Earlier this year I reported on the status of the 2014 grape harvest. Though better than 2013, this year also proved to be a challenge for Texas grape growers due to late spring freezes, especially for the operations in the High Plains.
But one grape grower seems to have broken through on combating some of Mother Nature’s most challenging antics. Andy Timmons, of Lost Draw Vineyards in Brownfield, has been investing in more progressive technology and agricultural practices to protect his vines. He’s also diversifying his portfolio by starting his own winery, Lost Draw Cellars, in Fredericksburg, a strategy that will allow him to control his product from farm, as it were, to table. .
Timmons’ journey from vine to glass looks more like a meandering river rather than a straight path, but for all the mentors he’s gained and techniques he’s learned—and continues to learn—along the way, he wouldn’t trade any of it.
Originally from Brownfield, a small town near Lubbock, Timmons graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in agronomy, a fancy word for professional farming. This kind of work is almost a family legacy for Timmons. His ancestors grew row crops in the South until the Civil War forced them to relocated to Graham, Texas. “The boll weevil finally chased us out of there and into the High Plains and we’ve been farming this red earth ever since the early 1900s although I’m really the only guy left in our family who is farming.”
We had a chance to talk with Timmons following harvest this year to find out more about his experience in transitioning from cotton and peanut farming to grape growing, the biggest lessons he’s learned a long the way, and his anticipation for Lost Draw Cellars, which opens this weekend.
(Andrew Sides, Andy Timmons, and Troy Ottmer of the new Lost Draw Cellars | Photograph by Claire McCormack)
TM: You originally began your farming career with row crops like peanuts and cotton. What made you get into grapes?
Andy Timmons: It was about 2005 when I first got the idea to grow grapes. My good friend Larry Young had taken over his dad’s vineyard up here. My brother Dusty had already gotten involved with grape growing and they convinced me I could do it.
Because Texas is still such a new frontier, almost everyone has to have a mentor. Larry and Bobby Cox took me under their wing and taught me everything they could. Bobby is one of the original Texas grape grower with vineyards from the ’80s that are still producing. They were the first to tell me that Texas was different than any other place for growing grapes and that we had to make our own way of doing things.
TM: What’s different about Texas?
Timmons: This is not California or Washington. In this state, our problems won’t be the same from year to year. We’ve got hail and wind, freezes and drought. It’s been a difficult learning process for me. But it’s worked out because the wineries I work with have been really good to talk with me about exactly what they’re looking for in their grapes. We’ve been able to walk through the process together. But I’ve realized it’s a complex business. Growing grapes is sort of like onion. Once you peel back a few layers, there’s all this other stuff you have to learn. It’s never-ending.
When you look at what people are doing in Washington or California, you have to filter what really applies to you. It also helps that we do have a few decades of grape growing under out belt in Texas. We may not have everything figured out, but with the speed of information over the internet as well as sites like YouTube, you really can learn just about anything and figure out how to make it work here.
TM: You’re not the first person in the High Plains to move from row crops to start growing grapes. Neal Newsom, Jet Wilmoth, Cliff Bingham and others have also done it to name a few. Do you think this is a growing trend for the High Plains?
Timmons: I hope so. I have a lot of friends who are really good farmers who have started talking about doing it. If you’re a good farmer, you’ll be a good grape grower. The thing that holds people back is the snobbery of wine. It can be intimidating to walk into a winery to sell your grapes not knowing if someone is going to buy them or not. The job is yours to do the selling and it’s really important to know how to build relationships to get that going. And you have to be willing to take a hit when you’ve made a mistake in the vineyard. I’ve had several situations where I’ve had to let wineries out of their contract for the amount of grapes they wanted simply because I wasn’t going to sell them bad fruit. In the end, it’s my name by that product and I have to be proud of what I’m selling them.
TM: Are you still working with peanuts and cotton?
Timmons: Not as much in the last two years. I have a business partner who manages the land I have in row crops. I’d like to focus just on the grapes, but the truth is, with a dismal harvest like we had last year and this year, you do need something on the side to support the grape growing habit. It’s not 100 percent every year so until we figure out something different, it’s just what I have to do.
TM: It seems you’ve really hit the ground running trying to learn how to progress Texas viticulture to take pace with other American grape growing regions. How have you gone about doing it?
Timmons: It’s a combination of a few things. I’ve made a point to travel to other wine growing regions in the country to find out what I can from other people have. I’ve met people with 40+ years of experience doing this in different areas and they’ve all been willing to share information with me. Texas’ story is not unlike Washington in the 1980s and wineries like Chateau Ste. Michelle changed everything for that region.
I’ve also used technology to come up with better irrigation strategies. I didn’t really have to do that with row crops. It’s possible to under water and over water. And a lot of it has to do with the canopy of the vine, which has everything to do with the plant being able to balance itself and not have too much vigor. But you can’t do just do the same thing across the board. Every grape variety needs something different. Every clone, every root stock. It’s a lot to manage when you have a wide range of grape varieties to work with.
This year was the first time I used wind machines. They use them all over the world, but no one was using them in Texas. Last year I bought four of them that stand about 45 feet above forty acres of my vineyards with 18-foot panels that fan wind over the vines to keep temperatures a few degrees above the actual temperature. That investment saved me this year. I had those machines blowing over five acres of Viognier and was able to bring in six tons an acre during harvest. Last year, without the wind machines, I was only able to bring in 800 pounds after a devastating number of spring freezes.
TM: These machines cost about the same as a luxury car. Do you plan to order more?
Timmons: I already have. I want to see the Texas Wine industry work. To do that, we can’t paint our hat on certain grape varieties if we can’t do them well consistently from year to year because of frost. We need to be able to perfect the grapes that work well here each year. That will also prevent wineries from having to go out of state to buy fruit. We’ve got to progress beyond that.
If we can get to the point where we’re not losing money on years where we have freezing, it keeps things moving forward for all of us. Since I’ve been touting the wind machines, I understand from the Washington company that sold them to me that there are about 40 wind machines coming to Texas this year. That’s definitely progress.
TM: You’ve talked about wanting to have 1,000 acres of vineyard planted and under your management by the end of 2015. That would make you the largest grape grower in the High Plains. Why the ambition?
Timmons: It may seem like I’m trying to stay ahead of the curve in Texas but it’s really just trying to catch up with the rest of the American wine industry. We’re so handicapped out here because we’re still figuring so many things out. A lot of it is lack of enology education that’s specific to Texas. That’s slowly starting to change, but when you add equipment, vineyard management and overall acres planted into the mix, we’ve got a long way to go before we really catch up.
Bottom line, we have to have more grapes, so the growers have the ability to fund the research we need. I don’t know how far we are from that, but we’ve got to keep moving forward. There are other challenges we’ll have to overcome, like finding more tank space to handle more fruit coming in at harvest each year, but I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.
TM: And now you’ve decided to open a winery? Was grape growing not enough?
Timmons: I guess you could say it was just a natural progression. I’ve always wanted to be vertically integrated in this business from growing, to selling, to being a part of the end result. I really enjoy seeing other people enjoy something that I’ve put time and effort into and you don’t really get that with cotton or peanuts. You don’t really see anyone enjoy the underwear your cotton helped make or the peanut butter some of your peanuts went into.
The opportunity came through a nephew of mine Andrew Sides, who married into a Fredericksburg family, the Ottmers. I met with Troy Ottmer and we decided to build a tasting room out of a building he owned in town. Andrew joined are partnership and we developed our business plan. For wine, it was easy. I live ten minutes from one of the best winemakers in the country, Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars. He’s agreed to teach me as much as he can and make my wines for me for our label, Lost Draw Cellars, which is an extension of my vineyard name, Lost Draw Vineyards. I’ve always believed that if you get the best people you can find to surround you and keep your ears open and your mouth shut, things will start to happen.
TM: What has been the biggest challenge to opening the winery?
Timmons: We really want to sell wines that have 100 percent Texas fruit, but the harvest has been so rough in the past two years that I’ve had to get fruit from other states just to have wines ready for when we open. About a third of our wines this year will be from Texas fruit. Next year, that will be different. Being a grower, I have a vested interest in selling wines that have grapes that I grew in them. That’s a priority for me. Right now we’ve got about 3,000 cases to work with and hopefully next year’s harvest will bring us enough fruit to build on that number.