Some wineries start out small and keep enhancing as they grow. 12 Fires Winery located in Johnson City on U.S. 290 is one of those wineries. There was no tasting room when we first visited, they expanded to a small trailer tasting room, and they are close to opening a full-size tasting room. Behind the wines at 12 Fires Winery is Mike Nance who we proudly feature this month!
- What did you do before becoming a winemaker (if anything)?
Wine was never even on my radar until about 2008. I studied wildlife and fisheries sciences at Texas A&M without really intending to do that either. I wanted to be an Air Force pilot or officer in the Army, but poor timing and poor vision spoiled that. I got to use that wildlife degree after all, as a wildlife biologist for 15 years, before I was bitten by the wine bug.
- What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
For winemakers like me that rely 100% on Texas fruit, Texas is the biggest challenge to winemakers in Texas! This past year is a case study. Freezes, flooding rains, hailstorms, wildlife predation, pesticide drift; everything seems to be dead set on ruining the crop. I expected that as a new winemaker, low man on the totem pole, I would struggle to get the fruit I want, but I’ve come to realize that everyone struggles to get the fruit they want because Texas is fighting us all. I admire the way that Texas winemakers roll with the punches. It’s the challenge that makes it worthwhile, and it is comforting to know that I’ve got lots of good company. If it was easy, anyone could do it.
- Is winemaking an art or a science or both?
It is science. It is chemical actions, reactions, and interactions. Not to say that it is simply formulas to compute and arrive at an oenological conclusion, it’s more complicated than that, and we couldn’t know all the variables. Where there are lapses in the science, perhaps an artistic touch can bridge the gap. The best winemakers I know are good scientists.
- What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
Albariño and seared scallops! No, wait, Tempranillo and brisket. Or maybe tawny port and chocolate cake.
- If you didn’t make wine, what would you do?
I’d probably still be out in the woods counting birds and identifying plants. I did love being a biologist. As much as I enjoy working the vineyard, it is intensive, goal-driven labor. Not much time for just quietly observing the interactions going on around me.
- What first attracted you to winemaking and how long have you been doing it?
I first became interested in wine around 2008 when my wife and I would drive out to Fredericksburg for antiques, peaches, and German food. “Hey look, a winery. I didn’t know we had those in Texas.” I couldn’t be satisfied with just enjoying the wine, and so the hook was set. In 2014 I started helping Jerry Bernhardt at Bernhardt Winery in Plantersville with odds and ends. That turned into pouring tastings, work in the vineyard, and help in the cellar. It just snowballed. I think the initial attraction was the mystery and romanticism of growing grapes and somehow converting them into this magical elixir that made everyone happy.
- What is the most common question you are asked as a winemaker?
Number one question, no doubt, “How did you get into winemaking?” And I always answer, “Well, it was a series of poor decisions.” That’s a joke, sort of.
- After a long day in the winery or vineyard, what do you do?
I work on projects at our house in Blanco. It needs a lot of work to be worthy of my most excellent and patient wife. On the rare occasion that I cease trying to be productive, you’ll find me cooking with that wonderful wife, or playing with our dogs, or soaking in the river. I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to start fishing again.
- What’s the greatest part about being a winemaker?
The greatest thing about being a winemaker is seeing my wine play a part in bringing people together. I get a real kick out of folks that walk into the tasting room as strangers and walk out an hour later exchanging phone numbers and making plans to do things together, like try more Texas wines! I also really like getting pictures of families gathered around for a meal with our wine. It makes people happy, and that makes me happy.
- What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?
“Get the best grapes that I can find and don’t mess it up.” I’m still new to this, so what I am trying to achieve most is confidence and consistency. My goal right now is to learn the science and apply it appropriately. I know the work that the growers put into these grapes, and I want to do them justice by creating a technically sound, high-quality product that we can both be proud of.
- Anything else you would like to add?
I’m excited for 2022! It’s going to be an important year for 12 FIRES Winery & Vineyard as we will be opening our new tasting room soon and (hopefully) getting our first partial crop from our vines. It feels like we are turning a big corner. Good things are coming!