Marking His Terrior-tory
Dan Gatlin, owner of Inwood Estates Vineyards in Dallas, likes to joke that he became a winemaker after aliens reversed his brain and his backside.
There are those who might agree. After planting his first vines in 1981 Gatlin didn't sell one drop of wine for 25 years. And there are a couple of reasons for that. First, he's only interested in making fine wine and secondly, he had to wait for the rest of Texas to catch up with him.
Gatlin grew up in the wine business. He spent the first half of his career as the wine buyer for and eventually vice president of the Hasty wine, spirits and convenience store chain his father, Vernon Gatlin, founded in Dallas after World War II. As such, he spent years visiting vineyards and talking to winemakers around the world.
"I was buying maybe $1.5 million in wine at the wholesale level in 1978," he explains. "Back then that was quite a lot. So I was fortunate enough to be involved in the wine industry in California when it was just getting off the ground. Back then, nobody knew who those guys were. Today they're rockstars, but back then, I was going into their wineries and spending the afternoon sitting on five-gallon buckets turned upside down and learning everything they knew about winemaking. I was also learning how much they didn't know. It was an inspiration."
Fascinated by the process, Gatlin wondered if there was any way to make wine while still living in Texas. "I was looking pretty far down the scale," he admits. "I was thinking maybe we could do sherry or port or something like that in Texas."
He recalls when the Santa Barbara Winery was the only one on California's central coast. "They made three types of wine: Red, white and rosé. And it was about $1.75 for a five-liter screw-cap jug. It was widely regarded as just a monumental joke by the people of Santa Barbara. They looked on it with absolute disdain.
"It's hard to imagine today that the California wine industry was ever that primitive, but 35 years ago it was."
The Third Stage
Gatlin says the Texas wine industry is about where California's was all those years ago. "The first stage of the California wine industry was the development of the three colors. The second stage was the advent of the full-line winery. That was the Martinis, the Wentes, Sabastianis, all those guys. They would make 15 of what I call trash varietals; grey riesling, emerald riesling, riesling riesling. And they would all be $6 or $7 and then they would make one reserve and that was their good wine. That was a full-line winery.
"That's where most Texas wineries are today. Wineries all over the state are making 15-20 wines and then they make one reserve and that's where they hang their hats." Gatlin's not a snob and all those wineries making a wide variety of wines aren't amateurs. It's simple economics. Consumers vote with their wallets. In a state where beer is king, most Texans want straightforward, sweet wines that can be chilled and served with barbecue so that's what Texas wineries make. The volume of more complex dry wines being made is roughly commensurate with the percentage of the population that prefers them.
The third stage of winemaking in California evolved when wineries like Joseph Phelps, Stag's Leap and Freemark Abbey decided they were going to concentrate on producing upscale wines and educating American palates.
"That was the beginning of the explosion of the California wine industry," says Gatlin. "When they got far enough that they had boutique wineries that didn't have to make trash varietals to survive."
Inwood Estates is among the first third stage wineries in Texas. Gatlin is making only three varietals of wine, two reds and a white (there's little chance he'll ever make any kind of blush) and they start at around $40. "We're at the very leading edge of trying to find out if Texas can and will be willing to support a winery that will not make cash flow wine."
Inwood Estates Vineyards
1350 Manufacturing Street #209
Dallas, Texas 75207
Second Vineyard in the Texas Hill Country
Marking His Terrior-tory
Wanting to make fine wines and being able to make them are two different things. It's not just a matter of transplanting vines and techniques from California. Climate and soil differences mean Texas winemakers are going to have to find their own way to the top of any wine lists. The combination of the two, in French, is called "terrior" or "the land" and is, basically, what determines whether a geographic region can be used to grow wine grapes.
In California, where the weather is so mild and the soil so fertile that almost anything thrives, winemakers can plant just about any type of grape and use them to make single grape varietal wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Gatlin takes a more European approach, where blending is much more prominent, to making his wines.
"I've seen so many wineries get started in Texas and the first thing they do is pick up the phone and call California and ask, ‘How do I make this wine? Give me a recipe,' and they'll give them exactly the worst formula you could ever imagine because people in the Napa Valley think everything east of Lodi is the same as Lodi and it's not. Lodi has zero mineral grapes and we're working with the highest mineral grapes you can imagine. So they say, ‘Use this yeast and this strategy for cold fermentation,' and what happens is you end up with wine that's hard as nails, that's thin and chalky and just very unappealing.
"Europeans look at their winemaking so differently than the Californians. And there are really good, scientific reasons they do. California wine is basically high glycerin, low mineral chemistry. European wine is high mineral, low glycerin chemistry, so the two are diametric opposites. When you talk to the French their opinion of climate is, ‘Oh, it's somewhat important.' But it's not like when you're talking to Californians and they're talking about specific microclimates. They leave the listener with the impression that climate is some sort of super precise factor in their winemaking when, in reality, climate is sort of a window."
The other deciding factor in Texas winemaking is the fact that the state is basically an inch of soil over millions of square miles of limestone.
"You can look at the roads cut into the hills in south Texas and on either side there's just solid white limestone all over the place," says Gatlin. "All of Texas is just infused with calcium to an extent that no one had ever really thought possible. And it radically affects all of our winemaking. It also radically affects winemaking in Europe vs. California. The presence of calcium in Bordeaux is specifically the reason why Cabernet Sauvignon cannot be made as a varietal; because Cabernet is a mineral sponge. Unblended Cabernet in Bordeaux, when you're barrel tasting, tastes absolutely like sheetrock."
Nearly 30 years, five vineyards, dozens of grape varieties and thousands of discarded batches of wine later, Gatlin believes he's found the right combination of soil and climate to produce grapes that will not only grow in Texas but make the state one of the elite wine regions in the world.
Coming up: Balancing temperature and terrain to find the perfect Texas grape.
Click to read Inwood Estates Vineyards, Part 2.
- 1 cup Tempranillo wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 4 New York strip steaks, cut 1-inch thick
- Combine the red wine, salt and rosemary in a small bowl.
- Let stand at room temperature for two to three hours.
- Heat a large griddle or cast iron skillet over high heat.
- Place the steaks on the hot pan, and cook for about eight minutes per side, or to desired degree of doneness. The internal temperature should be at least 145 degrees F for medium rare.
- Pour in the wine mixture, and allow it to boil for a minute.
- Serve steaks with sauce on a deep platter.