While many Texans are squeezing in their last summer vacations in August, those in the state’s wine industry are hard at work, putting in long hours to bring in the harvest. But although this year’s harvest looks to be both high in quality and bountiful, it’s a bittersweet one. On Monday, Mary Clementine Ellison “Bunny” Becker, cofounder of one of the state’s most well-respected wineries, Becker Vineyards, passed away.
Becker has been an integral player in the story of Texas wine, helping grow her family’s winery from just 2,500 cases to more than 120,000 over the past 25 years. Though born in Greenville, Mississippi, on August 27, 1940, Becker grew up in Texarkana and later met her husband, Dr. Richard Becker, on a blind date while attending the University of Texas in Austin. She was six feet tall; he was six foot six. As commonly said by the Beckers, the two were “matched in altitude, and they were together thereafter based on attitude.”
Originally a speech therapist, she took a leap of faith with her husband, an endocrinologist practicing in San Antonio, in the early nineties when they decided to plant wine grapes on a 46-acre plot of land in Fredericksburg. Though the property was originally intended to be a weekend getaway for the couple and their three children (Clementine, Will, and Joe), their extensive travels throughout the world’s iconic wine regions led them to take a chance on making wine in Texas. From their first vintage in 1995 to the award-winning wines released today, Becker’s journey has been an affirmation of what Texas wine pioneers such as Llano Estacado Winery, Fall Creek Vineyards, and Messina Hof Winery began in the late seventies, while paving the way for the newcomers that have helped propel the industry forward. “Bunny was a real ‘can-do’ person who wasn’t afraid to push Texas wine into the arena,” says Susan Auler, cofounder of Fall Creek Vineyards. “She has been a crucial positive force for our industry.”
Although Becker Vineyards has made great strides for Texas wine, it’s the hard work and boundless generosity that best define Bunny Becker’s impact. Whether shuttling wines in the back of her car to August E’s restaurant, in Fredericksburg, during its opening to make sure they had Texas wines on the menu or standing at the entrance of the Becker Vineyards tasting room on weekends to welcome people or supporting an old family friend whose artwork posthumously adorns each of the Becker Vineyards labels, Becker had a heart for making not only quality wine, but also quality connections with the people in her life.
“Bunny was such a breath of fresh air. She was the first person who treated me kindly when I was trying to get into grape growing nineteen years ago,” says Drew Tallent of Tallent Vineyards, a 65-acre Hill Country plot in Mason County. “I was a peanut farmer and cattle rancher who didn’t know one thing about grapes, but I knew I wanted to plant them. When I called Becker Vineyards, I first spoke to Bunny, and she was so respectful and courteous. She was so positive about what I was doing, and I’ve had a wonderful relationship with them ever since.”
To this day, Tallent sells about eighty percent of his grapes to Becker Vineyards, helping the winery supplement its estate vineyard as well as a couple of other Hill Country vineyards. But the Beckers also buy grapes from a few grape growers in the High Plains near Lubbock, where most of the grapes in Texas are grown. One of their primary suppliers is Farmhouse Vineyards, a partnership between two couples: Traci and Anthony Furgeson and Nick and Katy Jane Seaton. Katy Jane literally married into Texas wine growing while working for Becker Vineyards in marketing. During an assignment to spotlight all of the grape growers the winery worked with, she met Nick, a farmer who was just beginning to grow grapes. “Bunny Becker was kind and authentic from the garden shed to the White House in every single thing she did,” she says. “She was friendly and gentle, but the word I’ve most heard used to describe her is ‘grace.’ She had a grace about her that was regal.”
But for all her tenderness, Becker was known for her razor-sharp palate. During regular wine tastings from the winery and cellar, Richard Becker always deferred to Bunny’s opinion, Seaton recalls. “She could pick out every little nuance, and it was her call that was the final call. I loved that,” says Seaton.
Becker wines have been served to three presidents, at three governor’s dinners at the White House, and at ten James Beard House Dinners in New York, not to mention the countless food and wine festivals throughout Texas. In 2005, the Beckers helped found the Buffalo Gap Wine and Food Summit near Abilene, where the two solidified a lifelong friendship with cofounders Tom and Lisa Perini, of Perini Steakhouse, and Ashley Parker-Snider and her late father, well-known actor Fess Parker. “I got the feeling over the years that she was the quiet strength of the very accomplished Becker family,” says Parker-Snider.
As part of the research for the summit, the Perinis and Beckers, along with master sommelier Guy Stout and his wife, Kim, would travel nearly every November to a different wine region around the world to spotlight at the annual event. “Bunny had more stamina than any of us on these trips and was always the most gracious traveler,” says Lisa Perini. “But the one thing that I’ll always remember about her is her patience. I never saw her lose her cool or do anything that didn’t radiate Southern charm.”
One of the summit’s longtime participants, Pat Brennan of Brennan Vineyards, echoes Perini’s sentiments. “She was a true grande dame of Texas wine,” says Brennan. “She was so sophisticated and kind, but also very capable. Though Dr. Becker was a great help to us in getting started, she actively helped us get set up, making sure we were able to get our labels approved and things like that.”
Though Bunny Becker had exuberance and a stately presence in her role of championing Texas wine, appearing twice on the cover of Wine Spectator and winning awards such as the Tall in Texas Award in 2014 for leadership in the Texas wine industry, she will be remembered most for her unfailing hospitality, her love for her family, and that palate. Though she didn’t set out to be one of the most impactful women in Texas wine, Becker’s irrefutable legacy will endure.
This post has been updated to correct some spellings: It is Drew Tallent and Tallent Vineyards, not Tallant. And it is Traci and Anthony Furgeson, not Fergeson.