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.

At the time, Gatlin attributed the quality of the Yoakum County fruit to the diurnal range in the High Plains versus that in the lower elevations of northern Texas. I remember him telling me that the cool nights allowed the fruit to reach physiological ripeness before the daytime temperatures sent the sugars up too much.

“I approached Neal with the idea of growing tempranillo,” says Gatlin. “He refused — had never heard of it and told me flatly that he had no market for it if I went belly up someday. I proceeded to isolate two tracts that I was interested in purchasing for vineyards close to Neal. He first thought that I would bring the cuttings from Dallas, and objected strongly since he feared I would bring Pierce's disease into his area. Over months, I assured him I would not bring cuttings from Dallas, but that I would buy them new from a nursery in California. He expressed his further objections to the nursery I had always used, as he did not feel like their diligence in disease control was rigorous enough. Some more time passed and he decided that it was in his best interest to grow the fruit so that he could exercise control over the vinestock coming into his area. To mitigate the risk over tempranillo, I agreed to pay. The first viable, commercial tempranillo block in West Texas was born.” High Plains tempranillo is now sold by more Texas wineries than any other red variety. Many may be blithely unaware of how the grape became a safe bet in the region.

Next, a side project took Gatlin in a new direction. A real estate developer working on a luxury home development in Florence, Texas (just north of the Texas Hill Country AVA), planned a vineyard as the centerpiece of the project, rather than the usual golf course. He contacted Gatlin about managing it and making the wine. The two parties struck a deal to move most Inwood Estates winemaking to a new facility on the development adjacent to the Vineyard at Florence winery. One legacy issue was that the vineyard was already planted, restricting Gatlin’s freedom of grape choice. Most of the acreage was the French-American hybrid blanc du bois, widespread in those parts of Texas susceptible to Pierce’s disease and normally producing pedestrian sweet or dry white wines. Also planted was the Lenoir hybrid, the Texas red grape resistant to Pierce’s disease. It had been successfully made into good dessert wine but lacked pedigree for table wine.

Gatlin had always steered clear of hybrids in favor of vinifera grapes, but he approached the challenge at The Vineyard at Florence with the same deconstructionist rigor that he had his vinifera experiments. He wanted a dry wine, but not the foxy and forgettable sauvignon blanc wannabe that had been made elsewhere. With careful work in the vineyard and later picking he emerged with two original expressions of blanc du bois, which he called Aura and Aurelia, that presented themselves as more like Rhône white wines. The Rhône wines, full of flavors of tropical fruit, are typically blended from some combination of viognier, marsanne, roussanne, and grenache blanc. Gatlin made his wines in the same way the Rhône producers do, except for the fact that the Aurelia underwent full malolactic fermentation. At about twice the price of other dry blanc du bois wines, they sold out.

Gatlin also recognized a new marketing phenomenon occurring in Texas. U.S. 290 between Fredericksburg and Johnson City was becoming the Texas equivalent of Napa’s Route 29 (2014 government figures placed it as the second most visited wine trail in the country, after Napa’s). The traffic was fed mainly by nearby Austin and San Antonio. If you were a Texas winemaker and wanted to sell directly to your customer, the 290 wine trail was the place to be. In 2013, after a 20-month renovation, Inwood Estates Fredericksburg winery opened to the public on a key stretch of the highway. A far cry from the industrial unit in Dallas where I had originally tasted Inwood wine, it had a Napa-quality tasting room and a restaurant as well.

In 2005 and 2006, Gatlin experienced the first full El Niño cycle in West Texas — a long and then a short growing season came back-to-back. The terroirist theory predicted that this would produce drastically different wines. By adjusting to the weather and producing very low yields, Gatlin was actually able to produce wines of very similar quality each year. Only the size of the harvest differed. This planted the seed in Gatlin’s mind of a different perspective on grape growing. “The proper view of a vine was not a plant influenced by its place,” he came to believe, “which study after study was showing to be immaterial, and/or inconclusive at best. But, rather, the proper view was the physiological view that a vine is a mother producing offspring. Her berries are, in fact, her babies, and serve the beyond-ancient purpose of generational reproduction.

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Therefore, the math was simple: If she has many mouths to feed (many berries), her nutrition is divided many ways; if she has a small population to feed, her nutrition is applied to a small output and polyphenols (chemical compounds affecting the flavor and aroma of wine) rise at a parabolic rate.”