Legacy and/or Legend? Impression and/or Impact? Honor, Sadness, Inspiration, Loss, Prayer… All of the above and more, please.
Wouldn’t I rather be writing a follow-up article about my second experience bottling sherry with Dr. Roy Mitchell and working at his side in Homestead’s production area learning more about the solera system he created for producing la Bodega de Mitchell, Crema del Sol, Texas Cream Sherry? But instead I write on behalf of Texas Wine Lover to share the news we sadly lost Dr. Roy Mitchell yesterday morning (July 5, 2017).
Charles McKinney wrote to the Texas Winegrowers Yahoo Group late yesterday: “Roy Mitchell died this morning in the hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He develop a sodium imbalance in his blood and ultimately this caused his heart to stop. He was otherwise doing well and enjoying being with his daughter Lani and her family. I really don’t know anything else, but will pass along what I do learn later. The Texas wine industry has lost a pioneer and great believer in Texas wine. Many of us have lost a very dear friend.”
Early this morning Lani posted the following to Facebook: “With a broken heart, I am sorry to be the bearer of sad news, but Daddy, Roy Mitchell, passed away yesterday from complications following a short illness. He fell ill on Saturday and was being treated at the hospital for extremely low sodium levels. He was not responding to treatments and due to his already weakened heart, he was not able to recover. He will be so very missed by all and I am working on a memorial page for all to post memories and stories about dad. I know he would love to be honored with written words from family and friends as he was an avid historian in both his private family history and his wine family history. He wanted to be cremated like mamma and we are planning a memorial service to be held in Texas, probably in early August. The memorial site that I have chosen is never-gone.com, I hope to have the page up and running later this morning. Much love…you will be missed dad.”
It was only in February of 2015 (just two and a half years ago) I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Dr. Roy Mitchell while attending an Enology class at Grayson College. I was purchasing a Mitch-Lab and beginning my journey into the wacky world of wine chemistry. His personality, passion for moving Texas wine forward and genuine desire to be helpful to all of us attending class drew me to him. I watched and listened intently as he explained “the simplified titration experiment” using the “Mitch-Lab” and he patiently counted the drops from the Pasteur Pipette. He said one day, “Sometimes it’s slow and it will make you mad.” (I have a five minute video.)
Another day he demonstrated how to measure alcohol content using the ebulliometer. Again, he was patient with the process, deliberate, calibrated. And he was always more than willing to share historical stories and meaningful, often humorous memories of his journey of 40+ years now from the earliest days of what has become a booming Texas wine industry thanks to his pioneering spirit. I am certain those of you who knew and worked with Dr. Mitchell, or we also his students, experienced the same.
In July of 2015, I emailed to inquire about interviewing him for Texas Wine Lover. I suggested a profile of sorts, providing some historical stories and information from his perspective. What I ended up with was an invitation to spend the day with him and his wife Jan bottling sherry. I still have all the emails, which I was reviewing earlier. He wrote, “I would love to tell the sherry story—lots of history there; sherry blend was started in 1973 from white, experimental wines from my research lab in the Chemistry building at Texas Tech University. I have worn many hats in the Texas wine industry over those years. Connections with Llano Estacado, Caprock (Teysha Cellars when I was there), Homestead, Pheasant Ridge, Grayson College, UT-Lands, and Texas Tech, and more. The industry has grown up a lot since I began my wine career. I am working on a Texas wine history book with Dr. Charles McKinney to tell some of these stories. I know this is short notice, but I would love to visit while I put you to work on our “bottling line.” If you cannot schedule it for this bottling, we will try to catch you for the next bottling, probably in the fall. Let me know your plans. Regards, Roy Mitchell.”
I replied I would be there. He followed up with, “Krista, great that you can join us. I hope to get started setting up by 9AM, wine starts flowing by 10AM. 12 cases finished by 12:30 or so – you never know.”
Well of course I went to Denison for the day and had a legendary, inspirational, privileged learning experience working at this side until nearly four in the afternoon. We talked and talked; he did most of the talking because he was also teaching me about the solera production system while interjecting names and historical perspective. He gave me access to his “Sherry log” and historical notes, and told me to copy or photograph so I could use them later. I did. We talked so much and didn’t get to bottling fast enough to suit Jan who was concerned he’d be taking too much of my time. So sweet.
We stirred and sampled first. Jan sampled too and we all approved the 2015 blend and moved on to sanitizing. Bottles were cleaned with the one at a time bottle cleaner, corks soaked in a stainless wine cooler, the tubes and individual parts of the single bottling machine and filter were all laid out and cleaned carefully, and the “puzzle” (in my estimation it was a puzzle, but not to Dr. M.) returned it all to perfect working order. We’d start a bottle filling, I’d hand him a cork, he’d slam the cork into one bottle with a rubber hammer while the other bottle was filling, I’d then put the capsule on (under the table we had the capsule heat shrinker), and then I’d hand it to Jan who was carefully placing the labels on by hand with a handmade bottle holder apparatus.
Even though it was sticky, the highlight of the day was Dr. M. hitting a bottle too hard, which nicked the work surface below us and said bottle exploded on both of us, and we were soaked and emitting “essence of la Bodega de Mitchell” most of the afternoon. Jan couldn’t believe it. Dr. M. and I just laughed. My car smelled great for a few days as well after my ride home that day.
Ever since that day, Dr. M. and I communicated from time to time via email attempting to plan our next sherry bottling day. We discussed how he might keep going with Mitch-Lab sales, perhaps creating a Facebook page for his sherry. He wanted to learn about the ins and outs of Facebook. And many of you know, after Jan’s passing, he moved, last fall, from Denison to Colorado Springs to live near his daughter, Lani and her family. If you were Facebook friends with Lani and Dr. Mitchell, you know he started posting and keeping in touch with many of us, his friends, and his Texas wine family as Lani has referred to. The familiar Dr. Mitchell smile was gracing Facebook with his Grandkids many times.
Although I may have only known Dr. Mitchell briefly compared to many of you, he did make a huge impact in my newbie winemaker/grape grower life. He was a wealth of resources and beyond a delight to spend time with. Always excited about “what we were doing next.” There will come a day when sherry making part two will take place, of this I am certain. Until then, all of us are left with the charge to carry forward the wine making legacy of the Mitch-Lab and significant contributions this gentle, but giant and intelligent soul made to the Texas wine industry for 40+ years.
In the coming days, I look forward to an outpouring of historical stories, photos, videos, and much, much more. He was one of our “living history legends.” The legacy of Dr. Mitchell has gratefully been documented and captured over the years. I will look forward to reading updated articles and recollections of “My experiences with Dr. Mitchell…” that surely will be forthcoming.