Mike Nelson of Ab Astris Winery is this month’s featured winemaker. The winery has only been open for a year and a half, but they have gained a large following of Texas wine lovers with their wonderful wine. Mike is the force behind the wine, and we are happy to present Mike Nelson as this month’s featured winemaker.
- What did you do before becoming a winemaker (if anything)?
I practiced as a Corporate Immigration Attorney in Dallas for eight years prior to starting my full-time winemaking career.
- What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
Definitely the weather – it restricts the types of varietals that can be grown, and then leads to a lot of grey hairs throughout the growing season (whether due to early freezes, hail, too much rain, not enough rain, freezes when the growing season is abnormally long, etc.). Also, we don’t have anywhere near the infrastructure that they have in states like California, so it can be challenging to deal with materials shortages or winemaking supplies you need immediately, which typically aren’t readily available.
- Is winemaking an art or a science or both?
Both. During crush (when the grapes first come in), it’s almost entirely science – but there is absolutely an art to the blending process which extends from the decision to purchase a certain set of grapes/varietals to deciding on the final blend that will make it into the bottle.
- What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
Depending on the time of year, I’d say it’s either Texas Tannat and Venison (preferably a backstrap steak), or French Muscadet (Melon de Bourgogne) and Gulf Oysters.
- If you didn’t make wine, what would you do?
Sadly, I’d probably still be practicing law. Now that I’ve made the change, I couldn’t imagine ever going back to that, though.
- What first attracted you to winemaking and how long have you been doing it?
I became a fan of wine at a young age. When we were kids, my parents took me and my sister with them all the time when they went wine tasting during our vacations to the central coast of California. I started growing a comprehensive love of wine from that point forward – everything from the wonderful smells of the cellar, the magic of the vineyard, the smells of herbs and vegetables being grown on neighboring farms, and eventually the taste and other effects associated with drinking wine.
As I got older, I also got into cooking and toyed around with brewing beer. Winemaking was always the dream combination of things I’d loved for many years, so when I got the opportunity to do it for a living, I didn’t think twice about jumping in headfirst. My first involvement with winemaking was on a part-time basis while I was still working full-time in Dallas. I would come down to the Hill Country on weekends to help make wine during the harvest season, and we finally made it down here to do this full-time about 18 months ago.
- What is the most common question you are asked as a winemaker?
When I tell people I’m a winemaker they typically jump to their assumption that it must be a glamorous, easy, and dream-like profession. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and it is an awesome thing to do for a living, but it’s far from glamorous and it isn’t typically very easy.
I also get questions about whether we grow certain varietals, like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and then the follow up of “why not?” immediately after. It’s a nice segue into a conversation about the Texas climate and what makes Texas wines unique, and also allows for some discussion of the varietals that tend to do well in Texas, for example Tannat/Mourvèdre or Viognier/Picpoul Blanc.
- After a long day in the winery or vineyard, what do you do?
Either have a beer with the crew, or head home for dinner with the family.
- What’s the greatest part about being a winemaker?
Being able to create something that people enjoy. It’s so awesome to hear people tell me they had a bottle of our wine for their son’s graduation, to celebrate a birthday, etc. – to know that we’ve essentially been there with them when they are happy and celebrating with loved ones. We recently had a couple get engaged at our tasting room/vineyard, and that meant a lot to me – we’ll be part of their story forever.
Also, I love the camaraderie that exists in the cellar. My last job was high stress and long, long hours. Any minute spent not working was money wasted and there were very few opportunities to get to really know my co-workers. Now that I’m making wine, when we’re in the cellar we get to talk and joke around all day long, and there are a lot of tasks that take some time to set up, but have a ton of lag time in the middle (for example, racking wine from one tank to another) where we can just shoot the breeze while we keep an eye on whatever is going on.
- What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?
As far as what I am trying to achieve with my wines, I’d say my goal is to make well-balanced, great tasting wines that highlight the terroir of Texas. I like using inspiration from blends that have worked for centuries elsewhere, but that can be tweaked to take advantage of varietals that do well here in Texas over those that don’t.
So, I’d say that my winemaking philosophy is to target varietals that do well in Texas from reputable growers that we can get high-quality grapes from. The less work we have to do in the cellar to get the wine where we want it, the better the final product tends to turn out.
- Anything else you would like to add?
Given the leaps and bounds the Texas wine industry has grown by over the past five years, I can’t wait to see what the next five years has in store. I do my best to taste as much Texas wine as possible, and I’m constantly impressed by what many of my comrades in the industry are putting out. I just can’t tell you how happy I am to be a part of the industry at this point in time; there are such exciting things on the horizon, it’s going to be a great ride.