Ed and Susan Auler know a bit about being pioneers. The ambitious couple started planting grapes for their Fall Creek Vineyards in their Hill Country soil in Tow, Texas, in the late seventies, making them one of the first commercially established wineries in Texas. (Val Verde Winery in Del Rio is technically the oldest dating back to the late 1800s.) Ed Auler also pushed through approval for the first American Viticultural Appellation in Texas, and now the Texas Hill Country Appellation is geographically one of the largest in the nation.
The Aulers didn’t set out to be winemakers. They stumbled into it following a visit to France on a research trip for different cow breeds for their cattle ranch in Texas. (Ed was a fourth generation cattle rancher with a vested interest in Charolais cattle.) Stowed away in Susan Auler’s carry-on was a book her friend who toured French wineries had loaned her. During their travels the Aulers discovered they had more interest in French wine than in the bleak prospects for the Texas cattle industry. So instead of buying cattle, they decided to invest in grapes.
Ed did extensive research on growing the grapes and relied heavily on the expertise of contacts at Texas A&M University and University of California Davis—long known for its heralded viticultural and enology wine programs.
The Aulers started modestly, producing only about 350 cases of wine a year. Ed would personally deliver the wines to a few retailers throughout the state from the trunk of his car. Thirty years later, Fall Creek produces more than 50,000 cases of wine that is widely distributed across the state. Though the couple still welcomes input from wine experts, including Andre Tchelistcheff, one of the country’s most influential post-Prohibition winemakers, and Jack and Dolores Cakebread of California’s Cakebread Cellars, Ed has been the primary voice on how Fall Creek’s wines have been made.
And after thirty years, he’s held his own. Numerous selections of Fall Creek wines have won awards including a recent double gold medal from the 2013 Taster’s Guild International Wine Competition for the 2010 Meritus, a red wine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But while things have certainly been going well for Fall Creek, the Aulers want it to be better, especially since the Texas wine industry has seen an uptick in quality and demand in recent years. For the Aulers, turning thirty is a time for new beginnings, which is why they spent the past year on an international search for a new winemaker, someone who could take this historic winery to the next level.
“We took our time looking for a winemaker and received many resumes, but no one seemed to fit our specific needs,” Susan Auler told me. “We reached out to many of our friends throughout the wine industry and our friend Paul Hobbs recommended we talk to Sergio Cuadra, in Chile.”
Hobbs was a trusted source to make a recommendation. He himself is a top name, known as one of California and Argentina’s top winemakers, a man who has worked for Robert Mondavi, Opus one and Simi wineries before opening his own. He’s also a top consultant to wineries all over the world in places like France, Canada, and Chile. Upon his recommendation, the Auler’s sought out Cuadra. He has nineteen years of experience in the Chilean wine industry with notable Bordeaux wine expert Jacques Lurton at Viña San Pedro, Master of Wine Kim Milne at Caliterra, and most recently at Anakena where Hobbs worked as a consultant. Prior to that, Cuadra spent a decade at Concha y Toro as principal winemaker.
After meeting with the Aulers and doing some extensive research on the Texas industry, Cuadra agreed to move his wife and five children to the Hill Country to start a new life as a Texas winemaker. He arrived in Texas in early August, during the peak of grape harvest and just in time to work on the wineries 2013 vintage.
I was recently invited to a private tasting at the Auler’s home to meet Cuadra and taste through some of the winery’s most prized wines. After a few short months with Fall Creek, it was clear the experienced winemaker had already impressed his new employers.
“There were little tricks he had that in thirty years I had never seen or read,” Ed said. “Once Sergio started talking about some of the things he wanted to do, you realize you are doing everything wrong. You aren’t upset about it, but you say to yourself, ‘Gosh, that makes perfect sense, why didn’t I think of that before?’”
In short, Auler, who for his history in the Texas wine industry could respectfully be considered an old dog, is learning new tricks. Like how to fight tannins, different ways to press and pump over in wine production, and new perspectives on water management. As Auler continued to talk about his newfound winemaking knowledge, Cuadro, the confident, yet humble Chilean, sat quietly with his hands clasped on the table and a warm smile on his face.
“He is exaggerating,” Cuadro softly said.
But as it turns out, Cuadro is learning a lot, too. In addition to the estate vineyards at Fall Creek’s winery in Tow, the winery also sources grapes from a few different places throughout Texas, including Voca in the western part of the Hill Country, Mesa in West Texas, and Driftwood, near Austin. Once Cuadro arrived in Texas, his first interest was to see the different vineyards first-hand. As it turns out, the vineyards he saw brought many surprises.
“I was really amazed by what I saw. One thing I wasn’t expecting was how adaptable the vines can be to different conditions and still produce good, quality grapes for wine,” Cuadro said. “It made me realize that weather as temperature plays an important role, but there are other things that are even more important, like soil. I would have thought that Sauvignon Blanc in that condition would fail based on