by Andrew Chalk
As I accelerate out of Johnson City, travelling west on 290, I am careful to watch for two propane tanks on the left hand side of the road as I have it on good authority that the entrance right after them is Lewis Wines. Two oak barrels mark the site of the future sign that will tell travellers to the 290 wine route (the stretch of U.S. 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg along which literally dozens of Texas wineries exist either in name or in fact) that this is an open winery with a tasting room and it welcomes visitors.
I follow the driveway around a house and up a rise where, near a bluff of Austin stone, sits the corrugated steel building that is the winery. Duncan McNabb, winemaker greets me with a warm smile that says “I can’t believe you found us”. His dedication to the four-year old startup that is Lewis Wines is obvious when, on hearing my out of state accent, he explains that he is from LA where he was a pre-med student who was initially contracted to do some chemical tests on wine for Doug Lewis, after whom the winery is named, McNabb gave up entrance into the highest paid major profession in the world, American medicine, to make wine at a startup winery an hour north of San Antonio.
Lewis Cellars started in 2009 as a magpie in the attic at nearby Pedernales Cellars where Doug Lewis worked his way up from harvest intern to part cellar rat, part tour guide and part vineyard worker. In 2012, operations moved to the current location where a modern winemaking facility was opened. Output rose from 400 cases in 2010 to 1000 cases in 2011 and 4000 cases in 2012.
The philosophy behind Lewis Cellars is to produce the best wine possible and source 100% from Texas fruit. They currently get grapes from some well-known Texas vineyards such as Bingham Family Vineyards in the Texas High Plains, Kuhlken Vineyard and Round Mountain Vineyard in the Texas Hill Country AVA. The 100-year devastating frost in the High Plains in 2013 has forced some last minute adjustments in procurement practices, including trips to East Texas where they acquired some some Blanc du Bois from which they plan to make a vinho verde style white. I urged them to try to make a wine in the style of The Vineyard at Florence’s Aurelia or Aura, both Blanc du Bois wines in an unprecedented style redolent of a southern Rhône wine. Alternatively, they could try their hand at a sweet dessert in the style of Raymond Haak’s much accoladed Madeira.
Lewis and McNabb’s grape preferences are towards Spanish and Portuguese varieties. Among reds they currently make Tempranillo (7 sites), Touriga Nacional (2 sites) and Tinta Cao, Mourvedre (3 sites), Syrah (2 sites), Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot (2 sites) and Petit Verdot. Whites consist of the French Rhône favorite Viognier, Roussanne, Chenin Blanc and a little-used Portuguese white variety Arinto.
They are planting Tempranillo in their own vineyard and in nearby Mason county. Their Tempranillo policy will lead to five or six vineyard designated Tempranillos each vintage. Other varieties being planted are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao, Mourvedre, Carignan, Tannat (at three sites), Alicante Bouschet and Arinto. In 2015 they plan to plant Tinta Amarela (Trincadiera) and Alfrocheiro at the winery. Among whites they plan on sourcing some Picpoul, Marsanne and Grenache blanc in the near future.
There is clearly an emphasis on southern mediterranean grape varieties and a surprising emphasis on the grapes of Portugal. Their adventurous pursuit of excellence in so many varieties epitomises the young winemakers around the state.
We had a tasting of several Lewis wines, including many from barrel. They showed excellent winemaking and particular standouts were:
2012 Viognier, Bingham Family Vineyard, Texas. Honeydew melon stage of ripeness.
2011 Syrah, Newsom Vineyards, Texas High Plains. 25 months in oak. Garnet red. Smokiness, pepperiness. Hints of bacon in the mouth. Firm but not harsh tannins give admirable structure.
2012 Tempranillo, Newsom Vineyard, Texas High Plains. From barrel. Pronounced peppery taste. Very pleasant. Duncan attributes to a temperature spike in the vineyard and what they sprayed the grapes with.
2012 Touriga Nacional, Round Mountain Vineyards, Texas Hill Country. From barrel. 45 days on the skins. Color is virtually opaque. This wine is going to be a very good Touriga when it is released.
Lewis is a new Texas winery but one with a clear mission. To produce the best wine they can from Texas grapes. Based on their three year track record they are a name to watch in the future.
Disclosure: Lewis Wines provided the tasting samples of their wine. I paid my own transportation cost to their winery in Johnson City.