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 other places where it is grown, which are generally cool. But here you find that Sauvignon displays just a different array of aromas that are nice and fresh. Coming here I have seen broader possibilities of cultivating different varieties. It really changed my perspective on what I thought could be grown in Texas.”
For Cuadra, seeing the vineyards also informed him of how best to do his job. In his opinion, good winemaking can only come from having hands on the vineyard, where the wine is really made.
“I have seen twenty years of grapes, looking after and being translated into wines, and I think working in the vineyards is a fundamental part of winemaking,” Cuadra said. “Now that I see have seen all of the vineyards we work with, I can determine the things that I think would work for having both quality and quantity. Just as a cook looks for the best ingredients at the market, a winemaker needs the best grapes to make wines. After all, we are just winemakers, not magicians.”
With regards to water, which is a growing concern for many wine-growers across this drought-ridden state, Cuadro has a few ideas about how to best use it for Fall Creek’s vineyards.
“If you observe in Europe where they don’t irrigate their vineyards, they have good years and then they have challenging years because of the weather mainly due to the rainfall pattern. If you take the rainfall pattern of a good year then you can learn a lot about what is a good water availability for the plant to determine what a good strategy would be moving forward. That normally refers to not stressing the vines. You give them enough water, especially after veraison [when the fruit is ripening] and before harvest, that is the key assuming you already have a good canopy and healthy vines. That period is crucial. If you overirrigate, you don’t get quality.”
We tasted through the Fall Creek white wines including the 2010 Caché, a Chardonnay-dominant blend with Muscat Canelli and Sauvignon Blanc that serves as a pretty, floral food-friendly wine with a crisp dry finish; and the 2012 Chenin Blanc, a workhorse wine for the winery for the past thirty years. It has beautiful fruity and floral characteristics with a bit of residual sugar that makes it perfect for spicy food and warm summer picnics.
“I found that you can get more fruitiness on this grape in Texas than you can in other areas,” says Cuadra. “I think that is a positive thing. Going forward, I want to work on protecting these aromas, which are usually very delicate and sensitive to oxidation and can fade away easily. It has been a very successful wine so far but I want to encourage the fruit character to stay in the bottle as long as they can because I really like the style.”
Which brings us to another important goal for Cuadra and Fall Creek wines: longevity. As many Texas wineries are having to put out new releases as fast as they can to keep up with demand, many of those wines are designed to drink immediately. And considering most wine purchased at a retail store is typically consumed within a few hours of purchase, that model works fine in most cases. But Cuadra likes to consider the big picture.
“I think it is a good idea to think on the shelf life of the wines beyond three or five years because there’s a difference between how fast wines move on a retail shelf and in restaurants, which tends to be slower.
If our new customers have a first impression of our wine that is from a vintage that is more than three years old, we have to be careful that the first impression is lasting. I want you to be able to walk in a restaurant that may have a 2008 Chenin Blanc and still find that wine is good. If not, we lose people.”
We also tasted a special experimental Chardonnay, something Cuadra made literally hours after he had arrived in Austin. These grapes had just arrived at the winery and there were only enough to make about two barrels.
“I just figured we should go ahead and make them in the barrels, so we gently pressed them and put them straight into new French oak barrels to ferment,” said Cuadra. “It was a very natural process. I wanted to see what would happen.”
We tasted the wine after it had only been in barrel for six weeks. It was undergoing malolactic fermentation, which is a process in which tart malic acid is converted to softer, lactic acid, which often imparts a butter characteristic.
On the nose, the wine had high citrus tones of orange peel and lemon curd with soft green apple and melon in the background. The palate had bright acidity and broad structure. It was beautiful.
“Again, my surprise,” said Cuadra, who would never have imagined Chardonnay would work in Texas. “No one in the international sphere is going to back up planting Chardonnay in Texas. I never would have. But then you have this. How do you explain this? I’m amazed at how flexible and adaptable these vines are and at the quality of grapes they can produce.”
Cuadro’s next plan with the wine was to rack it off of the spent yeasts from fermentation and stir it with some of the leftover fine lees to impart more structure and flavor. The result, once it’s bottled in the spring of 2014, will be a very natural, very handcrafted wine—and one that will be nearly impossible to get with only two barrels produced. Regardless of the small production, it’s a very bright foreshadowing of what is yet to come from this new Texas winemaker.