36. We Made Our First Wine!
Part of planting a vineyard has been participating in the creation of not just Alta Marfa but of a new community of grape-growers and winemakers and wine-drinkers in Texas. Dan McLaughlin, the proprietor of Robert Clay Vineyards, has over the past few years become a focal point of this new Texas wine community. Southold Farm and Cellar, another pillar of this new Texas, is making a considerable portion of their wine with fruit from Robert Clay Vineyards. Rising wine star, Krista Scruggs, has a new winery and is managing vineyards in Vermont, but makes the long journey each summer to Mason, TX to make some wine with Robert Clay Vineyards fruit. Most importantly, there is small army of aspiring grape growers and winemakers that have washed up on the “shores” of Mason County to learn and experiment at Robert Clay Vineyards. East Coast, West Coast, Texas and Europe are all represented, everyone living in camper trailers and tents for the summer harvest season at Dan’s vineyard located just outside Mason TX, a rural town of 2,000 people, many in this group will make their first wines this summer at Robert Clay. Dan has made small lots of fruit available for many of the harvest workers to experiment with. Through his open-mindedness, generosity, determination and practical nature Dan has cultivated the perfect wine incubator to push Texas wine forward.
The energy of creative/nothing to lose/fearless/bushwacking adventure is palpable at Robert Clay, not because Dan has the secret sauce or because there is a wizard behind the curtain, but precisely because there is NO wizard. Everyone is keenly aware that they are not experts; everyone knows that they haven’t yet figured it out, how to make wine here in Texas, but they also all believe that no one else has figured it out either.
I first became aware of Dan and Robert Clay Vineyards via the internet (of course). Right away I noticed that his vineyard physically looked different than what one is used to seeing in Texas. The vineyard floor was covered with grass (almost unheard of in Texas) instead of dead, herbicide blasted dirt . I was intrigued. Then I saw that Krista (Scruggs), who is very much part of the natural wine movement, was making wine at Robert Clay Vineyards. I was more intrigued. I started to follow Dan online and starting asking him a few questions about his farming. Dan was nice enough to give me a call and explain what he was doing with his farming. Dan made the decision to farm 100% organically at Robert Clay this year which I believe makes it the only producing vineyard in Texas that can make that claim. One thing led to another and before we knew it Katie and I were on our way to Mason to pick some Tempranillo. With a ton of green fruit still on the vines, verasion was not even complete. We decided to pick very early, around 3.2 pH, 20 Brix, 11 g/L, because we wanted to make a rosé. We wanted to make a rose that was low in alcohol, high in acid, refreshing and zippy.
A few days later we heard from Dan that we could buy the rest of the Tempranillo. We headed back to Mason the next weekend to pick more grapes. We wanted to repeat our activities of last weekend and once again direct press the Tempranillo whole cluster and add to our already fermenting rosé. When we arrived at the vineyard we found that the fruit was already much riper than it had been the previous weekend. We made the quick decision that the remaining Tempranillo was indeed destined to be a red wine rather than more rosé. We decided to put all of the fruit, whole cluster, into a large bin and with the help of some stow-aways from Houston we foot stomped it under an oak tree in the middle of the vineyard. As soon as we made the snap decision to turn the rest of the grapes into a red wine, we invited new vineyard friends Chris Boozer and Alex Dunn to collaborate on this wine. Fermenting with skins and stems means punch downs, and considering Katie and I had to head back to Houston to go back to work the next day we needed more team members to make this wine. Chris and Alex watched over the wine for the next week as it took off on its wild fermentation under the oak tree. When I returned the next weekend we carefully loaded the still fermenting wine into the back of my little Ford Ranger for transportation into the winery for pressing. We pressed the wine off of the skins and stems and into a tank that will be its home for the foreseeable future. We are very excited to see how both wines develop!