“You Can’t Plow with a Jaguar”
So, I met Sean Martin back in January of this year at the Pheasant Ridge Winery wine dinner at Grace Restaurant in downtown Fort Worth. Bobby Cox invited Shelly and me to be his and his wife, Jennifer’s, special guests and we eagerly accepted, and I took the opportunity to write about it.
When we found our seats at the long table, I found I was seated next to a young man named Sean Martin. We struck up a fun “get to know you” conversation, and I soon found out he and his father owned the vineyard that some of the Pheasant Ridge grapes were grown. That got my attention! He further explained that they were one of the oldest commercially owned vineyards in the state. Now I was intrigued! As dinner progressed, the poor guy was my dinner captive. I talked his ear off and asked him countless questions that he patiently and thoroughly answered. By the time dessert was served, I had already decided I needed to interview Sean and his father Andy about Martin’s Vineyards. When I asked Sean if that would be an acceptable idea, he was very receptive. We exchanged contact information and decided we’d connect again in person at the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association conference (TWGGA) we would all be attending in about four weeks in Irving.
Closer to TWGGA, Sean and I emailed and texted trying to make sure our meeting would take place. We finally decided on Friday about mid-day due to all of the desired sessions would have taken place the day before. I was excited for my first interview of what I was already hoping would be a series of vineyard owner interviews. I even purchased a digital recorder to capture all of the details of the interview. (Which ended up DELETING the interview and everything else I had on it when the batteries died!!)
Skip ahead to Friday at the TWGGA Conference…we found a table in the conference center where we could sit and visit. I got out my prepared questions, my pen, my new recorder, and situated myself next to Andy. Before I could even thank Andy and Sean for their time, Andy started telling their story. He also brought out a photo album with a wonderful pictorial history of the vineyard from vast empty red dirt (it looked like Mars!), to luscious green mature vines with gorgeous grapes hanging.
He began by explaining how he decided to get into grape farming in the first place. When he got out of the Army after four years as an Aviation Research Psychologist, he went to Lubbock to work at the research facility. He saw a TV commercial for Italian Swiss Colony Wine. He liked the guy wearing a big hat, riding a white horse, while all the peasants were offering up baskets of grapes to him. The guy was singing “Italian Swiss Colony Wine.”
He couldn’t help thinking that sounded like fun. He wanted to buy acreage on the east side of Lubbock where the dirt was a rich loam, but he couldn’t afford it, so he ended up buying 35 acres of sandy soil on the west side of Lubbock. Little did he know at the time that the grapes he wanted to plant thrived in sandy soil. When he made this purchase 40 to 45 years ago there was no Texas grape industry support. There was no Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. There was no Texas High Plains Growers Association. There were no grape growing superstores in the area. What there was had to do with cotton farming. And peanut farming. And everything else BUT grape farming. Everything he needed either had to come from California or be adapted from the other industries in the area.
Andy didn’t even have a tractor when he got started. He had to borrow a neighbor’s tractor and it only had a scraper blade that he turned on an angle to dig a trench. Once the trench was dug, he bought water from his neighbor. He dug a trench from the neighbor’s well to the vineyard and started running water in it. The water would come down and bust out at the end. It wouldn’t turn the corners to run down a row. He said it’d make a mess. “The water would come screaming down the hill, and when it got to the bottom, it was going about 50 mph and then you try to turn a corner with it in sandy soil and make it go 90 degrees down a row of grapes, and it looked like a rice patty every time we’d irrigate.”
After a while they bought thin plastic tubing, but after they’d place it out, the neighbor would inevitably run over it with his sandfighter (tractor accessory) or the wind would blow, and they’d find it against a barbed wire fence three sections downwind…full of sand.
When it came time to plant, they dug holes with a sharpshooter. Hundreds of holes. They made grape stakes out of pallet pieces. They split them on a table saw.
They built a pole shed for a tractor they hadn’t bought yet. He sold his 1959 Jaguar XK-150 in order buy the tractor because “you can’t plow with a Jaguar.”
They’d get the grape grower magazines out of California. Most of the stuff they were talking about either didn’t apply to their situation in Texas or they didn’t know what it was. They needed grape stake drivers. So, they had some hand made, but the handles were too high. They tried again and on the next one they found the perfect spot to put the handles and they worked. They had about three made. They started out trying to drive them and that didn’t work, then they found out that because the drivers were so heavy, all you had to do was lift it up and let it fall and it would drive itself. Lift it up and BANG! Lift it up and BANG!
Then they needed wire. So, they figured out they could go to the telephone company in Brownfield and get old telephone wire they were taking off the poles. It was bare wire. So they spooled it up with the telephone poles. They bought used telephone poles 40 feet long and folks told him not to use a chain saw because telephone poles had too many rocks and nails. So, he bought a bucksaw that was about 8 feet long and took two people to operate and he’d get out there with his neighbor and they’d saw the telephone poles into five 8-foot end posts. They’d throw them in the back of the truck or station wagon. At the ends of the rows, they’d dig the holes with a hand-held post hole digger four feet deep and they’d drop the poles in and tamp them down. Then they got the wire and wrap the wire and staple it on the one end. That end was easy! Then they took the wire to the other end of the row and that end got dangerous! At that end you had to wrap it around once, and the only way to stretch it was to pull with a claw hammer. So they’d hook the wire and puuulllll with the claw hammer. And they’d pull it and pull it and pull it and then Andy’d say, “Hit it!” And they’d drive two staples in as fast as they could because the more you pulled it, the more that claw bit into the wire and it would break sometimes. Or sometimes you could even pull the pole at the other end out of the sandy soil. But it was still a huge improvement over what they had because now they had end posts! And end posts meant they now had trellises.
They bought 40 foot joints of aluminum irrigation pipe and that didn’t waste so much water. But they were still learning, and they’d come back out to the vineyard after a day or two, and the pipes would be full of blow sand. And if you’ve ever tried to pick up a 40 foot section of pipe full of blow sand, it was very heavy. So they’d start at one end and it took two people and they had to be very careful, because if you picked it up at one end it would kink in the middle. Andy: “It sounds like we were stupid, but we had never done this before.” Sean: “We were well intentioned!” Andy: “We had nobody to go next door or to drive across to their vineyard to see how they were doing it…except Doc McPherson, and we went out to his vineyard and he was doing the same thing; he was furrow irrigating and had water everywhere.” They did build a rack to store the pipe off the ground.
After they planted their vineyard and muddled through the first few years, learning as they went, they brought in their first harvest in waxed chicken boxes that they would thoroughly wash out. After the chicken boxes came Whataburger 5-gallon pickle buckets. They’d haul their harvest across town to Llano Estacado Winery who bought their grapes. After the pickle buckets came plastic restaurant bus tubs, then back to chicken boxes. They’d put a layer of boxes full of grapes in the bed of the pickup, lay panels of plywood on top, add another layer of grapes, and lay panels of plywood. They would put a ton of grapes in a ½-ton pickup. It was a slow 30 mile trip to Llano Estacado, and the whole way the front wheels of the truck would hardly touch the ground. They’d finally roll into the winery at dark.
Later, a much larger tractor was bought and they planted more grapes. This time Bobby Cox, one of the founding fathers in the grape industry, was there to help. They used a gasoline powered 4-inch auger, aka “widow maker” to drill holes for the grape cuttings.
They’d save cardboard milk cartons and use those as grow tubes. It sounds like they were the most redneck grape growers in the state, but it was all built on a small budget and necessity. In the early days, there were no Vintner’s Vaults in the area or Home Depots on every corner. They had to study what was being done in California but adapt that to what would work in Texas, and remain within their budget and knowledge boundaries.
They found out that flea beetles would get on the plants and turn them to sticks. Sevin spray would take care of them, and they’d use a pump up sprayer and walk the many rows. A story he wasn’t sure he should share involved his then wife. Andy had to perform his two week Army Reserve summer camp duties, and his wife said she would take care of the spraying. She thought she would take the opportunity to get a tan at the same time, so she put on her bikini and got busy spraying. While she was spraying, a pick-up truck drove by. She didn’t think much about it. Not long after she looked up and there were about 15 pick-ups driving by real slow. She decided it was time to put her clothes back on!
Even with all the wind and the bugs and the water and the wind and the tight budget and the wind…oh I said wind?? Yeah, the recurring theme out in their area seemed to be the west Texas “Big Wind.” But even with all of these things seemingly working against them, they have persevered and have been very successful bringing in 40 years worth of grape crops. They still have their 1975 Chenin Blanc vines!
They have some very famous Texas wineries as buyers too: Becker Vineyards, Llano Estacado, Ron Yates, and Pheasant Ridge to name a few. Bobby Cox came on as their vineyard manager and new varieties have been planted. Then their new thing was “drip irrigation.” Martin’s Vineyards was the first drip irrigated vineyard in Texas. They decided to try this after reading an article from Israel where drip irrigation was discovered. They were also the first to use Partial Row Drying drip irrigation which is a process that uses ½ the water to achieve twice the root growth, very important in arid west Texas. This process was based on research from Australia.
They started mechanically harvesting in 2005/2006. In 2010, they had the biggest and most beautiful Sauvignon Blanc harvest—42 tons!!! They planted experimental rows of Viognier and Pinot Grigio which would go on to be wonderful producers. Another grower had some extra Muscat of Alexandria vines which they planted because it is the “Grape of the Bible” and they had to have some. Each year the Muscat of Alexandria grapes go to Les Constable of Brushy Creek Vineyards. He makes the most delicious wine from those grapes.
Then one year they had a late after Easter freeze, then the next year came hail, then another freeze, then got hit with 2,4-D herbicide drift from a neighboring cotton farm, then more hail; in farming it seems like it’s always something.
Another thing they’d do is find abandoned vineyards and would contract to remove the trellis which would allow the land to return to its original state; in return they got to keep all the steel end posts, fiberglass stakes, and wire. “Poor people got poor ways.”
Their latest equipment acquisition is a Frostbuster. This gem helps them fight back against those devastating freezes. The Frostbuster generates heat and as you drive through the vineyard, large fans blow warm air over the vines to stir up the air and keep it from freezing. You have to keep it up all night, but if it helps your precious crop survive, it is definitely worth it. The first time they needed to use it, Bobby was at a formal dinner in a tuxedo. He checked the temperature on his phone, and immediately left the dinner and drove straight to the vineyards and drove the Frostbuster in a tux.
Today, the Martin Family, Andy, Anndel, Sean along with his wife Celeste and sister Lisa, Anndel’s son Dane and daughter, Vandi, farm 30+ acres with 11 varieties. They must be doing something right as they are the oldest commercial producing vineyard in the state. Andy mused, “If you live long enough, you can be the oldest at something.” They are definitely grape growing pioneers who flew by the seat of their pants, and with little to no money, they “poor man’d” it a lot!
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Nolan Kuehn says
A wonderful article about the trials, tribulations and SUCCESS of one of the grape-growing pioneers in the State of Texas!
Laurie Ware says
Thank you for your kind words! I very much enjoyed visiting with these two gentlemen and getting to know them. There were definitely more stories told than what I could use.