by Andrew Chalk
At less than two hours drive from Dallas, Red Caboose Winery and Vineyards in Meridian, Texas is close to the big city. However, standing in the sixteen acres of vineyard, one could be miles from anywhere. Gary McKibben and his son Evan founded the winery in 2003 at this location because that is how they wanted it. Close to the city, but in the country (they were also concerned about Pierce’s Disease, and wanted to be north of Fredericksburg as a result). Evan handles the winemaking and Gary is a kind of cross between CEO and everything else.
Vineyard Size and Grape Varieties
As of today, they have sixteen acres of vineyards planted to a mixture of grapes. There is Zinfandel. Spain’s star grape, Tempranillo. The Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot. A set of Portuguese varieties: Tinta Madeira, Touriga Nacionale, Souzao and Tinta Cão. The Rhône variety Syrah. Domestic Lenoir and white varieties Viognier, semillon and Muscat Blanc. The acreage supplies 99% of RCW’s red wines. The whites and blush wines (pale rosés) are made from both estate and purchased grapes. One hundred percent of RCW label wines are from Texas grapes.
Gary considers that the site of RCW concedes nothing when it comes to quality comparisons with the High Plains fruit (the area that currently accounts for 80% of Texas wine grapes). If he is right, the solution to 2013’s 100-year frost in the High Plains, which appears to have reduced the crop around 70%, is to diversify into grape growing in Bosque County. RCW’s loss due to the frost was only 20%, and that was the worst they have seen in the decade that they have been growing grapes there.
Transplants will also be heartened by McKibben’s views on Pierce’s disease (considered a serious problem in the southeastern part of Texas). He regards it as a minor problem “no higher than fifth on my list”, he says. The two reasons are first, that he adopts land preparation techniques such as planting away from plants, e.g. pecan trees, favored by the disease’s vector, the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Second, the use of a spray fine mineral oil to effectively insulate vines against the disease. Although sharp shooters cannot tolerate the oily environment, photosynthesis and beneficials, such as ladybugs, do not appear to be harmed.
Growers who make the move, will also discover some unusual facets of planting in the area. The surface soil is only a few inches thick. Below that is limestone that goes down, potentially, hundreds of feet. To plant vines, you use a rock saw trencher to dig a five inch-wide trench in the limestone, then crush the extracted rock and put it back in the trench. Then plant the vine (along with any irrigation hardware) into the soft, crushed deposit. The roots of the vine spread lengthwise along the trench, and also crack the limestone where the roots find structural weaknesses. It is an unusual, but proven, planting method.
Vines are lined-up in north-south rows. That is because the prevailing wind is from the south, and a north-south geometry allows it to go through the vines, reducing moisture. This geometry also prevents strong winds damaging vines, which they can easily do if the rows face the wind head-on.
RCW is unremitting about fruit quality during the growing season. They “drop” 30% of the fruit. That means that they cut emergent grape clusters off the vine, to be returned to the earth as fertilizer. The result is that the vine focuses its growth on fewer clusters, producing grapes of more flavor intensity.
Irrigation is used when necessary. The effect of a 20 foot drop over the length of the vineyard is to allow the use of a gravity feed system. Gary wants to harvest grapes before they languish in the hottest part of the summer. So mid-July is normal harvest time and one year (2011) harvest took place as early as July 4th.
The result of 10 years of careful vineyard and winery practises is evidenced by a long line of medals on display in the tasting room. Perhaps most significant to Gary is the Jefferson Cup award in 2011 for their 2009 Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon.
I saw the effect of the wine in October this year when I attended and reported on the “No Kid Hungry” fundraising dinner for the North Texas Food Bank. The attendees were very generous donors who had paid $500 each for seats at the meal. They were assigned to tables of roughly eight people, each table the responsibility of a specific chef. I found myself at Bolsa’s table, where executive chef Jeff Harris prepared the food and Bolsa owner, Chris Zielke, worked as one of the servers. With the dessert of roasted pear tart, the wine was RCW’s ‘Some of That Red’, a sweet blend of the Portuguese varieties listed above, plus Tempranillo and Lenoir. How did a Texas wine go over with attendees paying $500? They wanted seconds. Zielke came by and asked me what I thought of it with an expression of evident enthusiasm for the wine on his face. He is an unwavering advocate, and stocks RCW wines at Bolsa Mercado.
If you visit the winery, don’t overlook the sustainability practises. For example, RCW is ‘grid neutral’ in that they consume no electric power from the power grid measured over the calendar year. In fact, they are a net consumer in the summer months, and a net producer in the winter (the power is routed back to the grid). Their electricity is generated by a combination of geothermal and solar sources.
The winery is at the apex of the hilly plot that RCW occupies. That is so that the gutters can collect rainwater and store it in huge black tanks at the side of the building. It is then used to irrigate the whole vineyard using the gravity feed system described earlier.
Almost everything you see at the Meridian site was made by Gary and Evan. The winery building (Gary’s former life was as an architect), the patio, the elegant outside fireplace, the barrel-based tasting room furniture. The speed of growth at RCW is constrained by what Gary, Evan and their employees can do.
Big Challenges Looming
One recent development does give the wine lover cause for concern. RCW has opened a second winery in nearby Clifton. The sole rationale is that Clifton is, in the Texas liquor law idiom, “wet”. That means that RCW can import California jug wine for supermarket sales. I don’t question Gary’s assurances that this will carry a clear ‘American’ designation on the label and not be sold with the misleading “For Sale In Texas Only” label wording (a means of disguising grape origin). However, I am worried about two other things: First, the RCW brand has become increasingly more valuable over the years. Confusing it with California jug wine can’t be a good thing. Second, the Clifton plant is going to be a volume operation, and I wonder how much it will divert management attention away from the focus of the first decade: making the best wine possible from Texas grapes. I actually don’t understand why RCW isn’t rapidly increasing acreage in Bosque county to take advantage of a seller’s market for Texas grapes.
RCW has become something of a poster child for Texas Tempranillo blended with other grapes. The have the aforementioned ‘Some of that Red’. A Tempranillo-Cabernet blend and a Tempranillo-Lenoir blend. All are well-made, full-bodied, wines that pair well with steak, barbecue and game. A more recent varietal is a venture into Viognier, a very successful white grape in the state. RCW’s shows ripe fruit flavors and tropical fruit aromas that make it a wine made for poolside quaffing. In a forthcoming article I will be tasting Texas red blends made predominantly with the Tempranillo grape.
It is just recently, as its oldest vines pass into double digits age, that RCW wines have risen to become part of the top pantheon of Texas wineries. They have made smart viticultural and oenological decisions about the Meridian winery up to now, one hopes that they will continue their linear quality ascent.
Postscript: We found our way down to Red Caboose Winery and Vineyards with the help of the Texas Wine & Trail App for Android and iPhone. It provides a wealth of other features including letting you log notes of wines and locate nearby restaurants and accommodations. Note: I write for Texas Wine & Trail but do not receive any payment for recommending this app.
Disclosure: Red Caboose Winery and Vineyards provided some wines for tasting described in this article. I paid all my other costs, including transport to the wineries in Meridian and Clifton.