A native Texan with a sharp business mind honed at Rice University and the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, David Kuhlken didn’t originally aspire to be a winemaker. And yet, he’s making wine in Stonewall for Pedernales Cellars, a family operation that is among the top producers in the state. Prized for Tempranillo, Viognier and other red wine blends, Kuhlken’s wines are balanced, well-structured, and straddle a fence between rustic and sophisticated. They make a bold statement that when people question the relevance of wines from Texas, the response should be: “Seriously… Texas wine.”
Texas Monthly: What made you decide to become a winemaker?
David Kuhlken: For me, it was the combination of being in the business when my parents started growing grapes in the 1990s. Before that I had no ambition to work in wine. It was really their retirement life. But, having gone to business school, I did have a drive to start my own company. I wanted to be involved in something I could be passionate about. As I got involved in the ups and downs of their vineyard, I realized this was that thing for me. With the help of my wife, sister and brother-in-law, everything came together.
TM: What has been a wine from your past that was a game-changer for you?
Kuhlken: I went over to Granite Hill when Bill Blackmon was the vineyard manager. He had a few wines over there including a Merlot that was spectacular. It was as good or better than ones I’d ever had from California or France. It was a major change of mindset for me for Texas wines. I realized that even if it was on a small scale, if people could make wine like that from Texas grapes, there’s a business to be made there.
TM: What are some of your biggest challenges growing grapes/making wine in Texas?
Kuhlken: You know there are the obvious challenges like hail and spring freeze. But I’m an optimist and say that most problems are about seeking solutions. You have to keep working until you find the solution and the biggest challenge is staying the course and getting that down. If we’re realistic about our ambitions, we can get past that. We’re always going to be dealing with up years and down years. But that’s part of the industry we’re in. Making investments in things like wind machines for frost protection like Andy Timmons is doing in the High Plains really pays off. The supply side is also a challenge when it comes to getting good fruit in Texas. To get wine consistent enough, this has to fall into place. We can make a quality wine, when we’ve got the crop. The supply has to be regular for us to make the pricing and distribution consistently make sense.
TM: What do you enjoy most about being a Texas winemaker?
Kuhlken: I think the best thing for me is that the script isn’t written here. How I go about doing business isn’t a matter of doing what others have already done. How to make wine and build a winery and build and sell it in California, that’s kind of a known thing. They already have their story. The same is true in Europe. Here, we’re building this. We’re borrowing lots of ideas from lots of places. But going about how to make it here and determining what it is in the future, that’s the trade off. I enjoy that. I don’t know what we’ll be looking back on in 20 years, but it will be something that we played a credible role in.
TM: Do you feel a sense of camaraderie with other Texas winemakers?
Kuhlken: I think there is. There are technically 300 wineries in Texas and there are plenty that don’t love each other. But that’s part of a competitive business. That being said, almost everyboday here goes to surprising lengths to help each other. Most people have an awareness that we’re trying to build something great here and everyone has a role in deciding if that business is going to work out. One winery in Texas is a novelty, but there’s more success to be had than a novelty industry here. That’s the mindset of most of the folks in the Hill Country. Having more quality winemakers and good places for tourists to visit raises the profile.
TM: What do you drink when you’re not drinking wine?
Kuhlken: Mostly beer. IPA. It’s pretty common on this side of the business.
TM: What are your primary goals for your wine program?
Kuhlken: The primary goal is for us to continue to highlight that we can get certain grape varieties in Texas. Instead of trying to build a Spanish Tempranillo it’s about the best expression of the grapes that we can get in Texas. More often than not it’s about going on our own path and what we tweak in the vineyards to get what we’re looking for. If someone tastes something and it’s like a Rhône Viognier, that’s great. But if it’s something they’ve never had and they think it’s better, that’s our goal statistically.
TM: What’s the worst wine you’ve ever made?
Kuhlken: The most regrettable was when we did a Cabernet Sauvignon as one of our first wines. It was straight Cab in 2007 and we tried to hammer it into a wine we could love. But it just didn’t work. It was really bell peppery and green and not the fruit I loved. It was instructive. We thought we could make a Cab like what the market expects, but the answer was “no.” Not consistently. It gave us the courage to go with the varietals we could work with and stick to the ones we liked. There’s a place for Cab in Texas for sure. But it’s not really for us to work with. I’d rather work with grapes that are already producing great fruit on a consistent basis.
TM: How much longer before Texas wine is talked about in France?
Kuhlken: Do they even talk about California wine there, yet? My attitude has always been that this is a big state. And if I could get half of Texas talking about Texas wine, I’d be satisfied. More to the point, the rest of the conversation would come naturally if people were doing that first. I’d like nationally, if others know about us. But that couldn’t happen until it’s talked about here first.
TM: If you were to give Texas wine a tagline, what would it be?
Kuhlken: Seriously… Texas wine.