Driftwood Estate Winery was established in 1998 by Gary Elliott who was also the winemaker. Taking the winemaker helm today is Jackie van Sant Downes. Jackie is an established winemaker who is also the winemaker/owner of Jaclynn Renée Wines from Sonoma County. We are happy to present Jackie as this month’s featured winemaker profile!
- What did you do before becoming a winemaker (if anything)?
Winemaking was actually my first career. I graduated from Texas Tech in 2007 and three days after graduating, I moved out to Sonoma County, CA for my first winery internship and fell in love with it the first week and knew it was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I also was fortunate enough with the support of my family to start my own wine label out in California in 2013 called Jaclynn Renée Wines and am still making that out there along with my winemaker position at Driftwood Estate Winery here in the Texas Hill Country.
- What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
The weather! I mean I was born and raised in Houston and am no stranger to crazy weather but throw that in with grape growing and winemaking and it has its own set of challenges. I also moved back and started my first Texas vintage last year in 2021 right after a really bad freeze, so that has had its challenges with replants and lower grape yields in the vineyard here, but it has been a great learning experience too. We know getting into this business that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature, so we just have to adjust as we go and grow and learn from each experience.
- Is winemaking an art or a science or both?
Definitely both. I use the chemistry and numbers in all of my winemaking decisions, but it comes down to smelling/tasting everything when making those final decisions in the vineyard and also in the winemaking process each step of the way. I am constantly tasting and perfecting as I go and use the numbers as a guide. I loved science and art growing up, so I am lucky I get to use both every day in winemaking.
- What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
I think so far, my all-time favorite pairing is a really good Russian River Pinot Noir or Red Burgundy and Pork belly!! Soooo good. Like a match made in Heaven.
- If you didn’t make wine, what would you do?
Good question… I think I would do something in athletics like be a volleyball coach or personal trainer.
- What first attracted you to winemaking and how long have you been doing it?
Well, funny story. I have my amazing Aunt Robin to thank for getting me into the industry. When I was at TTU (Texas Tech University), I like many broke college students drank White Zinfandel out of a box (I cannot believe I am admitting that! LOL). And during my last semester of College, my aunt was opening a wine bar and had me over to her house to taste the most amazing European and California wines and really helped me start to develop my palate. I was in my last week of summer school before graduation and she called me and said, hey I got you an internship at a winery in California and you are going, and the rest was history. I had no idea what I was getting myself in to then but fell in love with it immediately. I have been making wine the last 15 years—13 vintages in California and this year will be my second vintage in Texas as the winemaker at Driftwood Estate Winery, and I am loving it.
- What is the most common question you are asked as a winemaker?
I think the most asked question especially as a female winemaker is, are you really the winemaker, and are you sure you can drive the forklift? Um, YES, I am, and heck yes, I can!
- After a long day in the winery or vineyard, what do you do?
After those long days, I usually like to go home, take an Epsom salt bath, and then snuggle with my two little ones and husband and watch a movie in bed.
- What’s the greatest part about being a winemaker?
I think one of the greatest parts about being a winemaker is getting to make a product from vine to bottle and be a part of the whole process. We get to work outside with Mother Nature and have our hands in the soil and then be a part of that vine’s life every step of the way and then make it into a beautiful wine. Also, not every vintage is the same, so we get to use our knowledge and craft to adjust for those not-so-great years and curveballs along the way and learn from them. It’s pretty incredible and I feel lucky every day to have found something I love and am so passionate about.
- What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?
My main goal is to make a clean and well-balanced wine. If you know me or have tasted any of my wines you will know, but the most common comment I hear is that my wines are very well balanced and have precision. I am a perfectionist in some aspects and I think it definitely carries over in my winemaking style.
- Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you so much for this interview. I am just loving being back in my home state of Texas and in the Texas wine industry, and I am excited to see what the future holds.