Being in any creative field is plain, hard work. As anybody doing so can attest to. But for me, accompanied by that is the fun side of writing fiction.
Because sometimes gifts simply fall from the sky. And on some brilliant and beautiful days, magic reigns.
So, as I’ve spoken of before, my new novel is set in a Texas vineyard and winery. I know, tough to research, but as they say, somebody’s gotta do it. And that’s a task I’m up to!
I had a bit of a head start, setting my fictional vineyard in a place I know well—Bosque County, where we’ve had a family farm since I was a first-grader, and on which I’ve lived for long stretches. I truly learned to write there, and my first novel was published while I lived on and worked that land. I know the soil, the geography, the topography, the climate. The bugs, the frost, the hail . . .
But anyway, what I didn’t know before I started all this insanity was how to grow wine grapes, or make something even resembling decent wine. So of course, as any astute novelist would do, I researched, took classes, asked questions, etc. But book learnin’, as they say around the farm, will only take you so far.
So, I’ve been to a host of Texas wineries, and while often rewarded with a nice vintage here and there, many times, well, hm. Texas viticulture is gaining respect, and deservedly so, but what I couldn’t seem to find was what the true connoisseurs speak of when talking about great wineries:
That you can tell from where the wine came. That it resembles the land on which the grapes were grown.
Which speaks to something deeper. To the intangibles that come from following guidance not found in books . . .
I’d visited this winery once before, picking grapes at harvest, and finally got to spend time at this place that’s been my number-one sought after, set in my novel’s county. This time I hoped to be there a couple of hours, glean deeper knowledge by picking the winemaker’s brain, and 7 hours later . . .
I knew The Red Caboose has developed into making world-class big reds. Now consistently winning awards, they took home 5 medals from the 2015 TexSom International Wine Competition—a true benchmark of excellence for the industry. And of course, I just love, love big reds. I’d tasted some of theirs before, and was pretty wowed.
So, I had high expectations 🙂
Fabulously enough, as soon as we plunged into all things grape, grower/winemaker Gary McKibben alit, his focus sharp, his knowledge deep, but more to my purpose, his passion playing through every expressive word.
Under the beautiful Texas spring sky, the vineyard sprawling before us lush and healthy and the vines, dripping with early fruit, he opened up his world of viticulture in the same manner he uncorked the 2012 Cabernet, which would make you sink to your knees and sing to the angels.
Because for Gary, it’s all about the grapes.
Which sounds like a no-brainer, right? But so, so many (if not most, as I had already learned), buy a preponderance of their grapes from huge commercial growers.
Not so at the Caboose. All of the vintages we tasted that day were 100% estate grown.
When Gary bought his Meridian, TX ranch, it wasn’t with the intention of growing grapes or making wine. But he took note of the native grapes thriving there, having designed a winery some 40 years earlier as an architecture student.
What started as his “library vineyard,” to see which varietals grew best on his land, has grown over 14 years into 20 acres of vines, with more planned. They produced 7,500 cases last year, planning 10,000 or so this one, and estimating 20,000 next year.
“The vines are just now getting mature, just now to where we can produce big, mature wines,” he said.
And oh, are they producing.
But more to the point, these wines taste like where they came from. All of them.
I could wax poetic for days about what we tasted (and will do so next blog time!), but as we walked through the verdant rows and rows of vines young and old, I kept being struck by the techniques he employed.
He is doing what they say you can’t do in Texas (I’ve been through the courses, right?):
֎ Using no pesticides on the vines.
Say what? “NO Pesticides!!!” I wrote in my notes. You have to in Texas!
Well, apparently not. As Gary said of growing grapes and making wine, both were accomplished for thousands of years before pesticides and gadgets came into play. And since these grapes carry no carcinogenic poisons, he can make wine using the Old World Style—without filtering. Which keeps all the flavor intact.
“I just approached it logically,” he said. “My mom used neem oil on her roses, and I thought, why wouldn’t that work?”
But more was at play here . . .
֎ While grape growers calibrate Brix to Acid to calculate harvest, he accomplishes this in the Old World Style too—using his eyes, nose, taste, as he does with the wine as well.
And while his ratio for harvest is a family secret :), he says the taste can tell you within half a percent what the Brix is. His own internal calculations dictating the day.
No wonder I love his wines.
He also watches the birds, raccoons, and critters as they are drawn to the rising sweetness in the grapes. “When they start coming, you have 5 days to Brix.”
That’s his theory, but it sure seems to be panning out! Talk about listening to that guidance from within . . .
I could just imagine what the experts would say about this. Again, I listened to the lectures 🙂
His answer to that, with a gleam in his eye, was “If they tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do it.”
Using logic, of course!
But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there. Nuances, the intangibles, form a true art with making wine. And the mystical always dances through the ethers.
Gary says perhaps the vineyard’s hill is enchanted . . .
Ah! Now you’re talking my language 🙂
Because the people in my stories learn to rely on internal guidance—listening to that quiet whisper (whatever you deem that to be) that says, go this way, not that. No matter what anyone preaches must be done, what conventional wisdom says is The Way, they take the road less traveled. The path that is their own.
My mind raced with all the possibilities for Gwyn, my fictional vineyard’s proprietor, and how this could turn her story. Oh, my!
Sometimes you just feel as if you’ve found that pot of gold at the end of a long road of rainbows . . .
I can’t wait to talk about his wines, and my new favorite game ever—robbing the barrels! I felt the euphoria of childhood while doing so, amazed and giggling.
For now I’m just tweaking on the natural, Old World Style of his process, and what glorious wines that produces. Vintages that taste like the land on which they grew.
Listening to, and following that guidance from within, pays such beautiful dividends. Coupled with the rudder of logic, of course 🙂
And creating a signature that is all The Red Caboose’s own.
As he said, “We grow wine; we don’t manufacture it.”
Such a gift to spend time with an artisan, doing what he loves.
Bringing full circle once more Joseph Campbell’s wise words about truly experiencing the numinous adventure that is life: “Follow your bliss.”
Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, "I Just Came Here to Dance" and "By the Book," as well as four co-authored nonfiction books, including "What’s Wrong with My Family?" and many published short stories. Forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers.