John Catalano, co-owner and winemaker at one of the newest Texas Hill Country Wineries members answered this month’s winemaker profile questions. We had a nice visit when we visited John at the winery and the selection of Texas wines is only going to grow.
- What did you do before becoming a winemaker (if anything)?
I was and still am a software engineering director and entrepreneur. Having started, grown and sold a couple of companies gave us the confidence to start Bent Oak. After living in Central Europe many moons ago, my wife, Audrey, and I absolutely fell in love with the beers and wines over there. It was fantastic to experience the difference between the wines, beers, and food in the different cities and countries of central Europe. When we came back, I started brewing beer and quickly got into making wine and growing grapes. That was over 17 years ago and I have continually taken classes, attended seminars, wine immersion courses, volunteered, and have mentored brewers and up-and-coming wine makers.
- What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
pH, acidity, and color/phenolic development are continual challenges we face as Texas winemakers. As an industry, Texas is still in its youth, with all the youthful energy, in finding what varietals do really well here as well as educating our customers on those varietals. Really, how many consumers have ever heard of Blanc du Bois or better yet, Aglianico, both which do quite well here. Our challenge as wine makers is educating our customers and continuing to build a following for Texas grapes and wines.
- Is winemaking an art or a science or both?
Really, both. There’s so much we don’t understand and a lot we do; that’s the art and the science. You have to be well grounded in the chemistry and biology that will impact the choices you make, especially given the challenges of grapes grown in Texas. You have to understand pH, buffering capacity, and the dynamics of fermentation, otherwise you are just guessing, and unless you have a solid grounding, probably guessing wrong. But there is so much we don’t know. Take phenolics; that we have to make some gut decisions based on experience and experimentation, and that’s the art. Winemaking is making numerous decisions from bud break all the way to the bottle which will impact the quality of the wine. The science is being able to evaluate the trade-offs and the art is when the customer tells us we got it right.
- What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
Wow…there are so many…but a pork chop with a killer Zin seem pretty good right now.
- If you didn’t make wine, what would you do?
Brew beer. There is a lot we as a wine industry can learn from the literal explosion of the microbrew revolution and much that they have learned from us in the wine industry, especially concerning the importance of quality and branding.
- What first attracted you to winemaking and how long have you been doing it?
Watching my wife enjoy a Chardonnay is what really got me started and initially challenged me in dialing in wines that she and her friends could really enjoy. It took me over three years to dial in her Chardonnay. The agricultural aspect of growing grapes and taking them all the way to bottle is the other. There is just nothing more satisfying.
- What is the most common question you are asked as a winemaker?
Besides how many bottles in a barrel (roughly 300), it’s why do you have different types of barrels. I often ask the question back to a customer, “What do you think a barrel is used for?” and the most popular responses are flavoring and aging wines. Customers are surprised by all the functions that barrels provide such as antioxidative power, coextraction, framing, structure, and allowing the aging wine to breath. Barrel choices are one of those many choices we make from the source of the barrels to the toast and which varietals respond best to each.
- After a long day in the winery or vineyard, what do you do?
After harvest and processing, I go find a good burger and an over the top IPA. My wife and I also enjoy just going home, throwing something on the grill, and picking a wine to match…or just to enjoy.
- What’s the greatest part about being a winemaker?
Pleasing our customers and meeting new friends. It’s so cool when customers come into our tasting room and share their stories and see their reactions to our wines.
- What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?
Our philosophy is to bring about the best of each region for each varietal we choose and educating our customers as to why we made those choices…why East Texas grows awesome Blanc du Bois, why the High Plains grows such great Tempranillo, why Dry Creek is such a special place for Zinfandels and Petite Sirah, and why the Russian River produces killer Chardonnays and Pinots. It’s really about producing quality wines from the regions that produce the best examples of those varietals that meet our customers’ expectations.
- Anything else you would like to add?
Just being part of the Texas wine industry and meeting super helpful folks in our industry such as Mike Batek, Chris Brundrett, Tim Drake, and many, many others is so rewarding and really make Texas a very special place to be. I am blessed to be able to do this with my wife and family.