Texas High Plains Vineyards, Part One, posted earlier, related many of the positive and negative aspects of growing about 85% of Texas wine grapes in the High Plains area of Texas, mostly west of Lubbock. This post covers some interesting differences and similarities found in top vineyards during a wonderful five-day adventure to the Texas High Plains in early August 2018, just as the 2018 harvest had begun. With friends Laurie and Shelly Ware, I visited several of the best grape growers in Texas, toured their vineyards, and learned about their techniques and philosophies on producing grapes for the Texas wine industry.
This trip to the Texas High Plains was prompted by an invitation from Lorena Valencia and the late Buzz Timmons (of the Brownfield Chamber of Commerce). While visiting with them at the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) Annual Conference in Frisco earlier this year, they expressed how eager they were for us to join them this August. The Terry County Grape Capital of Texas Vineyard Festival was scheduled for Friday and Saturday, August 3-4, 2018, to be held at the festival barn in Reddy Vineyards just east of Brownfield. We graciously accepted their invitation, purchased our tickets, and planned a trip with lots of visits to new and old friends on the Texas High Plains. A previous Texas Wine Lover (TWL) post offers some info about this festival that makes for a fun trip out west.
Our second full day on the High Plains was spent visiting two famous wine-growing families and their vineyards near Plains, TX. Friday morning dawned bright and clear with the ever-present breeze blowing across the plains. Dwayne and Brenda Canada of Canada Family Vineyard had invited us to visit their farm and vineyards west of Plains, TX, less than ten miles from the New Mexico border. After a brief stop at their house, we loaded up in two pickups for a vineyard tour, starting with the older Cabernet and Chardonnay vines. What immediately struck us as different from most vineyards previously visited was the significant, bushy canopy on these vines. Whereas most vineyards are hedged to control and limit canopy, these vines seemed downright jungle-like. Dwayne explained that the thick canopy provided three measures of protection for the grapes – hail, sun, and, possibly, birds (LOL). Only by lifting this thick canopy could you see ripening grapes. With the canopy lifted, you could also see an interesting pattern to the fruiting cane or cordon. Early on, the limber cordon cane of newly-planted vines was wrapped around two catch wires to form what is now called the “Newsom Twist.” This technique provides for more buds along the cordon and eventually more clusters of fruit. The twist was first used by Dwayne’s brother-in-law, Neal Newsom, and appears to have been a very successful approach as evidenced by the wonderful Canada Family Cabernet Sauvignons and Reserve Chardonnays produced at Becker Vineyards in Stonewall.
Several interesting things were pointed out while we walked the vineyards. There was grape cluster damage similar to that inflicted by raccoons, but Brenda told us it was from coyotes. Yeah, coyotes! We also saw evidence of winter freeze damage that has prompted the Canadas to plan another Chardonnay vineyard on a part of the farm about one mile north and about 90 feet higher in elevation. Since cold air “flows” downhill, damage to the earlier budding Chardonnay often occurs. A vineyard at higher elevation should provide more protection from winter freeze damage and spring frost episodes.
We asked about how the canopy affected mechanical harvesting and were told that a special hedging apparatus is used to trim the canopy away before harvest, so that the grapes and clusters can be effectively captured by the catch pan under the harvester. This apparatus looked like a very serious pair of large hedge trimmers attached at 45-degree angles to the front of a tractor. This was certainly evidence of farmers being innovators that create solutions to problems with which they are presented.
We were joined by Daniel, the Canadas’ son, who lives further north on the farm, between the two vineyard areas. He helps his parents with all aspects of their farming operation, and apparently is the primary driver of the grape harvester. He joined us as we drove past his house to the Malbec vineyard about a mile north. The fruit from this vineyard typically finds its way into the Becker Vineyards Raven bottling. Again, there was a lot of bushy canopy, but it was pointed out that no winter freeze damage had occurred in this higher elevation vineyard. So, adjacent to this five-acre Malbec plot is where an additional five acres of Chardonnay will be planted. It was interesting that this area is covered by tiny oak trees, or bushes, called shin oaks. This is actually part of one of the largest contiguous oak forests in the U.S. Typical for the normally treeless High Plains, however, these oaks stand only 1-2 feet tall. Dwayne showed us the large pile of oak roots that were removed before planting Malbec, and indicated a similar pile would be generated in preparing the ground for Chardonnay. It was all pretty amazing to me.
A bit more info on the Canadas and their vineyards can be found in a previous TWL post.
After the vineyard tours, Dwayne and Brenda guided us into Plains where we joined Janice and Neal Newsom for lunch at a neat sandwich shop called Serendipitea at 812 Avenue E. The food was good and the visit was wonderful. It is always neat to see the good-natured bantering back and forth, especially between Dwayne Canada and his younger sister, Janice Newsom. After lunch, we said our good-byes to Dwayne and Brenda, and they returned to their farm west of Plains. We then followed Neal to his farm northeast of Plains. Our first stop was the lovely Newsom Bed and Breakfast that serves a lot of visitors throughout the year. There are several themed bedrooms with a large common sitting area and kitchen. For those lucky enough to stay here, Janice comes over in the mornings and prepares a sumptuous breakfast.
We first went to the Newsom barnery to see most of the machinery used to farm the vineyards, and were amazed at the collection of interesting artifacts that Neal had on display. There were several old metal consoles from control rooms in now defunct missile silos that once dotted the area during the US-Soviet Cold War Era. It looked like Neal was creating a command central control room for grape farming and harvest time. One of my favorite things on display was a highway sign indicating the Texas State Line and the mileage (101) to Roswell, NM. Below this was a smaller sign noting that “We Sell Alien Abduction Insurance.” You couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Neal was happy to point out that he would immediately write us a policy if we wanted to pay with cash. (LOL)
The real interest in the barn was the new state-of-the-art Pellenc grape harvester. This huge machine represents a very significant investment, but is expected to harvest High Plains grapes in a gentler manner, providing cleaner and more intact fruit for delivery to the many wineries that purchase Newsom Vineyards grapes. All five of us climbed to the top of this huge machine to look over the many features. There was a destemmer section that would remove stems from grape clusters that were shaken loose from the vines and brought up through the delivery system. Once the grapes from these clusters were removed, they would be transferred to the grape sorter grid plate to join the other grapes that were delivered without stems attached. This process is designed to deliver cleaner grapes with fewer stems and “jacks.” From the sorting section, grapes are collected in a large storage tank until eventually delivered to harvest bins for transport. This was an absolutely amazing machine with just about every bell and whistle that could be imagined for a harvester, including a luxurious climate-controlled operator compartment with deluxe audio system. We all, especially Laurie, expressed the desire to drive, or at least ride on, the Pellenc harvester while it was in operation. Neal invited us back as it would be only a week or two before grape harvest began.
We then loaded into the new Kubota five-passenger ATV for a tour of the 150 acres of vineyards. There were two striking features that immediately caught our attention. The soil was very sandy and quite red in color due to high iron content. Laurie took off her shoes to walk in the deep sandy soil, and was a bit surprised by how hot the sand was on her feet. It was kind of like the beach, except there was no water in sight. The second thing that captured our attention was the stark contrast between the Newsom vines and the Canada vines. I made a comment that it looked like Neal had hired a French hairstylist to perfectly coif his vines. They were hedged and trimmed so neatly, with hardly a stem out of place. This meant that plenty of sunlight could reach the leaves and grape clusters to drive the ripening process. It should be noted that the cordon stem for these vineyards also employed the Newsom Twist (of course!).
As we walked along in the vineyards, it was notable that few weeds or grass stems were visible. Neal explained his process for managing weeds, partly through the irrigation system he uses. When vines are first planted, underground irrigation tubes are laid along the row of vines to provide maximum moisture exposure to help the young vines develop. Once the vines become established, that in-row irrigation tube is disconnected and a new one installed, about 8-12 inches deep, centered between each pair of rows. This forces the vines to extend their feeder roots to reach water. This system also allows the vines to “starve out” any weeds or grasses along the row, forcing the interlopers to seek water between the rows. Neal then cultivates this middle area to control, essentially remove, any weeds and grasses. Even though cultivation like this will damage feeder roots close to the surface, it forces vines to develop deeper feeder roots near the underground irrigation tubes. This whole system seemed very ingenious to me, with the added bonus that essentially no water applied to the vineyard was ever lost to evaporation in this extremely arid climate.
At one point during the vineyard tour, a pair of B-1 bombers thundered overhead at relatively low altitude. These impressive planes were on maneuvers from Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, to Roswell, NM, and back. Neal noted that sightings of these bombers were essentially a daily occurrence. It was certainly an impressive sight.
We finished up our vineyard tour as Neal pointed out the various grape varieties and blocks that were contracted to a number of wineries in the Central Texas and Hill Country areas. We drove back to the Newsom home and Janice was proud to show off their new upper deck above the driveway where she and Neal can relax of an evening to enjoy the view of their beautiful farm and the often-spectacular West Texas sunsets. We visited a bit more and then said our goodbyes. It was time to drive to Brownfield and prepare for the first night of the Terry County Capital of Texas Vineyard Festival at the Reddy Vineyards Festival Barn east of town.
One of the highlights each year for folks in the Texas wine industry is Newsom Grape Day held at Newsom Vineyards. A good story about this special event was posted last year for TWL.
We cleaned up and drove out to Reddy Vineyards. Upon entering the building, we were greeted by Lorena Valencia, and it was like we had walked into a family reunion with scores of friends and associates in the Texas wine industry. There were too many there to mention everyone, but we did spend a lot of time with the Wilmeth clan, Gay and Jet, Mary and Ty, Michelle and Kevin Hart, Bill and Gail Day, Jeremy and Bree Nelson, Katy Jane and Nicolas Seaton, Traci and Anthony Furgeson, Madonna and Tony Phillips – you get the idea. There were vendors serving food, including Mary Wilmeth’s crew from the Triple D Restaurant. There were also five wineries serving tastes and glasses of wine, including Llano Estacado, Bingham Family, Burklee Hill Vineyards and Trilogy Cellars, Bob Landon of Landon Winery, and the Farmhouse Vineyards crew. The band that played was talented, but the volume was louder than we would have preferred as visiting was the main pastime for the evening. All in all, it was a wonderful way to finish a fun wine day on the Texas High Plains.
Note: A future post, Part Three of Texas High Plains Vineyards, will cover visits with some other top grape growers and winemakers that continue to impact the Texas wine industry.