In 2012 Wedding Oak Winery
opened its doors in San Saba, at what many call the Top of the Hill Country. Spearheading the endeavor was Mike McHenry, a second-career grape grower and vineyard consultant eager to bring San Saba into the fold as a Texas wine town. He had the grapes and the business know-how, but to date, his greatest asset is his winemaker, Penny Adams, a long-time pioneer of the Texas wine industry whose career has been built in Texas soils alone.
Texas Monthly: We hear a lot of about some of the bigger wineries that started early in Texas winemaking like LLano Estacado, Fall Creek Vineyards, and Messina Hof. They all started in the late 1970s, but you weren’t far behind them.
Penny Adams: No, I was a horticulture graduate from Texas A&M and I was hired on to take care of a vineyard and ranch outside of Austin. We planted 20 acres of grapes in 1979 and in 1982, we had our first vintage under the label of Cypress Valley Vineyards in Cedar Park.
I decided to get a Masters degree in California from Fresno State. It was a great school in that it was a practical program. You had to do the work in the field. They let me do my masters work in Texas, which was the first time they’d ever allowed something like that. But it allowed me to do my thesis on pruning young grapevines in Texas.
We started our family in Texas wine. My son was in a picking bucket in the vineyard when I was pruning. I’d sit at the end of bottling line and he’d put bottles in cases for us.
Texas Monthly: You’ve also spent a lot of time consulting to a lot of Texas wineries?
Penny Adams: Over the years I’ve consulted with a lot of different vineyards. Dr. Becker of Becker Vineyards was one of my first. I worked his first crush, and bought all of his first winery equipment for him when he was ready to start. I worked in the High Plains with Neal Newsom and Kim McPherson as well as the Aulers of Fall Creek and the Bonarrigo’s of Messina Hof. In the early days, all we had was each other. I helped start the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival with the Aulers and worked for the Texas Agrilife Extension for many years on viticulture.
Texas Monthly: Now that you do both vineyard management and winemaking, which do you prefer?
Penny Adams: My true love is the vineyard. You can’t make good wines without good fruit. I just became a winemaker in many ways by default. You just pitch in when it’s needed. I realized through all of that that I knew maybe what I was doing. One year, I made a white wine from some Trebbiano grapes and it gained such a following that I was asked to come to the Fancy Food Show at the Windows of the World at the World Trade Center in New York back in the 80s. I had always been intimidated by white wines, but I guess I did something right.
Texas Monthly: Why were you intimidated by white wines?
Penny Adams: Well, the control process is more intense. There are more little tweaks you have to make at the very beginning that effect the end product. I suppose somewhere along the way, I started gaining confidence.
Texas Monthly: What’s the worst wine you’ve ever made?
Penny Adams: Probably a French Columbard. It’s a French-American hybrid and I’ve always thought it was so boring. In the early days we were all told we couldn’t grow vitis vinifera (European wine grapes) because of disease. So we used a number of different French-American hybrids like Seyval Blanc and French Columbard. Those were pretty bad wines. The acidity was never there, and the high PH was the most difficult problem. It just didn’t have any character at all.
Texas Monthly: While many are touting Viognier and Tempranillo as the top grapes for Texas, there is a significant contingent of growers and winemakers that say it’s way to early to make that claim. Based on your extensive experience, what are grapes that you see are good for Texas?
There’s been such an advancement in technology as far as what’s available to us in terms of grapes and yeast strains for winemaking, that the options are really very wide for us. When I started in this, we tried things like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and while we can get some great crops in certain years, I’m still not convinced that those grapes are worth all of the effort they require in Texas. We can make them, but they’re something altogether different.
I’m not convinced Viognier is that grape, but from very early on, Trebbiano has been great in Texas. And I do think Tempranillo is a strong grape here as well. It’s been interesting to discover their different characteristics depending on whether it’s grown in the High Plains or in the Hill Country. I’m also really excited about the Syrah we’re seeing from our vineyard in the San Saba area. I am adamant about proving to the High Plains that the Hill Country can grow good grapes and and make good wines.
Texas Monthly: What are your primary goals for your wine program at Wedding Oakl? Penny Adams: I don’t want to throw everyting at the wall to see what sticks. When Mike and I first discussed this project. We talked about a lineup of wines that would include Rhône reds and whites, which do really well in the Hill Country. That includes Syrah, Mourvedre, Roussannne and Grenache. For a while I was opposed to Grenache because it has continuous problems, but the characterisitcs it can bring to a wine are really exciting to me. Texas Monthly: Are there other Texas wineries you feel are raising the bar for Texas? Penny Adams: You know, I have so much respect for Seth Martin at Perissos Vineyards. I’ve been watching him for years and he is so diligent. To see people do their homework like he has done is really amazing. I also have a lot of admiration for the folks at Bending Branch Winery. Bob Young came to me before he even moved to Texas to talk about planting a vineyard. I admire what they’ve done mainly because they’ve had great successes with Tannat. To see this grape variety standing up so bold and happy in the heat is inspiring. I’m also impressed with the young blood coming to this industry. It used to be retirees coming out to do this. But people like Chris Brundrett, Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb are what will make this industry thrive years from now