're replacing them with black Spanish." Houser plans to plant the new vines next spring and hopes to begin harvesting them in about three years.
While tearing out grapevines might sound drastic, Houser shrugs it off. "We buy most of our grapes. This won't have any real impact on our production."
Trying to grow grapes in Texas is just too risky, even for Houser, who's willing to roll the dice most of the time. "Between the Pierce's disease and the inconsistent weather, I don't understand why people try to grow grapes in Texas. I buy most of my grapes form outside the state. That was one of the best decisions I ever made."
At least Houser used to buy grapes. Now he just buys the juice.
"I opened the winery in 1998. That was the first year we bottled any wine. I was going around Texas trying to buy grapes and I was having a hard time finding anyone willing to sell them to me. Growers didn't know who I was and they were reluctant to sell me their grapes. So I started looking around outside the state. I found a grower in Demming, New Mexico who was willing to sell me French colombard grapes. I love French colombard so I drove my pickup out there and brought back two trailers full of grapes. I made another trip out there and brought back some cabernet sauvignon and some chardonnay and mixed them with my colombard and it turned out very well.
"I continued using them and then I found out about a vineyard in Arizona. I got grapes from him too. I did that for about three years."
That's when Houser got a call from a company in Lodi, Calif. asking if he was interested in buying French colombard juice.
"I asked him how much he had and he asked how much I wanted. He told me he could ship me the grapes but why would I want that? He said he'd process the grapes and just ship me the juice. He'd chill it down to 34 degrees and ship it to me in refrigerated trucks and when I got it it would be clean, clear and filtered. Back then he only charged me $3.25 a gallon for the juice. And freight was a lot cheaper than it is today."
Houser says he learned a couple of lessons from that transaction. "One is that there are a lot of opportunities out there. And the other is that French colombard is the second most widely grown grape in California behind chardonnay."
Most of California's French colombard crop goes into baby food as a sweetener. The grape produces an astounding 10-15 tons per acre, making it cheaper than sugar.
Dry Comal Creek features two French colombards, a classic dry and a demi-sweet. "We're the only winery in Texas, that I know of, making it," says Houser. "I understand they're just starting to grow the grapes on the plains."
Dry Comal Creek Vineyards1741 Herbelin Rd.
New Braunfels, Texas 78132
- 11:00am - 6:00pm
- 12:00pm - 6:00pm
Whether you consider yourself a wine novice or an expert, our Tasting Room is non-pretentious and even a bit raucous at times. The biggest seller at the winery is Comal Red, a blend of 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent sauvignon blanc. "We age the cabernet a minimum of three years on oak," Houser explains. "Then we get the freshest, cleanest, sharpest sauvignon blanc we can find and we blend them. Then it goes back on the oak for at least another six months. Then we bring it out, adjust the sugar with cabernet and bottle it."
The Comal Red's place at the top of the winery's sales list may be in jeopardy. The winery's 1096 Port may soon displace it. "I'd put it up against anything they've got in Portugal under 20 years old," Houser says defiantly. "We just released our first bottles and they're incredible."
The 1096 Port is made from black Spanish grapes fortified with grain alcohol. The name comes from the time the wine spends in the barrel on what Houser calls his "port farm."
"It's the number of days. Three years and one day. And it's stored outside the whole time in the sun, the wind, the freezing rain. It's stored in the barrel come what may. I was visiting a winery in Australia where they had ports going back 125 years that had been stored outdoors the whole time. They told me that after 30 or so years they didn't even have to top off the barrels anymore because the wine had become so thick that it didn't even evaporate."
Experimentation and GrowthHouser says it's experiments like that that keep him interested. "Selling wine isn't especially fun and growing grapes certainly isn't fun. It's making wine that's fun. It's tweaking it and seeing how you can make it better or different that's fun. That's what I enjoy."
Houser is also dabbling in balsamic vinegars. "I think I can make one that can compete with what's out there now and I think it would be great to have a balsamic vinegar from Texas."
At a tiny 5,000 case per year production rate, the future at Dry Comal Creek is more of the same. "We may hit 6,000 cases this year but I'm not going to let it get any bigger than that. We're always a year or so behind everyone else in releasing our wine. I just keep fooling with it, trying to make it better so we're always late getting it out. That's not an especially profitable way to run a business but it's fun. That's why I do it."
Sauvignon Blanc Mango Salsa
- 3 Ripe Mangos (Frozen or Canned OK), Chopped
- 4 Large Tomatoes, Chopped
- 1 Clove Garlic, Crushed
- 1 Medium White or Red Onion, Chopped
- 2 seeded Jalapenos, Diced
- 1/4 Tsp Each Salt and Pepper
- 4 Tablespoons Sauvignon Blanc
Creamy Parmesan Risotto
- 2 Tbl Olive Oil
- 1/2 Red Onion, Chopped
- 1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
- 1 Cup Arborio Rice
- 1 Can Chicken Broth
- 3/4 Cup Fume Blanc
- 1 Clove Garlic, Chopped