Spencer Gatlin has probably the most daunting task in the Texas wine industry, following his father Dan Gatlin’s footsteps at Inwood Estates Vineyards. Fortunately, he has his father to guide his way in making excellent Inwood Estates wines. We are pleased to feature Spencer Gatlin as this month’s winemaker profile.
- What did you do before becoming a winemaker (if anything)?
Before I went to work for Inwood, I attended Sonoma State University in Sonoma County, California. I received my BA in Economics in 2011 and moved back to Texas. It wasn’t long before my father asked me to join the family business. This is where I have been the last 4½ years and I wouldn’t change a thing.
- What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
To answer your question more accurately, let’s talk about grape growing in Texas, instead of just winemaking. The most important variable that we deal with in Texas is not directly our hot summers nor our unpredictable weather patterns; however, those do play a role in our fruit production. The real struggle that growers in Texas have always been unable to cope with is our inability to achieve optimal phenolic development; something that growers in other regions of the world easily achieve. For many years, we have been using too large canopies and carrying too large crop loads. Those practices combined with our hot summers, have led to our vines being over-stressed to the point where insufficient nutrients are being delivered to the grapes themselves. How do we solve this problem? With the degree days that we routinely deal with in Texas (sometimes three times that of other grape growing regions), it is vital that we, as humans, do everything we can to alleviate the stress that Mother Nature puts on our vines.
Lowering crop loads is a simple solution to the problem if the owner of the vineyard is willing. It is much easier to make good wine out of good fruit. Now with that said, I am not putting the blame of 25 years of bad winemaking on the backs of our growers. Plenty of experimentation led to many bad wines being produced for many years. But we’ve also been saddled with false information and inadequate practices that go back to the birth of Texas grape growing. In the last 10 years, that has changed across all Texas wines. We are finding the perfect balance between quality and quantity, and I think the proof is in the…wine.
- Is winemaking an art or a science or both?
I think when creating any product, an equal balance of art and science is ideal. Just like playing a musical instrument, a player can learn all the theory he/she wants, but unless they possess that certain flair or natural ability, that is what can separate Joe’s Garage Band from Jimi Hendrix. Winemaking is no different. A textbook can tell you scientifically how the perfect wine should be made, but in reality, everyone’s vineyards, everyone’s styles, and everyone’s palates are uniquely different and those externalities can yield very different results. The ability to adapt to environments and improvise, combined with preexisting knowledge, is an everyday practice in the winery.
- What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
As an aspiring, yet novice, culinary master, my advice is simple. The wine should not dominate the food and the food should not dominate the wine. Now that sounds easy in theory, but it definitely takes a lot of trial and error, which is partly the fun behind it. I do not consider myself a “foodie” by any means, but I do know wine. My advice is to make sure that neither the wine or the food overpowers the other.
- If you didn’t make wine, what would you do?
If I wasn’t making wine, I’d probably be sitting in a cubicle, working a 9 to 5 job, staring at my joke-of-the-day calendar and wondering why I WASN’T making wine. In all seriousness, I was fortunate enough to start into this profession at a very young age. I worked my first harvest at the age of 10 and it took place in my backyard. Not very many people can claim that kind of exposure and although it took a while for me to figure it out, I love what I do and will continue the legacy my father has started. The impact of my father’s work has become apparent and tangible to me over the last five years and now I’m hooked. I’ll be doing this the rest of my life.
- What first attracted you to winemaking and how long have you been doing it?
As I mentioned earlier, my first introduction into winemaking came from my father and his personal affinity towards it. He was inspired by his travels as a young wine buyer for our family’s liquor store chain and was determined by hook or crook to make wine in Texas. Not just wine, but world class wine. Without his love for it, it would have never crossed my mind. But it is funny that unless a young mind is nudged in a certain direction, they may never find something hidden inside of them that they truly love.
- What is the most common question you are asked as a winemaker?
Why Texas? And my answer is, “Why not?” 40 years ago everyone was convinced the only place in the world you could grow Cabernet was Bordeaux. Then after the Judgment of Paris they conceded that you could also grow Cabernet in Napa. Well, what else are we willing to concede? Every generation is seeing new wine regions in the world where good, quality juice is being produced: Argentina, South Africa, Oregon, Washington, and upstate New York. With science and technology anything is possible. We are proving with every vintage we produce that we can compete on the world stage.
- After a long day in the winery or vineyard, what do you do?
As a winemaker, the term “free time” has many definitions. This is not a 9 to 5 job by any means and we end up working odd hours. But if you love what you do, then it doesn’t feel like work at all. In my free time, I’m always thinking about wine because that is where my interests lie. Maybe not specifically winemaking but I’m always learning about and trying new wines. I also like to fill my free time with hobbies that involve a creative aspect. There is a parallel to be drawn between golf and winemaking that only those who do both can appreciate. As I alluded to in the third question, both activities can be very technical and detail oriented, but without a creative flair, can be hard to enjoy. I’d also say there is an equal frustration factor and conversely, a sense of accomplishment that both share.
- What’s the greatest part about being a winemaker?
The greatest part of being a winemaker for me is how young I am. I’m a believer in the 10,000 hour rule, where in order to master anything, 10,000 hours must be put in. Winemaking is not typically a young person’s chosen profession. So I feel like I have a unique opportunity in my life to do something special with the chance I’ve been given. You look at the Mondovi’s and Wagner’s who got in early in California. Well, I see myself with that opportunity in Texas. I firmly believe that the Texas wine industry is on the verge of a big break into the international dialogue about where and at what quality wine can be produced. My father’s hurdle was to convince the nation that we could produce quality wine. My hurdle will be to take that on an international level.
- What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?
Our philosophy is simple. It doesn’t matter where the grapes were grown. Under the right conditions and with the right human intervention, high phenolic grapes can be produced anywhere. Our mission is to show that under extreme conditions, we can produce comparable wine to any well established producer.