I have enjoyed hanging out with Jim Evans at Lost Oak Winery for several years now. I’ve assisted at Lost Oak with harvests, crush, bottlings, and definitely tastings and winery events. I always learn something new when I hang out in the winery with Jim. Sometimes it’s wine related, sometimes it’s not!
I was asked to interview my friend Jim and it took awhile to get our schedules to coincide. During this time, I was able to formulate some questions based on previous interviews I found on the Internet.
From the Lost Oak Winery website About Us page, you can find out that Jim has been in the wine business since 1981 which was even before he graduated from Texas A&M University in 1984. He also has made wine for the University of Texas Experimental Viticulture and Enology program in 1985 and remained in that position until 1996. At that time, he began making wine for Robert and Jamey Wolf at Lost Oak Vineyards until 2006 when Gene and Judy Estes bought the winery. Jim came as part of the winery package and he teases that “it brought the price down so Gene could afford it.”
I wanted to find out other stuff about Jim Evans. During the interview over a glass of his current release of Tempranillo, there was much joking and laughter. Jim is a very jovial man and loves to have fun, but he takes his winemaking seriously.
Laurie: What did you do before becoming a winemaker on May 18, 1981?
Jim: I had gone to junior college some and then I worked. Remember Gibson’s Discount Center? I worked in their garden center in Odessa. Then I enrolled in Texas A&M University in the fall of 1981 and I started working in the vineyards in the summer at the University of Texas Experimental Vineyard and Winery. The vineyard was in Fort Stockton down by Bakersfield about 30 miles east of Fort Stockton and the experimental winery was in Midland.
L: Why did you choose to work in the vineyards?
J: It was a job. It was available. I had a friend that had worked in it the previous summer and told me I needed to talk to Charles McKinney. Of course my thought was, “Ooh a vineyard, a winery, the chicks will dig me!” So I went to talk to Charles and he hired me for that summer in 1981 in the program. The University of Texas system owned 2.1 million acres all over west Texas to use for oil and gas production and that’s what made them so rich, but the surface was still desert. They’d made some money on grazing by leasing the surface to ranchers, but they were looking for alternative uses for the surface and hit upon the idea of planting grapes. They actually planted their first vineyard around 1975. There were three experimental vineyards: one in Fort Stockton, one in Bakersfield, and one in Van Horn. I worked mainly in the Van Horn and Bakersfield vineyards, but mainly in Bakersfield because even Fort Stockton was way out there even then. I think 1982 was the last year they got any grapes off of it. They wanted to prove you could grow those grapes and make wine, which is why they had the experimental winery. They wanted to prove that because they wanted to strike a long term deal with a company to come in and do a large scale winery. In 1981, they began planting the vineyards that became Mesa Vineyards which became Ste. Genevieve Winery, which at one point was right at 1,000 acres. So that was the purpose of the experimental vineyard and winery.
L: What grapes were planted?
J: Oh gosh, we had every variety you can think of…Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, we even had Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard, Muscat, and Malvasia Bianca. In fact, in 1982 we had an acre of Grenache in our Bakersfield vineyard that we had grafted over to Muscat Canelli and as far as I know that was the first Muscat in Texas, but I could be wrong. I even have a scar where I tried to cut my hand off while grafting the plant over in 1982. But there were three of us who had never grafted before in our lives, and we did that whole acre and we had a 95% take! Definitely beginner’s luck! At its peak, the Bakersfield station vineyard had about 35 acres in the early ’90s.
L: Out of all the varieties that were planted do you remember which ones just took off?
J: I remember Sauvignon Blanc doing really well. It was one of my favorite whites to work with in the vineyard and in the winery. And then Ruby Cabernet did really well down there. But the Cabernet Sauvignon from Van Horn was wonderful. It was really nice because Van Horn is out towards El Paso and it was at a higher elevation. We would completely harvest the Bakersfield vineyard before we even started to harvest the Van Horn vineyard. It had cooler nights, but the quality of fruit was exceptional. At one point we were going to expand the vineyard to 20 acres, but we went to drill a water well and went to 800 feet and never hit a drop. So that kind of sealed the fate because at that time we had about 6 acres we were working with, but the Chenin Blanc did really well out there.
We had a German variety called Ehrenfelser and it did really well in west Texas and I think it would be a good variety for someone to pick up on. It made a real nice spicy white and it was wonderful dry, sweet, semi-sweet, however you wanted to do it. It always won awards when we entered it in the Lone Star Wine competitions. Of course Malvasia Bianca was another one that did really well out there, and the Muscats. We had all these German varieties that we might only have 30 plants each, but the Ehrenfelser was an acre and a half and it was a good producer. I think I heard someone say they were growing it in Oregon. But it might be one for someone in Texas to look at growing. People are trying to find varieties that work well in Texas and they don’t think about German varieties necessarily for Texas because the climate is colder over there, but this one did so well.
L: What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
J: Probably it’s just that every year is different. Yields, compositions, trying to get the sugars. The pH is always an issue in Texas. One of the problems in Texas that probably no other wine growing region in the world has is wineries are so far removed from where the grapes are grown. Sometimes it’s 300 to 400 miles to get their grapes from the vineyard in Brownfield or Lubbock to the winery. I don’t think anybody else has that distance to travel. You have to really develop a great relationship with your grower; you really have to trust them because you just can’t be out there all the time. But the growers are doing an exceptional job. The grapes, when we have a really good year and when the grapes aren’t compromised by weather, get better every year. The growers are really coming into their own.
L: This year, 2015, the yield is exploding with bumper crops. I’ve heard concerns from every facet about the quality and results. The growers are thrilled, should they be?
J: The growers should be thrilled because they basically got no income in 2013. And they basically got half knocked out in 2014 because we had two very bad freeze events. Bobby Cox told me that the experimental station in Lubbock has been keeping records for 67 years and the freeze of 2013 was the worst freeze event on record and 2014 was the third worst. So boom, boom!
I think some winemakers are concerned about over cropping because the growers haven’t had any income so they are going to make up for it, but I haven’t seen that. I think the quality of fruit we have received has been very good, even when we got so much more than we anticipated. So I think 2015 for quality and quantity is a great year for Texas.
L: So it’s going to be one for the record books?
J: I think so! There’s going to be a lot of good Texas wines going into the bottle next year. Some are probably getting ready to go in pretty soon, some of the 2015 whites. We’ll see how it goes.
L: So is winemaking an art, a science, or both?
J: I’m not a scientist and I’m not an artist. So I think it is a combination. You have to know some science. I took chemistry in college and I struggled through like most everybody. I wasn’t one of the brainiacs that just whizzed through. But when you get into winemaking, you actually have something to relate that to, that chemistry. pH starts meaning something to you. Harvest sugars…all the little things, you know, that are there. Then as you get more and more involved…all the flavonoids. To control those things, there’s a lot of chemistry involved. But, there’s also, I think a lot of art, but it’s also what my gut tells me and the older I get the more I trust my gut. Experience also teaches you, Ok, I need to do this now. Because this is probably what’s best and what it needs right now. So it is a combination of science art and experience.
L: So did you take a lot of notes early on? Did you think about it?
J: I never thought I’d be in this business as long as I have. But I have made wine for 35 years and so I kind of went to the school of hard knocks of winemaking. I’ve read a lot of books, a lot of articles, and a lot of available literature especially now that the Internet is out. Also I took short courses at UC-Davis back in the late ’80s, and then Grape Camp and the conference that TWGGA sponsors that’s a great resource for taking classes and learning different things. And also networking with your peers. Bouncing things off them and see what they have going on. The more we can learn as a group together…a rising tide lifts all boats.
There was some criticism back in the late ’80s and some of it was well deserved to some extent, but I definitely think we have turned a corner. One thing is: the industry is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere and it’s just going to continue to grow. And when you are growing you are going to get better. And when you are growing you are going to attract more talented people that can do more. We can have more educators, more researchers, more winemakers. More winemakers are coming from California, like Jon Leahy from Becker Vineyards, and other places like Bénédicte Rhyne from France. It’s just tremendous to have these people here in this state.
L: And now school districts like Mason are beginning to offer viticulture classes.
J: Oh yes…in California their 4-H in high school has pruning teams. They’ll go out and have pruning competitions. We need that in Texas! Wouldn’t that be great to have a pruning team alongside the teams showing pigs and goats and rabbits and calves?
L: That would be awesome! Baby steps…
J: Yes, baby steps!
L: So you’ve been doing this for 35 years, and if you didn’t make wine what would you be doing?
J: I wanted to be a professional tennis player, but that requires athletic ability so that ruled me out. That’s a really good question, I haven’t really thought about what I’d be doing.
We had a brief interruption as Jim had to reply to a text from Lost Oak Winery’s President Gene Estes. Winemaking never stops.
J: Gene is in Austin doing an interview at a radio station with Roxanne (Myers).
L: That’s another thing is all the press that Texas has been getting lately.
J: Yeah, and that’s good to see. I know they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but you are seeing a general tone move away from the more negative aspects that used to be prevalent in reports and it’s more positive now. You do read articles that are full of misinformation, like Chardonnay is one of the top varieties in Texas. No! I don’t know where that came from. So many still don’t get it and we have to continue to educate them. The problem with Texas wines, and I think we are definitely making some world class wines, is most of the wineries are so small. And so the wine is consumed here! So until somebody from Idaho or Kentucky or Vermont can go in their grocery store and buy a bottle of Texas wine right off the shelf beside those from California and Washington state and Oregon, we won’t be taken seriously as a wine producing state.
L: So what is the greatest part about being a winemaker?
J: Oh man, just a sense of accomplishment, I guess. I still remember when I worked for the University and that was a good job and I did a good job for them, but when harvest is over and you bust your rear during harvest because you get one shot a year, and guess what if you are there 12, 15, 16, 18 hours at a time pressing, crushing, filtering, and pumping, you’ve got that one shot and you’ve got to get it done. But when the dust settles and you can walk in there and get a glass and go, “Man, this is nice!” I just get a real sense of accomplishment, like I’ve done something, and that is very gratifying.
L: Who all have you worked with?
J: Well, I know a lot of people in the industry. The first two people I met were Dr. Charles McKinney and Dr. Roy Mitchell. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was at the time that those were the first two people I worked with. And then I met Frank and Caroline Carpenter working at the experimental vineyard and all the guys in the vineyard who have forgotten more than a lot of people in Texas still know. John Crosby is a great friend and I’ve known him since I got to work in the industry. I’ve worked with Bobby Cox as a grower and winemaker. I’ve always said if we never grow another Texas grape, if we never bottle another drop of Texas wine, I’ve made some of the best friends I’ll ever have in my life. That is something to cherish.
L: Out of all of your many awards, which one means the most to you?
J: It’s always great to win gold medals for your wines and it’s always nice, but I guess getting the Crosby Award from TWGGA is the one that has really stuck with me, to be recognized by your peers. I asked my wife when they gave me the Lifetime Achievement award, “Does that mean you’re old when you get a lifetime achievement award?” She said, “Absolutely it does!!”
Having known John Crosby for as long as I have and knowing what a wonderful man he is and everything he has done for this industry…I wish people could realize what he has done. He did have a vineyard at one time even though it didn’t pan out, and he had to sell it and he’s never really been involved to the extent that he wanted to be, but he and his wife basically kept the Association going themselves financially and otherwise. So knowing him the way I do and receiving the award that was named after him really meant a lot to me by having my peers recognize me.
L: And the Double Gold for your Viognier?
J: Oh yes, that was really nice to win the Double Gold for the 2010 Viognier from the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s great to see Texas up there at the top of the leader board. I’ve been thrilled to see Texas wineries winning Gold and Double Gold not only in the Chronicle but also in the San Francisco International which is probably the most prestigious wine competition in the world. Pat Brannan and Todd Webster of Brennan Vineyards won two Double Golds this year…the first Texas winery that has ever won two Double Golds in the same competition! So it’s really great to see Texas wineries really stepping out and it’s going to get better and better!
L: Do you have a favorite wine you’ve ever had?
J: One that really sticks out in my mind is our ’08 Tempranillo from Lost Draw Vineyards and Andy Timmons. We’d never made Tempranillo before so it was our first go at it and it won a Gold Medal at San Francisco International and I think that really stood out because it was our first attempt and it won a Gold Medal. It was a wine that we actually pushed to the bottle sooner than I wanted to because we needed wine to sell in the tasting room, but it turned out so good…and it still tastes wonderful. It taught me a lot too. It was only one year in American oak and it was only 12.5% alcohol, so you don’t have to have these huge big 14% alcohol wines.
L: What is your favorite variety to work with?
J: Viognier! I’ve gotten where I really like working with Viognier. Seeing it go from juice to wine and working it in the vineyard. We’ve done really well with Viognier here. It’s a fine wine to make.
L: So where do you think the Texas wine industry will be in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years?
J: Well, I think what you see today will be a lot of what you will see in the next 5 to 10 years. But I think we will make huge strides legislatively to really benefit this industry. I think you look at places like Fredericksburg and you drive between Fredericksburg and Johnson City on 290 and wineries are going in everywhere. I think in another 10 years it’s going to be like driving north out of Napa Valley. It’s going to be solid wineries on both sides of the road all the way to Johnson City. I think that’s great. And vineyards, they are putting in more and more vineyards.
TWGGA was able to get our money legislatively—we got our old [State Bill]1370 money back this year, $2 million going to wine research. We are going to be doing a lot of work on freeze damage and how to mitigate that. I think you will see a more consistent product from the vineyards where it won’t be just like the freeze wipes out everything. I think you will see some work done that will really help alleviate a lot of that concern. And I think you will see Texas wines accepted in more and more places as partners on the world stage of winemaking areas. Hopefully we will be mixed in the same breath as Washington and Oregon. We still have a way to go with California, but you know what? Let’s just set the bar high and keep going. And we don’t want to be California; we want to be Texas! And there are still varieties out there we need to try, and there are still winemaking techniques out there we need to try. The best wines of Texas have yet to be made. We make the wines that people like. T.V. Munson and “Doc” McPherson and John Crosby and those guys just dreamed of these wines. Our kids, the kids that are getting into the industry today, they are going to make the wines that we only dream about. And that is going to be just huge in this state.
L: If you’d like to be known for one thing in the Texas wine industry, what would be your footprint?
J: I’d like to be remembered as a friend and someone who is willing to help others in this business. Because there’s one thing I’ve always said about this industry: the grapes and the wines that we make are something, but it’s the people that make this thing great. It’s the people. You have to admire them in Texas. When your crop gets wiped out 100% and people come back and plant in the same year new vineyards. Not just replanting those that got wiped out, but new ones. And grape growers and winemakers we get together and talk about the wines we are going to make next year. Just like that football team…just wait ’till next year. If we didn’t have that Texas gut and grit we’d have given up a long time ago, but that’s what makes us different. I’d like to be remembered as the industry’s friend. “He was a good friend.”
Epilogue: I am pleased and proud to be Jim’s friend and it was a privilege to spend this time with him. I learned so much about him and the fantastic history of the Texas wine industry. This is an exciting time to be part of this thriving industry and I look forward to see where it is headed.