Jason Hisaw wants to put Texas wine on every restaurant wine list in Texas. As the Texas portfolio manager for Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), he has an opportunity to do just that. RNDC represents 15 Texas wineries, both large ones like Messina Hof and small ones like Rancho Loma Vineyards. Jason is an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. He moved to Texas for a sommelier job at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and has also held various positions at RNDC and with other wine distributors.
Jason is in a unique position to influence the wines that are available to Texas wine lovers across the state. It was a pleasure to talk with him about Texas wine and his other passion, Texas BBQ. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TWL: I’ve heard you say that you want to put Texas wine on every wine list in the state. What a job! What does a Texas Wine Ambassador do?
Jason: RNDC felt that the Texas wineries in our portfolio deserved to have some love in on-premise (in restaurants). As large as RNDC is, they wanted to be sure that Texas wineries didn’t get lost in the shuffle. They redesigned the role that was in place to a more restaurant focused role. I champion all of the wineries that RNDC represents, but I think my job is to make sure people understand Texas wine as a whole. I can talk about the Texas wine industry and promote the Texas wines in general. I travel the state and meet with restaurateurs and sommeliers. My job is almost exclusively on-premise, so I don’t often visit retailers, but do love to talk to wine shop owners about Texas.
I also work internally with all of our sales representatives and division/area managers and act as a resource for them. Because I have a sommelier background, they trust that I will pitch what’s appropriate. The winery owners know that I will pitch wines that are Texas appellated. For restaurant wine lists, it’s important to me that we sell Texas appellated and the single vineyard wines because they paint a picture and tell a story.
I’ve been in this job for about six months. Small wins are adding up. I’ve done general sales meetings in each region across the state to bring increased focus on Texas wines.
TWL: Are the sommeliers across Texas excited about presenting Texas wines?
Jason: I think they trust my palate. When I pitch a Texas wine, I let them know that I have had the luxury of tasting some incredible wines in my career, and I’m not pitching the wine as “good for a Texas wine,” but it’s just a good wine. I’ve tasted many wines at Pappas and some of the best wines in the world. I can say that these Texas wines are very high quality. If I didn’t believe in these producers and these wines, I wouldn’t be doing this job. I would have told RNDC that it wasn’t the role for me. I’ve been tasting Texas wines since 2008, and I’ve seen the quality continually improve. I think it’s an exciting time for Texas wineries because grape growers and winemakers are talking, and they’re planting varieties that work well in particular parts of the state.
TWL: Texans have so much state pride, but some seem to resist fully embracing Texas wines. Do you agree? What do you want Texas wine drinkers to know?
Jason: Texans are very proud of things from Texas. Look at Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Buc-ee’s, Lone Star… Texas beer and spirits have gotten a ton of love. Why not Texas wine?
Take whatever you think Texas wine is in your mind and wipe it clean. I want people to stop tasting Texas wine on a California or international palate. I want them to appreciate the wines for what they are. I want Texas wine drinkers, restaurateurs, and sommeliers to appreciate the quality Texas has in Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay… Appreciate them for what they are. They’re good quality wines from Texas.
Don’t compare a Texas Cabernet Sauvignon to a California Cabernet Sauvignon. Would you fly to Château Lâfite in Bordeaux and say, “Wow! This is really great, but it doesn’t taste like my favorite Napa Cabernet?” No. It shouldn’t taste like Napa Cabernet because Château Lâfite isn’t from Napa Valley, it’s from Bordeaux. I know why we do it. It’s muscle memory. We get in our comfort zone. We know what our favorite wine tastes like, and we want to compare (Texas wines) to that.
For whatever reason, Texas wines on a wine list just haven’t caught on a large scale. I hope I’m changing that. I’m pitching the secretary of agriculture to make me the first Texas wine deputy or ambassador under the Texas Department of Agriculture. Under that honorary title, I could recognize restaurants that champion Texas wine and give them a certificate from TDA.
I want restaurants to do a Texas wine feature. If they will commit to six bottles, they can run a by the glass feature. I also love wine in kegs. That way guests can have a 2-3 oz. pour to try it.
TWL: What industry trends are you following?
Jason: Canned wine is one trend. We have Messina Hof canned wine and other wineries are considering it. Is it a sustainable trend? I don’t know. Maybe more bulk juice goes in cans. Do we need an appellated Texas High Plains Roussanne in cans? No. We need something sweet and picnic related in a 250 ml. can. I’m loving the fact that more wineries are going to kegs. Wine on tap has caught on in Texas, and a lot more places are embracing it.
Rosé as a category, that is climbing. I joke that you can’t be a winery in Texas if you don’t have a rosé. Every winery I represent has a rosé. I love the Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Grenache rosés. They do well here.
Climate change is a hot topic for everyone. 75% of the grapes come from the Texas High Plains and there is a diurnal shift there. That helps the grapes retain their acidity. In the future, it will be more important to plant varieties like Spanish varieties and Southern Rhône varieties that are conducive to warmer climates.
TWL: Does a region need a specialty or a signature grape?
Jason: No, I do not think that Texas should be identified with just one thing. That limits us as a wine producing region. Back in the day, Viognier was expected to lead the way in Texas. Well, now we’re talking about Tempranillo leading the way. We do make some great Tempranillo. We highlighted two at TEXSOM. But should we limit ourselves? No, I don’t personally believe so. I think showcasing the different appellations for what they are makes the most sense.
My prediction is that in the next 5-10 years we will see an influx of new AVAs. One is under file now for Comanche. There’s talk of making Driftwood an appellation. I think certain growers or owners have a vested interest in making the area where they produce/grow an appellation. As sommeliers, we know that sense of place is extremely important. Texas has important vineyards just like the familiar vineyards around the world. I love talking about Salt Lick Vineyards because so many people have been to Salt Lick BBQ and have seen the vineyards there.
TWL: You are a visible presence at TEXSOM each year. How did you get involved with TEXSOM?
Jason: In 2007, I moved to Dallas to be a wine steward at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. My friend and I were studying for our certified exam (through the Court of Master Sommeliers). TEXSOM was going on its second year, and we entered the Texas Best Sommelier competition. (TEXSOM co-founder) Drew Hendricks was wine director at Pappas in Dallas, and he encouraged us to apply and compete. The ultimate goal was to sit for the Advanced exam, and the Texas Best Sommelier Competition was a free preview of that exam. We competed in 2007 and 2008. Once you pass the Advanced exam, you’re no longer eligible to compete.
The first two TEXSOM conferences I attended were in Austin. I passed my Advanced exam in 2009, and James Tidwell (TEXSOM co-founder) was my roommate. I was asked to be the volunteer coordinator for TEXSOM 2009. It was my job to source 50 volunteers. The conference was much smaller back then. I helped with volunteer coordination until 2013 when June (Rodil) and David (Keck) started in that role. I helped James source the conference wines for the seminars from 2014 through 2019. I grew up around TEXSOM. This year was my 13th year and there was a team of us who made sure everything went smoothly. My primary role was to coordinate with the Four Seasons to be sure everything was done properly. I know the hotel and the hotel staff there well. We had over 200 volunteers this year, more than ever before.
This year at TEXSOM we had a Texas polishing party*. It’s an investment for any sponsors, so we broke it up between four wineries: Fall Creek, Brennan, Llano Estacado, and McPherson. Each one wanted to participate in the Thursday night polishing party for 90 sommeliers from around the country. Some of the sommeliers tasted Texas wine for the first time. I can’t tell you how many came up to me after and said, “How can we get these in New York? Omaha?” I told them we’re not there yet. There’s not enough juice to be exporting to New York. Some of the wineries do have larger distribution networks, but not all of them.
*TWL NOTE: TEXSOM volunteers polish more than 20,000 glasses before and during the conference. During long polishing “parties,” sponsors provide education and tasting opportunities for the hard-working sommeliers.
TWL: Texas Wine Lover published a piece about Brennan Vineyards’ wine tasting event at the Texas Governor’s Mansion that you attended. Any memorable moments from that event?
Jason: I got to introduce Brennan’s Super Nero to Governor Greg Abbott and the other guests. I told him that it’s my job to make sure there’s a Texas wine on every wine list in the state of Texas. As we were leaving, the governor asked me if I was trying to get a law introduced to put a Texas wine on every list in the state. I said, “No sir, but if that’s something you’d like me to help with, I’m all in.” I told him it was just an investment that my company is making in hopes of increasing the profile of Texas wines in restaurants across the state.
TWL: Who would attend your fantasy wine tasting dinner?
Jason: I would invite some of the old school BBQ pitmasters in the state of Texas. I’m a huge Texas BBQ junkie. I want to show the old school guys what Texas wine is capable of with their cuisine. I’m talking about people like Louie Mueller and the original old school guys who put Texas BBQ on the map. Back in the day, their drinks of choice were Big Red and Lone Star Beer. I would show how Texas wines could pair. I hope they would be proud.
TWL: You’re really into BBQ?
Jason: Yes! I have three little boys, and one day I’ll have three hungry teenage boys. I felt that I should learn how to make massive amounts of smoked meat. I started researching by watching Aaron Franklin’s BBQ videos and reading a bunch of books.
In my commutes from Kansas to Texas, I would listen to podcasts. I found one called Best BBQ show, and I realized that they needed a wine episode. Out of the blue, I emailed the host and suggested doing a wine and BBQ episode. He loved the idea and invited me to bring Texas wines to the podcast. I drove to Austin and met up with Mark Black (Terry Black’s BBQ) who joined me for the episode. We paired Texas BBQ with nine different Texas wines, from white wine to Madeira. Now I’ve done four Texas wine and BBQ seminars.
I’ve gotten to know many of the pitmasters because of my relationship with the podcast host. I find that the Texas BBQ community is extremely small and very close, similar to the Texas wine community. They go hand in hand. It’s a slow craft to make Texas BBQ, just like Texas wine. There’s a lot of care that goes into it. They’re starting to realize that there is a correlation between wine and BBQ. I cook a lot of BBQ at home. It’s my outlet to stand in front of a BBQ for hours.
TWL: Picpoul or Vermentino?
TWL: Tempranillo or Sangiovese?
TWL: Blanc du Bois: dry or off-dry?
Jason: Bone dry
TWL: Stemmed or stemless glasses?
TWL: Pecan Lodge or Lockhart?
Jason: (groans) I’ll say Lockhart because it’s the BBQ Capital of Texas according to the state legislature. But I like Pecan Lodge too.
TWL: Brisket or sausage?
TWL: Sauce or no sauce?
Jason: No sauce (emphatically)
TWL: Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bears?
Jason: Both. Because I took care of the Cowboys at Pappas for so many years, I have a special place in my heart for them. But I’ve got to root for the Bears.
TWL: Desert island wine?
Jason: Older Bordeaux because it was one of the first wines I got to experience with my dad. He owned a wine shop while I was growing up and we had a lot of wine around the house. Bordeaux is what I remember most. It’s how I learned wine.
TWL: Finally, give us your best pairings with Texas BBQ.
- Smoked ½ Chicken: Llano 1836 White Blend. A blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier
- Pulled Pork: Brennan Dry Rosé of Mourvèdre
- Brisket: McPherson Reserve Sangiovese
- Beef Rib: Fall Creek Salt Lick Vineyards GSM
- Pork Ribs: Messina Hof Barrel Cuvée Cabernet Franc
- Pork Belly Burnt End: Becker Vineyards Dolcetto
- Pecan Pie: Haak Jacquez Madeira
- All the BBQ sides: Duchman Montepulciano