Transforming Mason Into a Wine Mecca
How Don Pullum of Sandstone Cellars is turning this sleepy little Hill Country town into a stronghold for Texas wines.
Nestled in the northwest corner of the Hill Country, Mason is a pristine little town that is perhaps one of the region’s best kept secrets. Fort Mason draws Civil War history buffs who want to know about more about several notable generals, including Albert Sidney Johnston, William J Hardee, and Robert E. Lee, and fans of the children’s classic Old Yeller can walk the streets that the book’s author, Fred Gipson, grew up on.
Fans of the ABC reality television show The Taste may recognize Pullum as the charming, soft-spoken gentleman sporting a well-groomed white beard, a perpetual rosy-cheeked smile, and a stylish newsboy cap. His warm demeanor alone enchanted the panel of celebrity chef judges, which included Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre, Marcus Samuelsson, and Nigella Lawson. And though he charmed them once, Pullum was eventually eliminated on the show’s third episode. The dish that gave him the boot? Paella. A community-shared Spanish dish reminiscent of his travels to the Moorish-influenced regions of Spain with his wife, Diana Escobedo. Sadly, it didn’t win over the palates of the four judges and you could see a grimace fall across judge Marcus Samuelsson’s face who said, “Man, I really liked that guy,” as Pullum exited the stage.
Most people who encounter Pullum feel the same way. His warm, inviting character has an old soul quality that makes you want to enjoy a few glasses of wine while strolling through a Hill Country vineyard sharing stories with him—and if you pay him a visit out in Mason, that’s likely what you’ll end up doing.
Which is what makes Pullum’s adopted home in Mason such an auspicious addition to the town—especially for Texas wine enthusiasts. After he received a degree from Harvard University, married Escobedo, and launched a career in banking and venture capital funding, Pullum steadily inched his way toward his long-term goal to becoming a winemaker. He and his wife (who recently died from Lou Gehrig’s disease) had traveled extensively to many of the world’s great winemaking regions and Pullum was keen to find a good spot in Texas for growing grapes of his own.
“I’d always thought I’d have a second career in grape growing, though not necessarily winemaking. I spent a year looking for land in the Hill Country for a good site,” said Pullum, who eventually decided on a plot near Mason where there’s red sandstone soil brought up from the Llano Uplift. “The quartzite sand soils here are great for grape growing because they’re mineral rich and water percolates very quickly through it.”
In 1998, he bought about 45 acres of land and began Akashic Vineyard, named for a Buddhist term meaning “nature’s memory.” In his first few years, he planted French Rhone and Italian grape varieties such as grenache, primitivo, sangiovese, syrah, and a very special Chateau Beaucastel clone of mourvedre. He moved a nineteen-foot RV out to the property and waited for the vineyard to take root.
“The RV wasn’t all that bad,” Pullum said. “You could fry an egg, talk on the phone, and take a shower all at the same time. It was great!”
In the first few harvests, Akashic Vineyards yielded bumper crops of more than four tons to the acre, which allowed Pullum to sell his grapes commercially to Alamosa Wine Cellars and Texas Hills Vineyards. But the next three years brought harsh late spring freezes that split the trunks of most of his vines.
“I quickly learned that I was going to need to factor late spring freezes into my vineyard plans for this region of the state,” Pullum said. He started selecting varieties that are late budding, like the mourvedre, but also warmer climate grapes found in Portugal and Spain. “It also meant that the vineyard was not going to be enough for me to earn a living from year to year.”
Around the same time, Pullum met Scott Haupert and Manny Silerio, who had recently opened Santos Taqueria on the main road into Mason. They had also just purchased the neighboring lot and building to provide more restaurant parking space. In determining how best to use the building, Pullum had an idea that struck Haupert and Silerio as particularly appealing.
“The idea of making wines that could reflect the unique terroir of the Hickory Sands Soil, which is some of the oldest in the world, was really exciting,” Haupert said. “We committed to making small quantities of dry red wine made from grapes only from this region. Some years allow us to make up to 500 cases, but in other years, we may get practically nothing. It’s about whatever the region gives us.”
In 2005, the new Sandstone Cellars released its first vintage of 2004 Syrah with Pullum as winemaker. Since then Sandstone has won numerous awards and garnered national attention for its wines. Each year, the winery only releases one wine made up of a blend of Mason County red grapes from the year’s harvest and is named with Roman numerals for each consecutive year—the Sandstone VII of 2009 is a particular standout, made from 100 percent Touriga Nacional.
But Pullum didn’t stop with Sandstone Cellars. With proof of his gift for winemaking pouring from each bottle of the tasting room, word soon traveled to other wineries–including Junction Rivers Winery, Torre di Pietre, and some of the state’s most promising new wineries, Pontotoc Vineyard and Fly Gap Winery–which quickly enlisted his consulting services and advice.
“I interned under Don in 2006 and feel lucky that he was my first mentor,” said Brock Estes, from Fly Gap Winery. “He showed me how to tap into the energy of a wine and how to tap into my palate. He gives more than he receives and his influence will always be the base of wines I make in the future at Fly Gap.”
But wineries aren’t the only thing Pullum’s quiet leadership has influenced. He’s also drawn attention to the great grape growing potential of this western stretch of the Hill Country. When he originally planted Akashic Vineyards here more than fifteen years ago, he was a lone pioneer. But now, the area has nearly a dozen different grape growers with more than 150 acres under vine and new plantings soon to find there way here in coming years. Some of the state’s most recognized wineries source their grapes from the Mason County area, including Becker Vineyards from Drew Talent Vineyards and Fall Creek Vineyards from Dotson-Cervantes just north of Mason.
“I’ve always been convinced this was a good place to grow grapes and get good fruit,” says Pullum. “I’ve always envisioned that the second round of industry in Mason would be wine.”
And while Pullum took a brief break from wine to stretch his home cooking skills on a national television show, his primary focus is on opening a winery of his own in Pontotoc, an old ruin of a town just a few miles from Mason. (It’s a blip on the map along the western stretch of Texas State Highway 71.)
A Chickasaw word that means “land of hanging grapes,” the revitalization of Pontotoc is the vision of Major Carl Money, an army attorney for the Office of Soldiers’ Council that represents the Wounded Warriors program by trade, but a world traveler and romantic visionary at heart.
In 2003, Money purchased an old German home built in 1872 as a fixer-upper project for a family summer home. As he researched the history of the surrounding buildings along the main street of the old town that struggled throughout the late 1800s, Money saw potential for rebirth, particularly in the form of viticultural tourism.
He soon purchased the ruins of the San Fernando Academy school house as well as the main town building, which originally housed the town general store, post office and barber shop. He plans to turn them into three separate winery tasting rooms for the Dotson-Cervantes Winery, Pullum’s Akashic Vineyards, and for Money’s own Pontotoc Vineyard winery. Behind the building, Money planted five acres of Tempranillo with the help of his uncle Ronnie Money, who manages the vineyard, and Pullum who has already produced two vintages of the Pontotoc wines as head winemaker.
“In addition to being kind, loving, and brilliant, I consider Don the finest winemaker in Texas,” Money said. “The patriarch of the vineyards and wineries of the Northern Hill Country, he has toiled in the Hickory Sandstone soil of Mason County for almost twenty years and produced some of our state’s most savory wines and we are proud to have him as our winemaker, we consider him a member of our family.”
For the Akashic Vineyard label, Pullum will source grapes locally from his own Akashic Vineyards as well as from other regions of Texas. And although he probably won’t have his first Akashic Vineyard label available for a couple of years, he intends to follow the same principles with his own wine that he has with other wineries.
“My goal is to make complex wines that are balanced and have good structure,” Pullum said. “My principal goal is to listen to the grapes because they really will tell you within the first few months what they want to be after you get them in the winery the first few months. It will be great to be a winemaker under my own name. It will be a lot of work from a business standpoint, but it’s wonderfully romantic.”
And that’s why Pullum’s prowess in this little Texas Hill Country town gives wine experts who have followed his winemaking career over the years reason to conclude that indeed, there is much ado about Mason.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the Cooper’s BBQ in Llano as the original location. The location in Mason is the original. We regret the error.