If you’re familiar with the wine scene on Highway 290, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the Italian-style tasting room and vineyards just about 10 miles east of Fredericksburg. Grape Creek Vineyards has become known as one of the ‘big boys’ in Texas wines with large production and several tasting rooms. But did you know? This winery is one of the oldest estates in Texas. It’s even the first winery I ever visited back in 1994 during my college years. With the growth of the winery and the establishment of three other brands under its umbrella, let’s look at the origins and the future of this popular winery.
Grape Creek Vineyards was established in Fredericksburg in 1983 by Ned Simes. He was first a Marine and then worked in oil, and he dreamed of having a winery in Argentina. The government at the time made it tough for an American to buy land in Argentina, so he started looking at other places that may be similar to the wine regions he loved. He heard about Fredericksburg and liked the soil and water availability. His first goal was to make a Texas wine to go with mouth-watering Texas bar-b-q!
In 2003, Jason Englert was an up-and-coming winemaker who had been working at Llano Estacado Winery in west Texas when Ned hired him to take Grape Creek to the next level. Unfortunately, Ned had a heart attack in the vineyard the next year and did not survive. Maybe that’s a lesson for folks who think owning a winery is romantic. It’s hard work, that’s for sure. Ned’s son, Lee, took things over for about a year, and that’s when Brian Heath came into the picture.
Jennifer and Brian Heath purchased the property, winery, and wine inventory in 2006. At the time, Grape Creek was producing about 2,000 cases a year. That’s a decent amount for any winery in a growing region, but today the winery makes over 50,000 cases. This growth is a testament to the vision and business strategies put into place since the purchase.
Brian has a degree in engineering but left the field two years after college to pursue financial services to become financial adviser. In time, Brian became the President of the 13,000-person US Advisor Group at Ameriprise Financial. After purchasing Grape Creek, he left the financial industry two years later to pursue the wine business full-time.
In the early 2000s and before, many wines in Texas were sweet. Brian shifted the winery to dry red wines with Jason’s help which is the bulk of their sales today. At the same time, he focused on selling directly to consumers and building a strong focus on club members. He wanted to create an experience that members would value and would create raving fans. On property, the Heaths expanded the vineyards, built more outdoor patio seating for members, added the restaurant Stout’s Signature, and grew the wine portfolio. Today, you can schedule a tasting of Grape Creek wines for $30 at the estate or on Main Street in Fredericksburg. I highly recommend the tour and tasting at the estate for $45, which includes a drive from the main tasting room, past the acres of vines, and to the winery production facility and barrel room. The tour I took recently was run by Dan, who shared stories of his friendship with Ned back when Grape Creek was first created in the 80s. We tasted Cabernet Sauvignon from La Pradera Vineyard from three different barrels – neutral, new American, and new French. Then we moved to a private tasting area where we each chose four wines with generous pours to taste. My favorites were the bold “Invention” made from 100% estate-grown Petit Verdot priced at $49 a bottle, and the “Right Bank” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at $36 a bottle.
Stout’s restaurant is attached to the estate tasting room. With fantastic food and Grape Creek wines, the restaurant is exclusive to wine club members and their guests. Lunch is available Sunday through Thursday with dinner service added on Friday and Saturday nights. I recommend starting with the hummus and house-made chips and the Caesar salad with grilled chicken makes for a delicious lunch.
In addition to the growth and changes here in Texas, Brian bought a vineyard in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles, California, in 2014. The property was growing grapes for wines that were consistently winning awards. Heath Vineyard allows an additional label of wines available to wine club members. Grape Creek estate wines from the Texas Hill Country AVA were made a distinct brand at this time, and both the estate wines and Paso wines are available to members of the Owner’s Club. These steps were intended to provide world-class wines through member experiences unparalleled in Texas.
Brian says, “The success of these additional member benefits and offerings led us to broaden our vision of what we could create that would add to our member’s options and experiences. That led to the development of Heath Sparkling Wines and the addition of the modern tasting room and patios on the same property as Grape Creek.” Heath Sparkling became the first all-sparkling winery in Texas and became popular right away. The architecture alone created a lot of buzz in the area. A sparkling tasting with small-bite food pairing is $35 with advance reservations. A member’s tasting is also available along with members-only patio seating to enjoy a glass or share a bottle.
It’s no secret that Napa Valley makes great wines. Brian, Jennifer, and their friends and family enjoy Napa wines as much as anyone. They were out to dinner for Jennifer’s birthday in 2016 and were browsing the wine list when Brian said, “I bet Jason could make a wine for us to share with staff, friends, and family that is as good or better than most on this list, but it would have to be scary good!” So why not make a wine from Napa fruit for their own drinking? Jenblossom Cellars comes from Brian’s nickname for his wife. And this first red wine from Napa just had to be named Scary Good. A couple of years later, that wine evolved into the idea of a new member benefit. A new line of wines could be created and made available to members. They secured grape contracts with several ultra-premium growers in the best AVAs in the Valley. The first Jenblossom wines were released in 2022 with more aging in the cellar now. Today, you can book a tasting of Jenblossom wines for $65 hosted in a private seating area overlooking the vineyard from the Grape Creek production facility. I was able to taste a Jenblossom Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon when some friends shared a bottle with frozen pizza at our house for an impromptu dinner. I enjoyed the wine and am making plans to schedule a tasting soon.
Just a few months ago, the Heaths acquired Slate Mill Wine Collective south of Fredericksburg, renaming it Invention Vineyards. Brian says the new name comes from the idea of wine being “crafted in imagination.” It is a stunning property along Live Oak Creek and is the original site of Pioneer Family Mills with 35 acres of rolling vineyards. The existing winery facility has 65,000 gallons of tank space and a barrel cellar with room for 2,000 barrels, all of which affords all four brands of Heath Family Wines more capacity to support growth moving forward. The current plan for Invention Vineyards is to produce 16,000-18,000 cases from the coming 2023 vintage. Renovation of the tasting room is underway including the addition of patio seating with amazing vineyard and hillside views.
Ten wines have just been released under the Invention label, and Ryan Miller, a winemaker from California, is operating as the onsite lead under Jason’s direction for future wines for this brand. Jason became the winemaker for Grape Creek back in 2003, and today 20 years later, he is still embedded in the brand as the VP of Winemaking overseeing all four labels.
While renovations are underway, Invention is still open for tastings. Reservations are suggested but walk-ins are welcome. A guided tasting is $30 and a tasting with a facility tour is just $10 more. The Imaginada blend might just become my house white wine this summer. It’s bright and crisp and very easy drinking. It’s the only Invention wine I’ve had so far, so it looks like I need to make a reservation!
As a result of an active growth strategy spanning 17 years, Heath now has three tasting rooms situated on expansive, working vineyards, plus two urban tasting rooms in Fredericksburg and Georgetown, all serving a broad array of wines. Club members have access to all locations with special benefits at each. “What we confirmed is that not all people like the same type of wines, and many people like variety even within their own cellar,” Brian explains. “We feel we offer a gamut of options for people with each brand being true to its mission. There is not one that is better than another, just different. So, our members can enjoy multiple wine options in different beautiful settings and locations.”
It’s easy to notice that the brands are all centered around providing benefits and experiences to wine club members. Club options include the Grape Creek Club where you can select Black Label, Mixed, White, or Sweet with shipments of 3, 6, or 12 bottles allocated five times a year in February, April, May, October, and December. Additional options are the limited production Sparkling Club, with 4, 8, or 12 bottles allocated four times a year, or the Owner’s Club, where you pick from Estate, Heath Vineyards from Paso Robles, or a Combination. Select 3 or 6 bottles shipped twice a year in spring and fall. Learn more online at https://www.grapecreek.com/belong/#benefits. And to make things super easy, there is a drive-thru pickup barn if you want to grab and go.
Brian enjoys being in the wine business “because it has a lot of variety and creative flexibility. We have agriculture, manufacturing, and retail all rolled into one in this business. And the setting on a vineyard is an amazing place to work and live.” Heath Family Brands employs 150 people, but they are a family-run business and intend to keep it that way. Their philosophy is to never stop innovating and always offer something that wine lovers, guests, club members, and staff want to be a part of.
Leave a Reply