“Texas wine history in the Hill Country, and a new wine road route to explore”
You may have already heard, earlier in 2023, the property that housed Slate Mill Wine Collective was purchased by Heath Family Brands. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, I’m sure Grape Creek Vineyards does. Let’s review a bit of Texas wine history and then we’ll get to the present and what’s to come in the future.
Just a few miles south of Fredericksburg on Highway 16 sits a beautiful piece of land that originally housed Pioneer Flour Mills. The mill was established by Carl Guenther in 1851. Later, the property changed hands and ended up in the hands of Dabs and John Hollimon. In 2013, the couple began planting a vineyard and engaged winemaker John Rivenburgh to produce their first wines. 1851 Vineyards opened in 2016 with the name giving a nod to the history of the property. The tasting room and production facility shared space in an unassuming metal building with thriving vines visible through the windows. The family business trucked along with Dabs Hollimon becoming the winemaker for the label.
In 2020, the Hollimons were ready to retire and sold the property to Randy Jones and his family. They already owned La Bon Vie Ranch, a wedding venue and event center where they planted vines for ambiance. Dabbling as growers soon blossomed into a strong pull to be fully planted in the wine industry. With the purchase of 1851 Vineyards, the Jones family would now have production space to make their own wines. They continued to sell the 1851 label, the business model shifted from a single winery and vineyard to a facility that would allow boutique wineries to produce their small-batch wines in the well-equipped winery.
Continuing a nod to the heritage of the flour mill on the property, the Jones changed the winery name to Slate Mill Wine Collective. Tim Drake was brought on as Director of Winemaking and before long, brands such as Farmhouse Vineyards, Dandy Wines, C.L. Butaud, and Tatum Cellars were all producing world-class wines within the space.
The Jones were also renovating the old Torre di Pietra winery on Highway 290. The renovations included an underground wine cave for barrel storage and special events, adding a production facility, redesigning the existing tasting room, and replanting the abandoned vineyard. The new Slate Theory Winery opened in late 2021.
The following year the Jones family decided to focus on Slate Theory and Slate Mill was put up for sale. Brian Heath and Heath Family Brands took over the property and immediately started renovations and expansion efforts. Heath’s first step into the Texas wine industry came in 2006 when Brian and his wife Jennifer purchased Grape Creek Vineyards. One of the original wineries in the hill country, Grape Creek was founded in 1983 by Ned Simes. In 2003, winemaker Jason Englert joined the project, and he remains the head of winemaking now, twenty years later. When Ned passed away in 2004, his son took over the operations and soon sold to Heath. At the time, the winery was producing about 2,000 cases annually, and today they exceed 50,000. In addition to the Grape Creek label, Heath also owns Heath Sparkling Wines located adjacent to Grape Creek, plus Jenblossom Wines, and Heath Vineyards in Paso Robles, California.
Now owned by Heath, the property and label have been renamed once again. Brian says, the new name, Invention Vineyards, comes from the idea of wine being “crafted in imagination.” The existing property included 35 acres of vines and a facility with 65,000 gallons of tank space and room for 2,000 barrels. The collective concept that previously existed has been dissolved and all of the participating winemakers have moved their wines to other facilities. Winemaker Ryan Miller came to Texas from Paso Robles, California, and is the onsite lead at Invention.
A redesign of the interior of the tasting room and the expansion of the outdoor patio seating offer more tasting options than ever before on this property. Similar to Grape Creek and Heath Sparkling, Invention will offer tastings in one area and relaxed seating for wine club members in a more private area. Production tours are available, as are new wines just bottled this summer. The Grand Opening will be September 22.
With the 2023 harvest, the winemaking team is planning for a prolific harvest on this estate and will supplement with additional grapes from around Texas. The production is estimated to be around 16,000 cases. Having tasted the 2022 wines in barrel during my recent visit, I’m particularly excited about the red blend and the Tempranillo, which both will age further and may be available next year.
The purchase of Slate Mill was in large part to utilize the existing production facility and vineyards. But another driving force behind the purchase was the interest in building up another wine road as a destination for enthusiasts. Further south on Highway 16 is Augusta Vin and then a bit further still is Kerrville Hills Winery. From Kerrville, it’s an easy 20 miles east to the small town of Comfort where tastings are available at Bending Branch Winery, Singing Water Vineyards, and Newsom Vineyards @ Comfort. The next time you want to visit some Hill Country wineries, consider this route as an alternative to the highly trafficked Highway 290.