Neal Newsom, Vineyard Owner
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Newsom, who grew up in Yoakum County, took a chance when he decided to grow grapes on the High Plains. Today his vineyard is one of the largest in Texas, serving more than a dozen of the state’s top wineries.
My family has been in cotton farming for more than a hundred years, mainly around Lubbock. When I was growing up, my father managed a cotton gin. After college, I ended up taking over his job. I eventually started my own cotton farm with my wife, Janice, but cotton requires a lot of water, something we don’t have much of here. I had always been interested in alternative crops. I played around with peanuts, alfalfa, pumpkins, and soybeans. And then I remembered my chemistry professor at Texas Tech, Roy Mitchell, saying that grapes would be a good crop for the High Plains. Shortly after, an article came out about a new winery called Bluebonnet Hill. We visited the owner one day, and he gave us a list of reasons why planting vineyards was a smart move.
Grapes are expensive to grow, but the dollar yield per acre is pretty high. I said to my dad, “Heck, if it’s half as good as they say it is, that’s a lot better than cotton!” At first he wasn’t too keen on the idea, but when I placed my first order to start a crop, he and my mom decided they would plant some on their property too. In 1986 we planted three acres and still kept about two thousand acres of our cotton. The funny thing is, Janice and I weren’t even wine drinkers at the time. Sure, we’d had cabernet and merlot, but mostly we drank the sweet stuff. We started with cabernet sauvignon grapes. It was a big experiment. Our farm is at 3,700 feet, which is higher than most vineyard areas in California. The land we own has shallow, low-vigor soil, which forces the vines to struggle a little bit and produce better fruit. And given our semiarid climate, we have almost no disease issues like you have with cotton. Although we do have weather challenges. In Texas it’s either too wet, too dry, too hot, or too cold. Hail storms are disastrous.
In 1989, three years after we planted, we harvested our first real crop. It fit in the trunk of our car. We drove it to a winery in Garden City and got a check for around $500. We thought we had made it big! The first few wineries that bought grapes from us didn’t make it, though. It wasn’t until the early nineties, when we started selling to Fredericksburg Winery and Becker Vineyards, that things really got going for us.
But hand-harvesting was tough. It took sixty people five days to hand-harvest 18 acres. In 1992 we contracted with a machine harvester, which allowed us to complete the same acreage in 23 hours with half the people. So kaboom! We were able to plant more acreage and harvest faster, and our winery list began to really grow. Now we have more than 130 acres.
Our typical day varies based on the season. In the spring, it’s vine management. We have 25 seasonal field workers, and my son, Nolan, is my right-hand man all year. We prune and train the vines and kill the rye cover crop we planted during the winter so that there’s no competition for moisture.
We harvest during the late summer. Harvest is a crazy time. Because of our altitude, it is very hot during the day, but it can cool off to well in the sixties by the early morning hours, which is when we pick the grapes. We start around midnight, and we’ll often work through sunrise. In one night, we are able to fill one or two refrigerated semitrailer trucks with grapes. We bring them to our large barn, and Janice organizes the different bins on the trucks according to which winery gets certain grapes and which delivery will be first. From there, things happen pretty quickly. You usually have six to eight hours after harvesting to make the deliveries before the heat starts changing the grape chemistry.
Some of the winemakers will come out during the harvest season to check the grapes. Others will rely on me to update them. We’re checking for ripeness and particularly for the sugar level, or degree Brix. The anxiety is high when the weatherman says we have a good chance of rain. Rain might make the sugars decrease significantly, and you have to hope the grapes can regain their sugars within the next day. With the twelve to fifteen varieties I’m now growing for fourteen wineries, it takes a lot to get it all to click.
Because we work with so many different wineries, we have a co-op system. If a winery wants a new varietal, they’ll pay for part of the vineyard installation, so if the crop doesn’t work, I don’t incur all the expense for the failure. We set contracts by acre rather than tonnage, because the weather ultimately determines our total yield. That way everyone gets their allotment based on how many acres they invested in. Everyone shares the risk.
I’d nearly rather pick my favorite kid than my favorite wine. We’ve had some outstanding wines made from every winery we work with. Some have even won national awards. The Inwood Estates Vineyards Tempranillo is really good, and so is the dessert orange muscat from Fredericksburg Winery. Becker Vineyards and Llano Estacado Winery have done amazing things with our cabernet sauvignon, and Texas Hills has made a great cabernet franc. I’m looking forward to the wines from some of the newer wineries I work with, like Bending Branch Winery and Calais Winery. They’ve all put Newsom Family Vineyards on the map.
In more recent years, we’ve gotten calls from start-up wineries that are looking to get things up and running before they’ve even planted grapes. But all of our grapes are spoken for before the vines go into the ground. Many of the wineries we work with have grown so fast that we can’t plant quick enough to keep up with their needs. You have to order grapes at least a year in advance. Then it’s about five years until you’re at full production. A lot of people don’t realize the amount of planning necessary to get a bottle of wine. If you want a vineyard right now, you’re out of luck.