Our next entry comes from Alta Marfa – wine enthusiasts turned viticulturists looking to grow their far west Texas vineyard. Photos used with permission from altamarfa.com/blog
Who are you?Ricky Taylor and Katie Jablonski
How did y’all end up getting into wine-making? By way of wine drinking, and out of a desire to work for ourselves.
How many are in your crew, or, how many people work on your vineyard? Katie and I and our friend Promit Bagchi have spent every weekend for the last year or so preparing for the vine planting process that we just completed this past April. Prior to that Katie and I began the project in January of 2016. We have also had tons of friends and family members and enthusiastic volunteers (aka new friends) come out and help.
How long have y’all been here (Fort Davis)? January 2016 we began looking for a property in the Davis Mountains to turn into a vineyard.
What’s the story behind your vineyard? In 2015 I put in google “where is the coolest weather in Texas?” the answer is the Davis Mountains. Once Katie and I came out to visit in January 2016 and saw what a magical place it was we got very excited and knew it was the place for us!
What kind of soil/microclimate does your vineyard grow in? The geology of the Davis Mountains is volcanic, which translates into the soil. Our vineyard area so far is about 2.5 acres and is on volcanic soil. That being said, inside that relatively small area, we can see several very distinct looking soils. We have red soil, a dark black soil, a greenish clay, and a very light powdery white soil.
How would you describe your wine-making style? To be determined. We have made wine and beer at home, but never on a commercial scale. I plan on letting our agricultural product (the grapes) dictate some of the styles, but similar to our farming style our goal is to make a wine that tastes good out of the grapes we have rather than trying to make a wine that tastes like French wine or Italian wine or California wine.
Which grapes (varietals) are grown at your vineyard? 90% of our 6,000 vines are Cabernet Sauvignon, the other 10% are a mix of 25 varieties, many of which are from Italy, Spain and Portugal.
What’s your favorite kind of wine? Favorite Texas wine? I am constantly trying a new wine. There is just so much to try! My favorite Texas Wines: Southold Farm and Cellar, Calais, Lightsome Wines, Robert Clay Vineyards.
Do you give tours? Anyone interested in seeing the vineyard can send either Katie or me an email to schedule a time to come by and see it. We do not give regular tours and are not open to the public.
How can people help out? By either subscribing to the blog or following on Instagram people can stay tuned and we will make announcements there about events for things like planting, harvesting, etc. We will also let the email list know first when there is finally wine ready for sale.
What’s the hardest thing about running a vineyard/wine-making? So far everything we are doing we are doing for the first time. From buying the property to clearing the land to build an irrigation system, planting vines, writing a blog, designing a winery. So everything is fairly difficult. We are beginners.
When/Where can we buy a bottle? Don’t have any wine yet. First wine will be available to buy ~ 2022.
What’s your favorite thing about far west Texas? There aren’t many people.
What’s the vision for your vineyard? We just finished planting, I would love to die at the ripe old age of 100 and for those vines to still be growing strong.
Starting off our series on wine in far west Texas is The Vineyard at Blue Mountain, a vineyard that originally took root back in the 1970s thanks to Gretchen Glasscock. Read below to learn about the pioneering vineyard west of town that’s making a resurgence.
Who are you? We’re Maura and Dan Sharp, new Fort Davis residents and proud owners of the Vineyard at Blue Mountain. Longtime Fort Davis residents might remember it as the Blue Mountain Winery and Blue Mountain Vineyard and it’s most recent owners, the Weisbach family. Although the four previous generations of Dan’s family called East Texas home, Dan grew up in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Maura is originally from the New Orleans area. We’ve both been in Texas since the 1990s and when we were dating, we took our first road trip together to the Big Bend region. Today, our family includes two lovable spaniels, Waylon (the winery dog) and Emmylou (the vineyard dog).
How did y’all end up getting into the wine business? Why did y’all choose the Davis Mountains area? We kind of feel like the Davis Mountains chose us. Like a lot of couples who’ve come before us, we fell in love with each other—and this area—under the stars in the West Texas sky. Over the years, we kept coming back to Fort Davis, in particular. It didn’t feel like we were on vacation during those trips; it felt like we’d made our way home. About four years ago, we decided we would find a way to make that feeling a reality. Through good luck or divine intervention, just as we were unloading our truck from a visit to Fort Davis, our Austin neighbor—who happens to own two wonderful Hill Country wineries —mentioned he’d just crushed grapes harvested in the Davis Mountains. That set us on a path to learn more about the Texas wine industry and the history of grape-growing in this region. Dan enrolled in the Texas Tech Viticulture Certificate Program, we attended the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association’s Grape Camp and met with as many Texas growers and wineries as we could. About a year later, we were making an offer on the old Blue Mountain Vineyard property and some surrounding acreage.
How many are in your crew, or, how many people work on your vineyard? We are definitely a family operation. Right now, it’s just the two of us. But as the vineyard grows and we continue to plant more vines, and then open the winery, we hope our team will grow too. Grape growing is year-round work, but certain times are much busier than others. During planting season in the spring and harvest in the fall, in particular, growers rely on neighbors, friends, and family to help us get the work done.
How long have y’all been here (Fort Davis)? We purchased the Blue Mountain Vineyard property in April 2018, but there was no home on the site when we bought it. Since then, we have been dividing our time between Fort Davis and Austin, and have to thank the good folks at the Mountain Trails Lodge, Hotel Limpia, Harvard Hotel and few vacation rental properties in town for putting us up on our many visits. We are moving to Fort Davis full time in July and could not be more excited about finally getting to live on the ranch every day and better know this special community.
What’s the story behind your vineyard? The vineyard was originally planted in the early 1970s by Gretchen Glasscock. Talk about a pioneering spirit! She saw the potential in this site and put the first vines in the ground. Years later, Mamie “Nell” Weisbach expanded the vineyard. Although in the early days the owners sold their grapes to other wineries in Texas, under Mrs. Weisbach the Blue Mountain Vineyard (as it was known then) made and bottled estate wines right on site. Unfortunately, the winery closed in the early 2000s and the vineyard was essentially abandoned. Over time, the 55 or so acres of planted vines died. We heard and even read about the quality of those Blue Mountain wines and admittedly were a bit skeptical. The wine industry in Texas is still relatively new compared to other regions and we Texans can be a bit enthusiastic about our state pride. Consequently, we took all of the comments we heard about the brilliance of the Blue Mountain wines with a grain of salt. Then, we had the opportunity to taste two 20+-year-old bottles and the quality was exceptional. It was love at first sip, and we were converted to true believers. Our mantra is to leave the land better than we received it. Growing grapes is one way of managing the land—but managing the land and conserving it is our primary mission. Grapes require relatively little attention compared to other types of agriculture and we believe that a small vineyard producing exceptional wine will help protect and conserve the land and ecosystem. We are working with the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University to study quail on our ranch and hope to expand the number of species we study. Dan is an avid outdoorsman and we are both conservationists, so the ability to work with the folks at BRI to help further our knowledge of animals like Montezuma Quail and Desert Mule Deer is awfully fulfilling to us.
What kind of soil/microclimate does your vineyard grow in? As everybody in the Davis Mountains, knows, we have multiple microclimates. The soil is well drained volcanic soil with a gravel-like texture, which is highly desirable for growing grapevines because it provides good drainage and minerals. The Davis Mountains area provides the only volcanic soil for grapes in Texas. Our newest vines are being planted on a slope of Blue Mountain that ranges from roughly 5,400-6,000’ of elevation. That elevation is also unique amongst the various grape growing regions throughout the state. There are no vineyards in Texas at this elevation apart from those in the Davis Mountains AVA. And even globally, there are very few. In many parts of the world, planting a vineyard at this elevation would be madness because the accompanying climate would be far too cold and harsh to grow anything, including grapes. Our moderate climate in Fort Davis, at such an elevation, is truly special. We’ve thoroughly tested our vineyard soil through the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory. The results were about as close to the best you could hope to find in the field for what we plan to do. The pH is neutral and the soil nutrients are well balanced.
Which grapes (varietals) are grown at your vineyard? The old vineyard was planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. We are planting almost two acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines next spring. We are using two different grape clones from Bordeaux and two different types of rootstock in the first planting. We expect to plant another two acres of Cabernet the following year and add an acre of Merlot. At the moment, our plan is to eventually produce 1,500 cases of wine each year, which likely means we will need to plant between 15-20 acres total.
What’s your favorite kind of wine? Favorite Texas wine? Maura, in particular, first got interested in wine because she loves to cook. So, she would say the answer depends on what we’re eating and who we’re eating it with. One of our favorite things about wine is that it’s something you share with others, ideally over a good meal, while making a memory. We love wines that reflect the place where they were grown and made because it tells a story in a bottle. It’s too hard to list all of our favorites, but some of the folks who have helped us tremendously and who have either made wine from the Texas Davis Mountains AVA or are very interested in the area are Ron Yates Wines (ronyateswines.com), Calais Winery (calaiswinery.com), C.L. Butaud (clbutaud.com), Lewis Wines (lewiswines.com), William Chris Vineyards (williamchriswines.com), and Lightsome Wines (@lightsome_wines on Instagram).
Do you give tours? Not quite yet, but we have plans in the works that would allow guests to tour the vineyard and even spend the night overlooking the vines.
What makes wine from the Davis Mountains special? We think the Davis Mountains is a particularly special place for growing grapes. In 1998, a portion of the region was officially recognized as the Texas Davis Mountains AVA (American Viticultural Area). Our vineyard is within the AVA boundaries. We expect the number of acres of grapevines in the Texas Davis Mountains AVA to grow because of its potential and track record of producing outstanding wines. For grape growers in Texas, the single biggest challenge is dealing with the heat and the relatively shorter growing season. Although this challenge looks different depending on where you are in the state, the overall impact is that it can make producing wines with a great deal of structure and balanced tannin and acidity much more difficult. The Davis Mountains climate and elevation, however, are unique. The growing season is longer and the climate is significantly more temperate than other areas in Texas. This allows us to let the grapes ripen more slowly, so they have more time to develop all the complex flavors and components that make great wine. That’s not to say grape growing here is easy or for the faint of heart. Like every agricultural endeavor, we have our own issues to contend with.
How can people help out? Contact us through our website ( www.vineyardatbluemountain.com ) so we can stay in touch. Next spring, when we plant our first 1500 vines, we would love to welcome any of our neighbors out to learn about our operation and if you’re so inclined, help plant some vines.
What’s the hardest thing about running a vineyard/winemaking? Making wine can seem like a glamorous or even a romantic pursuit, but we are completely dependent on what Mother Nature provides. Grape growing is farming. We never know what the new season will bring. Too dry? Too much rain? Too hot? Too cold at just the wrong time? Hail? High winds? Hungry birds making a snack of the vineyard right before harvest? There’s a lot of unpredictability, but that’s also what makes it so rewarding to see your vines take root and thrive, to produce fruit and make it into wine you can share with those you love. Already, it has taught us a great lesson in humility—and we’re just getting started. The hailstorm in the middle of May wreaked havoc on one of our neighbor’s vineyard and they may not have a crop this year. That’s a tough thing to manage. At the end of the day, ranchers and farmers will appreciate that we are subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Looking on the bright side, we have been very fortunate to have some awfully good mentors, both in wine and in ranching. That has helped us considerably.
What’s your favorite thing about far west Texas? Our two favorite things about Far West Texas are the people and the wildlife. We both love that when we pass a new face in Fort Davis for the first time, we get a smile and a hello. When our paths cross a second time, we get asked right away if we’ve recently moved to town and about five minutes later we’ve made a new acquaintance. We’ve already met and gotten to know more people in Fort Davis than we did in a few years in Austin. As for wildlife, this area is hard to beat. Dan, in particular, would be happy to be out in the field 365 days of the year. That’s a pretty good trait for a grape grower.
What’s the vision for your vineyard? Our vision is to grow a sustainable boutique winery, with 100% estate grown wines farmed at the Vineyard at Blue Mountain. We truly believe wine is made in the vineyard, so our focus will always be on growing beautiful fruit with minimal intervention. Our wines will reflect not only the place where they were made but the particular gifts and trials Mother Nature provided during that growing season. Once our newly planted vines reach maturity, we’ll reopen the old winery under a new name and release our first vintage with grapes grown at the Vineyard at Blue Mountain. We have a name in mind for the winery but haven’t announced it quite yet. We will always refer to the physical vineyard as the Vineyard at Blue Mountain, to indicate the grapes come from this special place. It will be a few years before we have wine ready to release, as this is not a quick endeavor. In the meantime, we will be planting more acres of grapes each year and constructing the winery building. Just as important as the wine we will make, we also want to find ways to sustainably conserve the land. Growing grapes and selling wine will help to do that. Thanks to one of our wonderful Fort Davis neighbors, 30 head of cattle currently graze in the old vineyard site and throughout the property to help turn over the soil, keep wildfire fuel down, and stimulate the growth of native grasses.
How can people get in contact with y’all for more info? We’d love for everyone to follow our progress online – either on Instagram (@sharpfamvines) or our website ( www.vineyardatbluemountain.com ). We have a blog there with frequent updates about our journey to bring the Vineyard at Blue Mountain back to life
High desert mountains, wide open skies, miles of highway, ….and grapes?
That’s right! Did you know that the country around Fort Davis is ideal for viticulture, and the area is home to several vineyards? In this new installment in our blog, we’re going to take a look at them. We reached out local vineyards in an effort to inform those of us who were unfamiliar with the winemaking process, and to showcase this industry. Stay tuned to learn about the movers and shakers behind this burgeoning industry!
Thank you so much for stopping by and checking out our blog. Here is where you’ll find write ups of our favorite hiking trails and campsites, highlights from Fort Davis events, what the best roads to cruise in your car, motorcycle, or bike are, and a whole lot more. Stay tuned y’all – there’s a whole lot of ground to cover! We’re glad that you’re along for the ride.