This Texas Winemaker Found Bliss On The Vine

This Texas Winemaker Found Bliss On The Vine

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?”

It did.

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.”


This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. I love the idea of following your instinct (your inner voice). It’s what I do most of the time. I came from ancestors that were farmers and still enjoy planting my garden each year and trimming my concord grape vines and trees to help them be healthier. It’s a great feeling going back to nature and really listening to the plants around us. Thank you for sharing this great example.

    1. I love that, Sabrina–“listening to the plants around us.” That’s what the great gardeners and farmers do 🙂

  2. Reading this post, I imagined Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful writing and the books of hers that I’ve read, which all have a passion for researching the territory and terrain she is writing about in them. I love Gary’s way, as it fully resonates with me too. If someone tells me this is The Way, I am inspired to set off and find my way. Although I do not drink, I imagine his wines are wonderful to the palate and that they do indeed taste like where they come from. I’m curious if his wines are Organic, considering the growing methods and that he doesn’t use pesticides. A wonderful lesson that inner guidance always wins and it sounds like your lead character Gwyn, might be infused with some intuition and magic making of her own. Lovely Susan!

    1. Ah, what a sweet thing to say, Beverley! And yes, he’s almost completely organic there (I was also treated to lettuce from his organic garden). He’s listened to the soil, working with it rather than against it.
      And isn’t that inner guidance such a mystical and true thing! Yes, ma’am–Gwyn uncovers the magic left behind, and waltzes on her intuition’s wings . . .

  3. Ah, I can feel the novel unfolding with such delight, suspense and interesting twist and turns. From the enchanted hill vineyard to the supreme quality of the wine, to the artisan AND writer – following their bliss. Cheers to you, darling!

    1. Oh, do I ever love that, Teresa! And yes, just heavenly bliss!

  4. I love stories of someone who is doing work that they love. I don’t believe that any of us should waste another minute: take our life to the next level, follow our bliss to success, and enjoy a happier and successful life.

    1. You embody that, Rachel. It’s a wonderful world, no?

  5. With this post, you are really letting us into behind the scenes insider secrets. You are sharing your research, which you are obviously thoroughly enjoying, whetting our appetite for your book and developing quite a taste for the drink. Enjoyed the info, your pleasure and passion.

    1. Aren’t the machinations behind the curtain fun, Roz. And oh, yes–am I ever enjoying this 🙂

  6. I have to confess I am no wine connoisseur, and I am fully ignorant of the process of making wine. But I can completely appreciate the bliss of twining together your inspiration, intuition and experience. And what a pay-off – you get to craft a story that will delight your readers. It’s amazing how it all works, Susan!

    1. Funny how when we follow that intuition, no matter what endeavor we pursue, how it pays off, Jane! I’m starting to see how winemaking and writing fiction are not all that different 🙂

  7. This is so interesting and I enjoyed reading your perspective. I admit to being fully oblivious to the entire process so this definitely intrigued me.

  8. What a terrific story! I’m not an oenophile, by any stretch, but you make his wines sound so tantalizing. Good for you both!

    1. My mouth is watering thinking about them, Jackie. Need another trip!

  9. I love Gary’s approach to growing.He sounds like a wonderful character who has great understanding and respect for the earth.I love wine, so the vineyard setting for your book sounds perfect to me.Can’t wait to read it.

    1. I found Gary to be just amazing, Tamuria! And definitely not what I expected. Which was just so refreshing! He’s definitely sent me in a new direction for the novel as well. Just love when that happens 🙂

  10. Thank you for reminding us there are still those who are connected to the earth, watch and learn from Mother Nature, and share a time-honored tradition. What they give us is the essence not a bottle with a label on it. Unfortunately, many people don’t know that they have never tasted the essence. I’m sure your characters will set them straight.

    1. I’m still just blown away by Gary, his vineyard, and his wines. And ah, I love that, Joyce! “What they give us is the essence not a bottle with a label on it.” That’s it in a nutshell!

  11. Hi Susan 🙂

    Love that reminder to always “Follow Your Bliss” Great story as it totally highlights how important it is to do what you love and enjoy it not only for your own benefit but for the benefit of others as well who enjoy it too.

    So fascinating to me to learn about something like owning a winery and what it entails to be successful 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. So true, Joyce–when you love what you do and enjoy it, you produce something that benefits all. What a great reminder that is for me as well!

  12. I’ve only been in Texas 3 years, haven’t seen any wineries, which isn’t a big deal as I am not a wine drinker anyways…. however, no pesticides? Mosquitoes and bugs are crazy here.. that’s for sure. Good luck on the book!

    1. Yep, bugs are crazy here! Funny thing–I’ve been an organic gardener since 1980. But I bought into the university line that you couldn’t grow wine grapes without pesticides. Until I met Gary 🙂 Kinda restored my faith! And thank you on the book!

      1. Oh.. organic gardener… I have a tower garden, no soil or weeds.. however, the caterpillars are driving me nuts eating all of my leaves… any ideas?

        1. Caterpillars can be so destructive! Picking them off works. So does garlic/pepper tea, which you spray on the leaves. Won’t hurt the plants, and will repel any pesky bugs!

          1. Ohhh, perfect.. thanks. I cut all of them off, and well, killed them… they are still eating. I have a lot, clearly. I will try that… garlic or pepper tea in water???

          2. I’ve made the garlic/pepper tea for so long, I actually have forgotten the recipe and just sort of eyeball it. LOL. But take an entire head of garlic, and chop it up. Take about a tablespoon of red pepper flakes. Put this in a container (I used the old-tyme ones that they put ketchup in ) and fill with water. Let this sit/stew a day or so in the fridge. That’s your concentrate. Then get a small spray bottle and pour some in. Probably a tablespoon or so. Add a cup of water. Shake. Spray on the plants. Bugs hate it 🙂

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