Day 2: The Wild Wild West of Natural Wine: Texas Hill Country

Dr. Jeremy Parzen visits us from DoBianchi where he discusses all wine Italian and otherwise. Reader’s of this blog should know him by now.

The Wild Wild West of Natural Wine: Texas Hill Country

Uva uvam vivendo videndo varia fit.

—Juvenal 2.81 (Hat Creek Cattle Company)

Above: A herd of spiders lives above the entrance to the cave at Lewis Dickson’s winery La Cruz de Comal in Startzville, Texas in the Texas Hill Country just south of Canyon Lake (where Tracie P’s family spends two weeks every July).

“Now what we gonna do, Roy,” said Texas Hill Country grape-grower Lewis Dickson, when he picked up the phone the other night out on his ranch and called winemaker Tony Coturri, “get some dynamite?” The Gabby Hayes-Roy Rogers schtick is partly borne out of a friendship between the two men that has spanned more than two decades. (And the parallel is nearly seamless except for the fact that both have beards.) But it’s also owed to their frontier spirit when it comes to winemaking.

Above: Cinematic cowboys Gabby Hayes and Roy Rogers. Lewis likes to joke that he convinced Tony to come out to Texas to make wine by buying him off with a genuine western-wear Texas belt buckle (you know the kind). But Tony told me that he’s always loved the challenge and the craziness of it. “When I come out to help Lewis pick the grapes, the harvest is so early that it’s like a ‘warm-up’ for my harvest in California,” he told me that night on the phone.

But the fact is that, since they began vinifying grapes together in this wild west of natural winemaking in the Texas Hill Country, the two have faced Texas-sized obstacles in their quest to produce real wines in an environment (a two-season, extremely hot and often unforgivingly arid terrain) where “corrective” winemaking is not just the norm — it’s the rule of law.

Tony has vinified every vintage at the Cruz de Comal ranch since 2001: “Make no mistake about it,” Lewis told me when I visited him for a tour, tasting, and dinner the other night (about an-hour-and-fifteen-minute drive south-southwest of our home in Austin), “I grow the grapes and Tony makes the wine. He’s the winemaker.”

Named after a cross made of comales (the classic Mexican iron griddles), the Cruz de Comal ranch produces a handful of labels (the breadth depends on the vintage) made from organically farmed hand-picked grapes, vinified using only ambient yeasts and no sulfuring whatsoever.

Wine has been made in Texas since the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. And Texas even played a crucial role in the revival of European viticulture after phylloxera nearly destroyed it: Texas horticulturist T.V. Munson was one of the researchers who helped to develop the phylloxera-resistant cultivars that ultimately resurrected the European wine industry (“Phylloxera,” Oxford Companion to Wine).

But Texas, with its unforgiving “two-season,” spring- and autumn-less climate, poses extreme challenges to the producer of fine wine — fine wine, as it was conceived in the twentieth century and as it is perceived in the twenty-first.

Above: Lewis brought the “Cruz de Comal” back from one of his many trips to Mexico. Today it watches over his vineyards of Blanc de Bois and Black Spanish grapes. It’s a mere coincidence that the winery resides in the county of Comal, Texas.

And let’s face it. I cannot tell a lie. Since I moved to Texas a year and a half ago, I haven’t tasted but a handful of Texan wines that I would share with my friends and family. As much as Texans love to drink local, the harsh environment and the slavish attitude with regard to international varieties (French and Italian) have led to widespread standard-operating-procedures of acidification and other extreme manipulation — a big turn-off for me and Tracie P.

In fact, Lewis told me, the reason he is able to make wines using natural yeasts and no sulfur is that he is using the right grapes: principally, Blanc de Bois, Black Spanish, and Norton (with a smattering of French grapes).

Blanc de Bois, you ask? Blanc du Bois is a Pierce’s disease-resistant grape variety developed in the 1960s in Florida that has been cultivated with great success in Texas.

Above: One of the wines that thrilled me the most was this 2005 Pétard (so-called because of its bright, bright acidity and gentle spritz), made from 100% Blanc du Bois. Its extremely high levels of acidity make it ideal for Tony’s style of winemaking and give it remarkable aging potential.

Another element in their approach that allows them to make natural wine in such a harsh environment is that they pick the grapes early — even by Texas standards. “We’ll be picking the white grapes in July,” wrote Lewis in an email message yesterday when I asked him about harvest, “and the red by the third week of August.”

But perhaps the most important piece of this puzzle is that Lewis and Tony let the wines be as nature made them. “Being on the dance floor with Mother Nature can be a dicey situation. When a wine goes sideways,” said Lewis that day, “I stick a stick of rosemary in it and give it to my friends to cook with.” In really rough years, for example, when high temperatures have delivered grapes with extremely high sugar levels, they stop fermentation using a distillate, as in the case of the Dickson 2008 Après: “100% Estate grown Blanc du Bois, some fortified and later blended with some naturally sweet Blanc Du Bois from the same vintage. Picked at 25 brix, we’d hoped to make about 40 gallons of Pétard but, it didn’t go dry,” wrote Lewis in an email. “That’s OK. It made for an interesting blend. A tad oxidative on the nose, it’s much more forward and showing more complexity than the 2009 right now.”

I really dug both wines, especially the 08 with its oxidation. Lewis is a bigger fan of the 09.

In some ways, Lewis’s fortified wines fascinate me the most. I imagine that the Spanish probably made wines in this fashion, faced with the extreme climatic conditions of the new frontier.

When we spoke to Tony by phone about their unique approach to the new frontier of natural wine in Texas, I asked Tony what the secret is to making these zero-sulfur wines. “It’s the high acidity levels,” he said. “These wines are made without any sulfuring and it’s the acidity levels that allow us to do that.”

The afternoon I visited, we tasted through eight wines and there were a number that I really and truly dug. Like the 2004 Cohete Rojo: “About 65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the balance being Syrah, Tannat and Alicante Bouchet. Aged in new and used 100% French Oak barrels for one year. Bottled by hand, unfined, unfiltered.”

Above: La Cruz de Comal 2004 Cohete Rojo. “Red firecracker or Rocket, in Spanish,” said Lewis, “again for the backbone of acidity, the natural preservative of this and all of our wines.”

The Cohete Rojo was light and bright, with nervy acidity and a wonderfully balanced 12.2% alcohol. Very fresh and very food friendly, this was the wine I poured for myself when we sat down for roast leg of lamb dinner (Lewis collects beautiful 19th-century French hand-cranked machine rotisseries, btw).

But reviewing my notes and reflecting on what stood out the most to me, Lewis’s 2006 Cuvée Jackie was the wine I found the most original, the most surprising in the sense that it was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. “60% Norton, 40% Black Spanish, one barrel, aged one year in second year Vicard French Oak, bottled unfined, unfiltered. Named Cuvée Jackie after my late Mother, who you would have loved… never ‘missed a curtain call’ as it were.”

Here, earth and more savory notes emerged together with delicious sour cherry and Lewis and Tony’s trademark “tongue-splitting” acidity (as Tracie P might have put it).

Above: Grape grower Lewis Dickson is a Texas original. The homestead he built on his Comal County property is one of a handful of wineries on the southern side of Canyon Lake, not far from New Braunfels. But he’s certainly the only one with such an contagious passion for winemaking that he was able to lure a winemaker like legend Tony Coturri to the Lone Star State.

Spending time with Lewis, once a high-powered Houston lawyer, one gets the sense that he has traveled far and wide and has lived many lifetimes before building his log cabin in a remote area of the Texas Hill Country. I’m not really sure what brought him here but I’m glad he made it.

He may well be the very first winemaker to build a homestead on the natural wine frontier in Texas and I certainly hope that he will not be the last.

As another cowboy put it, when a grape sees another grape, it changes color.

Follow day by day here:

Up next: A trip to Slovenia, or; Seriously guys that was our goal.

~ by Cory Cartwright on June 20, 2010.

18 Responses to “Day 2: The Wild Wild West of Natural Wine: Texas Hill Country”

  1. Great post, Jeremy. If I ever do another “Wines From Elsewhere” party/tasting, Dickson’s wines would have to be included.

  2. I’ve only been able to try a small handfull of norton based wines, but I do find them intriguing, there’s something there that has appeal, Thanks Jeremy, for pointing us the a possible right direction!
    But, isn’t Gabby Hayes the frontman for the Butthole Surfers?

  3. Jeremy, loved learning more about this stuff and great post. I’ve had the fortified wine and thought they were just wild and original. Can’t wait to meet Lewis. A brave man. Thanks for writing this up.

  4. Thoroughly enjoyable read! Perhaps hybrids are more appropriate for large areas of hot, New World wines! Who knows, but it is an interesting though.

  5. very much looking forward to a visit there with you jeremy p! great post :)

  6. […] is there a photo of spiders on my blog today? You’ll have to visit my contribution to the 32 Days of Natural Wine, day 2 to find out. I wrote my post on Lewis Dickson, the only natural winemaker — to my knowledge […]

  7. thanks again, Cory, for letting me contribute this year. And thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments. Lewis is such an interesting guy. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me revealing that he planted the Blanc du Bois accidentally, after a nursery sent him the wrong rootstock (he thought he was planting Black Spanish). When he saw how well it showed, he decided to keep it…

    @Hank I’m so glad you’ve reminded me of the Butthole Surfers! :-) Such an awesome band and it didn’t occur to me until your comment that they are from Texas (San Antonio), another one of the great bands that Texas has produced. I’ve been listening to a lot of Doug Sahm lately but I’m gonna break out with some Butthole Surfers! And yes, the Norton, unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Interesting stuff…

    thanks for reading, ya’ll!

  8. p.s. @Tracie P we’ll go visit with Lewis soon!

  9. if you’re breaking out with butthole surfers baby, maybe we should get you some cream.

  10. We do hope somebody else takes Lewis’ steps…

  11. Thanks for sharing an amazing story about two wine iconoclasts. I was raised in Texas and love natural wine, so you had me from the start!
    Cheers, Amy

  12. @Amy you’d love Lewis and Tony’s wines! Hope to see you soon in TEXAS! (or LA)…

  13. Lewis is still a great trial lawyer….

  14. yeah…and Lewis is truly the most authentic person I’ve ever known…he makes you proud to be from Texas!! He knew where he was headed way back in 1967 when we’d drive around in his fine Ford Falcon….with the widows down and the radio turned up!
    Chester Harkins

  15. I guess in my last comment I should have realized that we didn’t drive around in his Falcon with ‘Widows’ down….but we did have the ‘Windows’ down….sooo fine!! Shango knows!

    Chester Harkins

  16. […] and fellow Californian-Texan Amy Atwood. And for a profile of Lewis and his wines, please see this post I did for the 32 Days of Natural […]

  17. […] from left: Alice, Lewis Dickson (Texas Hill Country natural winemaker), Tracie P, Jeff Courington (owner Vino Vino), and Russ Kane […]

  18. […] Above: Tracie P and I hung and picked grapes with Tony last year in Texas, where he comes to make wine with his friend Lewis Dickson. (Check out my write-up of Lewis and his wines here.) […]

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