Journal of a Texas Winemaker: Benjamin Calais

By on October 1, 2013 Behind the Label

Matthew Champion for Texas Wine and Trail Magazine

I recently got the chance to speak with Benjamin Calais, owner and winemaker of Calais Winery in the heart of Dallas. While the winery is small, the wines Calais creates using Texas fruit and his native French techniques certainly are not. His Deep Ellum tasting room is open every Friday and Saturday and operates by appointment the rest of the week.

He’s a busy man, especially lately with the impending opening of his new Hill Country location in Hye. Given the opportunity, I wanted to be sure and get inside his head to hear his thoughts on Texas grapes and the Texas Wine Industry in general.

Benjamin Calais Texas Winemaker

Benjamin Calais, Calais Winery

How long have you been making wine in Texas?

6 years.

I hear you’re disassembling a barn and reconstructing it at the new location. Tell me a little about how that process is going.

Slowly but surely, I am just done disassembling the barn and moving all the pieces. Now I am starting to make plans for the rebuild. The whole barn will use reclaimed wood and reclaimed materials to keep it as eco-friendly as possible.

Where do you see the Texas wine industry in the next 5-10 years?

The industry is evolving at all levels, lots of new vineyard acres are getting planted right now. We are in the process of doubling our contracted acres, but it will take about 5 years to get those producing and have wine ready. I think the knowledge accumulated in terms of vineyard management and winemaking is getting shared and we should see huge strides in terms of quality when that knowledge gets diffused around.

How much of the fruit that you work with is Texas-grown?

Just about all of it. We have been securing our vineyard sources to make sure we can be 100% Texas fruit, which was always our commitment.

What are your favorite grapes to work with?

I love Roussanne. I think out of all the whites we can grow, Roussanne has the highest quality ceiling. It is more expensive to produce than some other varietals, but I think we will see much more of it in the future.

What’s your favorite wine you’ve made in Texas so far, and why?

Our Newsom Vineyard Tempranillo 2011. That vintage was the year of the big drought and nothing seemed to go our way. We had bloom shatter early, 100+ degree days, and our yields were down to 10-20% of what we expected, but the little wine we made is amazing.

Describe a typical day on the job for you.

There’s no such thing as a typical day for me. Being a one man winery, I go from winemaking to accounting to tax filings to tasting room to barn deconstruction to vineyard planning.

What are you most excited about right now in the Texas Wine Industry?

I think seeing people focus on the right varietal for each vineyard location. Climates in west/central/east Texas are very different and you should consider different varietals for each climate. We are at a point where we see more plantings of lesser-known varietals that are from warmer climates like Touriga Nacional or Tannat.

Now, I still believe we can grow world class Bordeaux varietals (wait for our 2011 Cab/Merlot/Cab Franc to be released late 2013 or early 2014), but there are only a handful of sites in Texas that I would plant these at. Texas is such a big state that we won’t and shouldn’t have just one or two main varietals here.

I know lots of wineries are putting in new acreages of varietals and we will all learn a lot from seeing and tasting all these wines. It takes 5-6 years to really get a clear picture after planting, so it won’t happen overnight, but we all benefit from each other’s work.

Matt Champion writes the Journal of a Texas Winemaker series for Texas Wine and Trail Magazine and is a contributing blogger for The Austinot. You can also follow him on Twitter @MattBChampion

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