Spurning the Common Wisdom to Make $225 Texas Wine

Maverick winemaker Dan Gatlin of Inwood Estate Vineyards doesn't believe in 'terroir'

Inwood Estate Vineyards in Fredericksburg, Texas.

This event would turn out to be the catalyst for my interest in Texas wines. Since then, I have watched the state's wines improve beyond all expectations, with Inwood Estates Vineyards as a leader in the evolution.

That day was also my first encounter with Dan Gatlin, who struck me immediately as interesting — an independent thinker and a winemaker of high standards. Gatlin grew up in the wine business. His father, an entrepreneur, founded a chain of liquor and convenience stores and Gatlin started his professional life as a buyer for the wine division. His job involved frequent trips to France and California. When his father sold the business, Dan had a chance to think about what he wanted to do. He could have gone to California but decided instead to plant a vineyard in Denton, just north of Dallas, with 22 vinifera grape varieties, to see what grew best. Before planting, he made sure he got the best viticultural advice available by travelling to the University of California at Davis and speaking with their experts.

I asked him about the results. “Unfortunately,” he told me, “everything I was told, and ultimately implemented, was categorically wrong. Wrong vine spacing, wrong vineyard orientation, wrong trellis design (very important), and too many other wrong design features that were built into that first vineyard caused its ultimate demise. It was cheaper to start over and do it correctly than to retrofit the first project. I also got a quadruple dose of mundane vineyard maintenance since the poor design encouraged weed growth of geometric proportions. In summary, I learned everything not to do.” After 16 years, he sold the property, and the vineyard is no more.

Inwood Estate Vineyards

Gatlin’s second vineyard was more modest. He planted it in the back garden of his house on Inwood Road in Dallas. Its significance, other than providing inspiration for the winery's name, is that it is the present-day source for the grapes that go into the wine he labels City of Dallas. Gatlin has long since sold the house, but its present owner is very happy for the vineyard to stay. The vineyard contains a few vines of tempranillo and palomino that he planted in 1997, but, he explains, “Today it's mostly chardonnay and cabernet.” Chardonnay is in the majority, and that's the only wine he markets from the property. “The cabs are experimental,” he explains, “and are eventually merged into other cabernet rather than marketed separately.” Dijon clones influence the City of Dallas chardonnay greatly, he adds. “The lemon citrus comes through in large proportions compared to the green apple essence of the Dallas County wines, all Clone 4.”

He continues, “Chardonnay is very underestimated in Texas, as we all know. However, the other side to the story is that it is extremely hard to grow well. It requires a great deal of experience in the school of hard knocks and a high degree of expertise. I often see the perfect harvest window for the season come and go within 20 hours. It's easy to see why so many people get frustrated with it. The margin for error is so small.”

Nowadays, it is commonly accepted that tempranillo does well in the Texas High Plains AVA. Only a few people realize that Gatlin (along with grower Neal Newsom) was responsible for that. Fewer still know that it was an accident. Gatlin takes up the story: “After 16 years in the Denton vineyard, I was perplexed. I thought I had done everything right. I had consulted with the wizards of smart. I had executed their design. I had banked on 22 vinifera varieties in order to ensure success of at least one or two. I had worked myself silly. I spent obscene amounts of money.

“But something was wrong. The vines grew just fine and were healthy. But the chemistry was off. Now, even most knowledgeable people will assume I am talking about sugar, acids, and pH. No, the problem was much more complicated. I had great sugars; acids and even pH was acceptable to even sometimes excellent. The problem was that the wines had no flavor.

“My knee-jerk assumption was that if something's wrong, it must be wrong with the place. That's what the famous vineyards have told us for 150 years, right? The one bright spot in the early vineyard had been Spanish and Portuguese varieties. I reasoned that if somehow I could just get these vines, especially tempranillo, to a cooler climate, surely they would work.”

Gatlin tried the Davis Mountains AVA but the 6,200-foot elevation was too prone to frost. He got three good vintages out of 20 years of ownership. The next step was to find something lower and flatter. He headed to the Texas High Plains AVA. He tried growers in Terry County, and saw some improvement in flavor relative to Denton. He moved on to Yoakum County around 1997 or 1998, at a slightly higher elevation. There, he ran into Neal Newsom. “We are both very intense and opinionated about what we do, so we had a lot in common,” Gatlin says. “I subsequently began sampling from Neal's operation and noticed a very significant increase in quality. I was going to work in Yoakum County somehow, some kind of way. I had found what I was looking for, but I still didn't understand what made it work. Now I do.”

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What does he mean? “Before I go any farther with the story,” he replies, “I want to deliver the moral, the lesson. Let me be as clear and unequivocal as possible: the reason Newsom fruit is as good as it is has nothing to do with the Newsom farm(s) or anything related to their place. It is 100 percent attributable to Neal and his skillset and commitment. Neal is too humble to say it, so I will say it for him: He is one of the best farmers anywhere, in any crop. His expertise and never-say-die-or-compromise attitude is what makes Newsom fruit the best. For those who are still having trouble with my anti-terroirist, contrarian perspective, let me describe it this way. Why do people pay so much more for [Burgundy's] Comtes Lafon or Faiveley wines than Drouhin or Jadot? They both make wines from many of the same vineyards. But you will pay a hefty increase in price for the first two for sure. The man in the street thinks there is something magical or mystical about the vines of the expensive producers. Nonsense. You are paying for their expertise and commitment to quality.”