Texas Hill Country Wineries

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Texas AVA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I have been visiting South Central Texas regularly (some 35 years now), my personal experience with the “Texas Wine Country” has been quite limited. San Antonio friends have told me since 1980 that wine grapes were being grown out in the Lubbock desert area, but their early bottled wine efforts I tasted were not very impressive. (Mediocre, would almost be too kind…) But in the last 10-15 years, evidently, things had started to improve a bit, and I visited two TX wineries west of Austin around then. Much better wine, yet nothing to scare us NorCal grape growers.

Recently, however, things have changed quite a bit, all for the better. A friend from Austin, Alissa Leehner, the noted SAHMilier blogger, and some favorable newspaper reviews whetted my curiosity: have Texans really started to make some wine worth drinking, and even start buying? Then I heard that a goodly number of wineries in the Texas Hill County (W/SW of Austin and N/NW of San Antonio) were producing some decent Viogniers, a white grape originally from the Rhone river valley area of France. The Rhone, in SW France, is generally a much warmer grape growing area than Bordeaux or Burgundy; aahah, the Texans were finally catching on, and planting grapes from that region, as well as varieties from Spain and Italy, in general also warmer weather grape regions. Since our South African vineyard, Silkbush, while 93% a red grape producer, has started to grow and produce Viognier, my curiosity increased: we must see for ourselves what was going on in the Lone Star state.

Accordingly, a San Antonio friend who also enjoys wine, but who was not a local winery visitor, and I set out on a November Sunday and generally headed NW on Interstate 10 for Fredericksburg and thence East on Highway 290. While we made an initial stop in Comfort to visit the first cellar (about an hour from San Antonio), most of the wineries we saw were along Hwy 290 and about 1.5 hours from SA. San Antonio is a big convention city, and it is likely tours of the wineries in the area we visited will become increasingly popular. That understood, Austin is perhaps the most efficient “jumping off” point for TX wine touring as the vast bulk of the wineries are within an hour’s drive west of Austin.

The Hill Country has been a popular TX recreational area for many years; there are many small ranches accommodating visitors, lots of upscale homes and restaurants, and it is a generally very attractive area visit. The driving distances are comparable to those of Napa and Sonoma from San Francisco, so as more Texans start drinking better wine, and want to learn more about their home state’s wine efforts, wine touring year round will increase markedly.

There are some constraints, however, which need to be addressed straight off. First, the reportedly 46 TX Hill Country wineries are strewn about in a very large area; we heard there are at least 50% more venues with applications into the State. (There are over 350 TX wineries over the very large state.) Visiting a representative number in any “sub area” of the Hill Country is going to take the better part of a week, so careful pre-planning of your visit(s) is mandatory. The Texas Hill Country Wineries Guide & Map we picked up along the way was very helpful, but directing prospective visitors to first visit www.TexasWineTrail.com will assist in planning. Trying to visit more than four cellars per day is probably undoable for most, and even hitting four can make it a bit of a drill. If the driving distances between stops is very long, a lot of the fun of the adventure starts to go out of the outing.

Secondly, many TX wineries now require appointments and a $15 tasting fee; these are arranged in advance on relatively sophisticated websites. This is somewhat a positive as it will keep the tasting rooms from being overcrowded and provide for a better visitor experience. (We speak from personal experience in NorCal, where tasting rooms often are overcrowded on summer and fall weekends, and tasting charges are often much higher, especially in Napa.)

Thirdly, you are not going to see many acres of vineyards as you do in most other wine growing areas of the US and the rest of the world. Most of the over 9,000 acres of TX vineyards are still located south of Lubbock, or some five hours west. The growing conditions in near desert conditions, with chilly nights and warm days, and low risk of grape pests, means the best grapes will largely be too far away to visit. Some vineyards are planted in the Hill Country, but reportedly most of these vines are frankly intended to serve as simply amenities for their winery tasting rooms.

Nevertheless, neither driving distances nor lack of vineyards is a fatal flaw, but wine tourists should be aware of this in advance. In a sense, this sort of reminded me of our visit to Mendoza, Argentina, in 2008. I had researched about a dozen winery websites in advance, contacted them all via email, and had been warmly invited to visit by almost all of them. On the websites, I had noticed mainly photos of stylish, relatively new wineries, and then photos of the impressive, ever present Andes Mountains in the distance. However, there were relatively few shots of vineyards and surrounding area shots, which are rather standard for the 1,000 of so wineries in Napa and Sonoma. When we got there, there were vineyards adjacent to the wineries, but when they ended, it was almost all DESERT! Water comes in canals from melting glaciers in the Andes, but it is all carefully measured, and not in any abundance. The TX Hill Country is far prettier than most of the grape growing areas of Greater Mendoza, but visually neither area is as stunning as the Napa Valley, Champagne, or the Winelands of South Africa.

That understood, Texas wineries are fun to visit; I will continue to return with friends for enjoyable days on future TX trips. More significantly, like wine tasting facilities everywhere, they are doing an important role in educating Texans and others about wine, especially the more exotic varieties, teaching wine/food pairings, and generally “demystifying” wine drinking. In general, this will sell more TX wine and create more informed, enthusiastic consumers for wines from elsewhere.

 

Due to the length of the foregoing introduction to visiting TX wineries, we will discuss TX Viognier in a separate blog posting.

High Touch Wine Sales in South Africa

There are three principal wine drinking areas/provinces with significant populations in South Africa: Western Cape (Greater Cape Town environs), Gauteng (Johannesburg/Pretoria), and KwaZulu Natal/KZN (Durban/Pietermaritzburg environs). Since virtually all of the some 600 wineries are located in the Cape, if a winery wants to establish a new brand in the country, it needs to have a sales presence in the other two major regions as well. Further, while Black South Africans are chiefly beer and brandy drinkers, a growing Black middle class (the most successful oft referred to as “Black Diamonds”) in these areas is starting to buy and enjoy wine.


Soweto

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Regina Mundi Catholic Church

After 1886, as you may know, Black South Africans had been drawn to work on the gold mines that were established on the outskirts of Johannesburg and most tribes were housed in separate areas. In 1963, the name Soweto (South Western Townships) was officially adopted for the sprawling township incorporated in 2002 into the Jo’berg city limits. It has been estimated that 40% of Johannesburg’s residents live in Soweto, approximately 1.3 million people. In Soweto, there is a famous Memorial to the founding of the ANC (African National Congress) which is the political party of the late Nelson Mandela and has been the dominant party of the country since 1994.

 

 

 

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Mr. Sipho Thoma
Mr. Sipho Thoma

Two years ago, I spent a day in Soweto as a guest of one of the four founders of the Soweto Wine Club to learn more about the area’s potential. Sipho Thomo was my guide and he opened my eyes to a very large, proud, well kept, and increasingly cohesive community. While all eleven of the country’s official languages are spoken in Soweto, historically the tribes did not get along. But since English has become the predominant language for all in the past few decades, a far greater degree of homogenization has occurred and English is the language of the wine trade. There are a number of fine wine shops with good selections in Soweto, chiefly for wineries who have taken the time to call upon them. (We visited one called Morara Emporium, owned by Mnikelo, the co-founder of the Soweto Wine Festival.) There are a few restaurants who carry superior wines and who periodically sponsor wine tastings, (such as Wandi’s Place, with it jovial proprietor in the pink sweater below,) and this year the 11th Annual Soweto Wine Festival will be held.

Clearly, wine drinking in Soweto is established but is still in its early days. Soweto represents a good potential market for SILKBUSH wines once we have a Gauteng distributor with people dedicated on a continuing basis to service the area. The Soweto Wine Club may yet prove to be our entry point to that vibrant community.


Gauteng

SILKBUSH has only had a direct sales rep in Gauteng for a few years and Anton has flown there for some of wine shows. We just started selling our wine in KZN this last year and nobody from SILKBUSH had yet made a physical appearance in Natal.

Accordingly, I decided that the first week of my March 2015 trip to the Beloved Country would be to these areas with our two sales ladies I had yet to meet.

Ms. Judith Lee
Ms. Judith Lee

Our representative for the Gauteng area is Judith Lee, who has represented several RSA wineries for many years. I spent two days with this delightful woman; arriving on a Sunday, our timing was awkward, but we were very successful with a large Portuguese restaurant that had just put us on the menu. Because a bottle never sells itself, it is very helpful when restaurant owners and service staff can put a face with a product and hear the vineyard’s story directly. With the key people, we often offer a couple of free nights at the Kingsbury Cottage; whether they will make it down to see SILKBUSH or not, the offer of hospitality is always appreciated.

 

 

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Salt & Pepper Shakers

We also did an evening tasting as a well- at an established wine club in Pretoria where we and the wines were very well received. Incidentally, one of the pleasant surprises of travel is seeing new and creative art in the least expected places. Here are a few photos from our wine travels-  one is of a “pop top” emulation salt and pepper setting at a trendy RSA restaurant, and two are striking metal sculptures at an outside shopping center.

 

 

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KwaZulu Natal (KZN)

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Sugar Cane Fields

For all the years I have been coming to South Africa, I had returned to Durbin only once since my initial visit in 1994. The whole area is undergoing a great deal of change and growth including building a new airport approximately 35 km (22 mi) north of the city, something that virtually never happens in major urban areas of the world! King Shaka International Airport (KSIA) opened its doors to passengers in May of 2010, just over a month before the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It evidently had been in the planning stages since the mid 1970’s, with construction beginning in 1973, but then things slowed down. While 8 international air carriers now serve KSIA, at present well over 90% of its traffic is still domestic. However, they are now ready for the largest jets from anywhere.

Much of KZN is still developed to sugar cane fields, and banana plantations, and benefits from strong on-shore winds from the warm sea. Accordingly, due to the recreational/agricultural ambiance, there is extensive “second home” and retirement housing being constructed; also many roads are being widened and more elegant living, including wine consumption, is increasing. Little Mozambique, a humble eatery in a small retail center, and the luxurious Prince’s Grant Golf Club, well north of Durban on the Indian Ocean, are both now featuring SILKBUSH wines due to the efforts of Suzanne Foster Aherin, our Gauteng sales representative, who I got to work with on this trip.

Ms. Suzanne Foster Aherin
Ms. Suzanne Foster Aherin

Suzanne had done all sorts of high level corporate work in prior years, in both Jo’berg and Cape Town. In more recent times, however, she was living in Gauteng and doing some wine promotions with her good friend, Judith Lee. Following her new husband who had taken a job as a plant manager in a small town in KZN, in 2014 Suzanne found herself with time on her hands and wanting to get back into wine. Tah Dah! She is now doing a bang up job for us with restaurants, wine shops, golf country clubs, and anywhere else people want higher quality wine for a reasonable price. She and I did an invitational wine tasting at a hotel where we are now on the menu, and then drove around together for three days. Suzanne is lots of fun, very talented and well organized, and has a very good wine palate. It was clear her retail customers really respect and love her.

Prince's Grant Golf Club
Prince’s Grant Golf Club

We entitled this posting as “High Touch” wine sales in South Africa for a reason: selling wine anywhere in the world is a “personal relationship” (High Touch) effort, at least for the first sale. The quality of the wine, and the selling price, clearly are the largest factors in obtaining on-going sales, but to build brands with consumer loyalty requires good marketing people and ongoing contact efforts. We are pleased that many enjoy our Silkbush Mountain Vineyards website, our Blog postings, and reading current reviews of subsequent vintages on the Internet. Certainly we will continue with these High Tech marketing efforts, but the High Touch of good personal sales relationships will never decline in importance… be it in Africa or anywhere else.

Welcome to the new "LA"!

At the end of July, I found myself in the Greater Mobile Bay area, aka “LA” or “Lower Alabama,” to help our new distributor, Stephen Clark, introduce locally our Silkbush Mountain Vineyard brand wines. We called on 10 accounts over two days, had a great reception to the Silkbush wines, and look forward to having sustained sales of South African wine in the new “LA”. But that’s not the reason for this Blog posting. The greater Mobile Bay really is just great; I was highly impressed!

Contrary to the stereotype of the deep Old South, the Mobile Alabama area has significantly gentrified and become a very desirable place to visit and/or live. Downtown Mobile has fascinating restaurants, upscale wine bars, clean streets, and a vibrant economy. While Mobile’s population is about 200,000, a 60 mile radius picks up over 1 million more people. While the residents are spread out, small towns such as Spanish Fort, Daphne, Fairhope, and Foley on the Eastern Shore are very impressive and are akin to the nicer suburbs of any major US city.

Mobile residents are quite excited that in 2015, Airbus, the European jet aircraft manufacturer, will start production of the A320 series right in Mobile, and will produce at least 50 jets per year. Airbus is investing $600 million and will employ at least 1,000 workers. And, when their supporting cast of companies, (those providing engines, avionics, wiring systems, windows, seats, etc.), open their doors, the Mobile economy will receive a substantial and continuing boost. Also, ever since WWII, there has been a significant local ship-building industry due to a 75’ dredged shipping channel. This also permitted the retired battleship USS Alabama to make Mobile its permanent home and it has become a major tourist attraction. The LA economy is doing well and this should translate into ever-greater wine purchase and enjoyment among other things.

Interesting Wikipedia factoids: Mobile began as the original capital of colonial French Louisiana in 1702. During its first 100 years, Mobile was a colony of France, then Britain, and lastly Spain. Mobile first became a part of the United States of America in 1813, with the annexation of West Florida under President James Madison. As one of the Gulf Coast’s cultural centers, Mobile now has several art museums, a symphony orchestra, a professional opera, a professional ballet company, and a large concentration of historic architecture.

Today, year-round waterfront recreation is a big regional draw. There are many major hotel resorts along the Alabama Riviera and more are underway. Jimmy Buffet’s sister’s restaurant/entertainment complex “Lucy B. Goode” is drawing well; and a 500-acre effort to develop a Country Western entertainment competitor (think “Branson of the South”) is underway in Foley, to be named “Blue Collar Country”. “BCC” Phase I, including two hotels, a restaurant and convention center, and a sports tourism complex, should be open in the Spring of 2015. Because Mobile Bay is quite shallow, perhaps an average of 10 feet, much of the recreational boating is shallow draft power boats rather than deep keeled sail boats. Clearly the Bay has many nifty attractions with more coming every day.

Further, some aspects of traditional Southern recreation were quite evident, and most notably the pictured Bass Pro Shops facility highly visible from westbound I-10. The building was at least four times larger than the Marriott Courtyard where I stayed so it took little encouragement from my local friends to make an initial visit. Every kind of sporting good and apparel was available; the cast of Duck Dynasty would have thought they had died and gone to Redneck Heaven. Additionally, on a few warm summer nights, the residents living around Mobile Bay sometimes enjoy the fruits of a mysterious natural phenomenon called a “Jubilee”, when fish and crabs swarm toward shore and are easily harvested by people wading in the shallows.

Be that as it may, there are already many higher-end wine drinkers around Mobile and more moving to LA every week. They will soon be greeted with SILKBUSH wines at many turns, and I definitely plan on returning annually for Winegrower dinners and a little LA boating….

Namibia Adventure

In May of 2014, Catherine and I took our 32nd combined trip to South Africa and Silkbush Mountain Vineyards, and then our very first trip to Namibia. Planning our Namibian adventure was actually an adventure in itself; Catherine spent the better part of January 2014 researching and preparing the varied intricacies of the trip. (Her research was supplanted by our favorite African travel consultant, Denise Best, www.thebesttours.net (www.thebesttours.net)  who lives in GA and has assisted several friends in planning African “trips of a lifetime”).There was so much to see and experience we decided to stay three weeks driving across Namibia in addition to our two weeks in the Western Cape, on SILKBUSH and then in Stellenbosch.

Incidentally, the distances in Namibia are substantial; we covered by car at most 60% of the country, one week driving ourselves and two with our very enjoyable guide, Richard “Zubee” zu Bentheim zubentheimr@gmail.com. If visitors have less time, flights in light aircraft can be arranged at greater cost and you really miss out on much of the flavor of the country. Like much of Africa, much of Namibia deserves to be seen more slowly and digested deliberately with the locals.

BTW, Namibia is the first country in the world to incorporate environmental protection into its Constitution. From this, many tourism options spring, providing real monetary and social benefits for the local communities who provide them and, in return, a very enjoyable and gratifying Namibian experience for tourists. We visited the highest sand dunes in the world and the largest game reserves in Africa. We visited local communities, tribal lands and developed an appreciation for Namibia, it land, its wildlife, and its tourist-friendly peoples and amazingly diverse cultures. The country has earned its nickname, the Arid Eden!

This trek also became a geological safari because of the varied and ubiquitous rock formations throughout the country. Geologically, the Namib area is composed of a wide range of rock types, ranging from 1,265 million year old granite to the present day formations making up the Namib Sand Sea. The area is just west of the Great Namibian Escarpment, a feature formed by the uplift of the entire southern African continent about 120 million years ago. In the north and southeast, we saw many lavas or “volcanics” which are exposed rock outcroppings. Namibia’s highest point is the south at 6,500 ft. above sea level. The lowest naturally is the long Atlantic coast line or sea level.

We were totally awed by the local habitats, wildlife, and traditional cultures and rituals here, and we knew our tourism dollars had a beneficial impact on the environment and wildlife conservation. We’ve chosen just over two hundred pictures from the several thousand we actually took throughout our Namibian journey. We hope they and the accompanying text will give you multiple impressions into our most wondrous adventure. Take a look at Gallery 11 (http://silkbush.com/gallery/namibia) on Namibia and enjoy the ride. Botswana, Tanzania, and Kenya are all great game camp safari areas we have also enjoyed, but Namibia is a different sort of adventure in Southern Africa; please give it due consideration.

WHY IS THERE SO LITTLE SOUTH AFRICAN WINE AVAILABLE IN THE US?

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For those interested in trying Republic of South African (RSA) wine in the US, it is often a challenge to even find a few local bottles to buy and  try. Why is this, you may wonder, given the enormous array of wines available on the grocery store aisles or in major wine shops? Well, first, while the entire US wine market is about 370 million cases sold per year, bottled RSA wine is just under 1 million cases, so less than 1/3rd of 1%! (There is enough bulk RSA wine imported for another 2+ million cases yet it may well be blended to upgrade other wines. If so, in the process, its origin is lost and its heritage becomes invisible to the consumer.)

Next, the average retail price of a bottle of wine sold in the US is about $6.25 and perhaps 80% of all wine sold is $10/bottle or less. Since it costs about $1/bottle to bring wine from South Africa to the US, most importers have given up on selling any decent RSA wine for retail prices under $10. Since distributors and retailers receive at least 50% the retail cost of the wine, the transportation cost comes right out of the winery’s pocket. (More typically, an RSA winery will gross only $5/bottle that sells for $15 in the US, and their costs may easily be $3-$4/for the bottle.) Given all the other expenses, few foreign wineries can afford to compete in the US with Gallo and Bronco (“Two Buck Chuck”) unless they are working through great oversupplies of grapes. (And even that usually is a temporary condition, even for Australia’s [Yellow Tail].)

The other side of the coin is the simple fact few wine buyers “experiment” with wines costing more than $20 retail. (This applies equally to US domestic wines as well.) There are some wonderful RSA wines in the $20-$40 range but they will only be purchased by the very knowledgeable and loyal RSA wine consumers.

That then places most South African wine within the $10-$20 price range where most of the good yet affordable wines in the US are being sold today. The SILKBUSH wines we are importing (Pinotage and Viognier) are usually sold in the $14-$18 range, where there is lots of competition with many very good domestic wines. So clearly RSA wines cannot differentiate on price alone.

Very simply, a consumer must be interested in buying a South African wine before they enter a wine shop, a tall order. Further, there is so little experience with RSA wines in the US (essentially just the past 20 years) there is seldom a “South African section” in most wine departments, or if there is, it is just a few facings on a bottom shelf. With so little attention  paid by retailers and consumers alike, there has been little RSA sales growth in most regions.

Despite these inherent adversities, South Africa’s exotic image, wild animal TV series on Discovery Channel and National Geographic, and  increasing tourism (some of which is “wine tourism”), are all leading to increased awareness of the Beloved Country. The 2010 World Cup soccer championship, the recent passing of former President Nelson Mandela, and the attendance of most world leaders at his memorial services: all these exposures increase international awareness. If the Western Cape can become a sufficiently attractive international tourism destination, its beautiful Winelands are only 30 minutes from Cape Town and are usually visited. This is a long, slow way to promote RSA wine in the US but one that should work and develop permanent fans. Only time will tell.

 

Dave Jefferson