By Amie Nemec
These hot summer afternoons found me needing a bit of girlfriend time, so I connected with a few industry gals, and we planned a bit of wine tasting. I gathered my best wine tasting buddies: Laurie Ware, contributing writer for Texas Wine Lover, along with Elizabeth Rodriguez, manager of Cabernet Grill, and Kyn Villarreal, wife of winemaker Jesse Villarreal of Whisper Path Cellars. We all met up in Johnson City, off Highway 281, at Pebble Rock Cellars. We were greeted by Rob Nida, co-owner and winemaker, in this small but well-appointed tasting room. Along with us four ladies, an unwitting wine enthusiast from Dallas joined in on our tasting.
Just after Rob started pouring our wines, his wife and co-owner, Lydia, joined in our fun. Let me start with a cute bit of their story. Pebble Rock Cellars is a name derived because of Lydia’s love of Penguins. These birds mate for life and present the mate with a pebble to indicate their undying commitment. It’s like the animal kingdom version of an engagement ring. When Rob proposed to Lydia, he put her ‘pebble’ (or the engagement ring) in a rock-shaped hide-a-key. Thus, a pebble in a rock! With such a cute story, you just have to read on!
Rob Nida studied horticulture at Texas A&M and didn’t know exactly what he wanted as his career, so he thought the best plan was to complete his Masters. He studied abroad in Chile and did an internship here in the Hill Country at Woodrose Winery where Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards was also working. From there, he pursued a master’s Winemakers Program in southern France which led to further studies in Madrid, Spain. As Rob completed his academic studies, he did a harvest in South Africa, then back to Texas, Oregon, and Texas again. While this is a short summation of the experience he has gained during and since college, the key point is, he has far-reaching experience for his young age. He and Lydia started their vineyard and winery consulting business in the Hill Country in 2017 and their first vintage of Pebble Rock Cellars in 2019. You will see his name in association with two other Texas wineries as he consults for their winemaking and viticulture practices.
Then we come to Lydia, who did both entomology and horticulture studies at A&M where she and Rob met. She narrowed down her focus, finally, to viticulture and did her master’s at Fresno State with both a full ride and a salary. She served as the Vineyard Manager for Grape Creek Vineyards from 2012 to 2014. But from there, she stepped away to backpack in Europe for four months to learn more about organic farming in vineyards. Lydia worked as the Viticulturist for Lost Draw Vineyards in the High Plains and began consulting in 2017. She currently consults for eight clients which are pretty much all new to the industry, frankly, making her job easier!
As their overall vision, Rob and Lydia want to grow their winery and consulting business, both so they can guide an employee to learn all the levels of the industry and have an avenue to start their own brand if they want to. They envision a place to make wine, as well as a place to sell their wine through a shared tasting room. The goal is to give back and grow the industry which I love!
When visiting the tasting room, you should know that each quarter they feature an educational theme and every month they make some changes to their offered wines, but all within the theme. This time around, we discussed fermentation and pressing. So, as an example, there were the Rosé of Sangiovese, all from the same Narra Vineyards in the High Plains. Two wines had both primary fermentation and malolactic fermentation, with one having no malo, and two were bladder-pressed grapes while one was basket press. There was a very nerdy conversation about what these different processes mean to the finished wines, and it is fun to compare the wines while discussing them. So, in short, if you are just trying to get your drink on, this is not your spot. This is an ideal place for folks truly wanting to embrace the passion of making wine, and to learn about the seemingly small decisions that can have large impact on the finished wine.
Here’s an overview of our tasting:
2020 Piquette – The skins left from the 2020 Sangiovese Rosé from Narra Vineyards was set aside with water added and left overnight and then pressed again. With 2% Brix on this pressed juice, sugar was added to get the alcohol up. The finished product is a low 9.8% alcohol (which is higher than the typical 7% the French do). This style of winemaking is still practiced in France to create a wine to serve to the vineyard workers over lunchtime, so they don’t get drunk while they still need to work in the afternoon. With this bottling, a little CO2 added to give some fizziness and more mouthfeel. They produced only 53 cases of half-bottles, priced at $15.
The nose and palate remind me of cranberry with black potting soil. This is fresher than some Piquette because it was the Rosé skins and not the skins of a finished red wine. They plan to make another Piquette in 2021, maybe a white Albariño in a Vinho Verde style.
2020 Rosé of Sangiovese – Narra Vineyards with Primary fermentation and Malolactic Fermentation to give a better mouthfeel. The grapes were direct press when the grapes got here from the Texas High Plains using a membrane press. The fermentation stuck in 2020 with zero glucose and 9 grams/Liter fructose, so they used a different yeast to eat the glucose. But this still didn’t work, so they had higher sugar and upped the acidity to balance the wine. The palate is strawberry and peach with fresh green thyme and a slight sweetness that makes it easy to drink at $30 a bottle.
2019 Albariño – Narra Vineyards crisp white wine with tropical fruit on the nose. The palate is high acid with liveliness on the tongue, almost a tingling feeling with flavors of lemon peel and pineapple. I’d prefer this wine with food such as an Asian stir fry. $30 a bottle.
Table White – 80% Albariño from Narra Vineyards and 20% Roussanne from Crooked Post Vineyard in the High Plains. This wine is part of the Growler Program, which is a unique way to have your weekday wines. Pay just $20 for a resealable growler full of wine then refill it for only $12, and Wine Club members receive free delivery locally. This is a fun way to add to your everyday drinking wines at a super reasonable price point – and for something handcrafted.
2018 Rosé of Sangiovese – Narra Vineyards with primary fermentation only. The wine yields notes of red cherry on the nose and the palate is cherry and strawberry with a little savory, meaty note. The grapes were direct press with a membrane press when they arrived here from High Plains. The wine is bright, fresh, and tart.
2019 Rosé of Sangiovese – Narra Vineyards with both primary and malolactic fermentation to add more depth and richness and bring down the acidity. Direct press when the grapes got here from High Plains using a basket press. Because of this, the volume is lower with less color. The nose has red plum and a little brioche. The palate is smooth and not bitter, so this is very much my style of rosé!
2018 Sangiovese – Narra Vineyard, producing only one ton per acre. The wine was aged 18 months in 50% French and 50% Hungarian barrels. The nose is a strong baking spice and a slight smokiness with very little fruit. Flavors of nutmeg, plum, dark cherry, and cocoa make the wine much more savory than the nose indicates. $44 a bottle.
As a general rule, the Pebble Rock red wines are typically aged 18 months in barrels and then another six months in bottle.
For the Growler Program, a red wine barrel is broken into four kegs and only one keg is bottled at a time so the wine will evolve with each bottling.
2016 o inicio dessert wine – Blanc du Bois from Navasota at Threshold Vineyards. There is no fruit this year because the freeze did a lot of damage to the Blanc du Bois vines. The sweet dessert wine is Madeira style. The name is Portuguese for “the beginning” because this was the first Pebble Rock wine made while Rob was working at Kuhlman Cellars and couldn’t compete with wines they were making. To make this style of wine, 45 to 50 gallons are stored in a 60-gallon barrel, so oxidation happens in that spare space. The wine is aged four years outside, in the heat and to cook. $50 a bottle and well worth it! We also tried the 2015 and they just bottled the 2017 this month. The 2015 has butterscotch and caramel, and priced at $65 a bottle because of the few bottles remaining in inventory.
Overall, Pebble Rock is producing 500 cases annually right now and hopes to grow to 1,000 cases. They will then see how it is going and decide the appropriate growth rate. They would not go over 5,000 cases with 500 wine club members. This year they are anticipating 14-15 tons of grapes for production with nine red grape varieties, two whites, which will only total about one ton, and then red grapes set aside for rosé wine.
The long and short of it is, this tasting is not only good wines but great education on the wine business in Texas. It’s a must if you are learning more about wine!!
About the Author
Amie Nemec is a longtime wine lover, Sommelier, and founder of Perspective Cellars tasting room in Fredericksburg, Texas. She is now venturing down the path to learn winemaking, so, along with wine writing and food pairing posts, be on the lookout for Amie’s wines in coming years!