The 2013 wine grape harvest in the Texas High Plains was so abysmal, it was enough to make a grown man cry. Even a tough Texan.
“2013 was a complete crop failure,” says High Plains grape grower, Neal Newsom. “We had a good winter and into spring. But then, five weeks after bud break we had a terrible hard freeze in May. That has never happened before. The vines were almost through bloom, and most were in full bloom. They were as tender as they could be at that time of year. It was so cold for most of the night, that we had a lot of permanent wood damage. We lost almost everything. Eighty percent of our Cabernet froze to the ground.”
Newsom, and his wife, Janice, have been growing grapes in the West Texas community of Plains on the New Mexico state line since 1986. Newsom Family Vineyards are situated on a high desert plateau at 3,700 feet in elevation and gets plenty of high-quality sunlight. The area has long, hot days and it cools down quickly at night during the growing season. The Newsom vineyards have seen its share of trying weather, but nothing like this.
The entire harvest from his 125 acre vineyards amounted to just a little over 800 pounds of grapes. That’s not even enough to fill a grape bin. In a normal year they average 2.5 to 3 tons of grapes per acre. That’s about 750,000 pounds of grapes annually. In other words, 800 pounds is pretty close to 0.
“It was a hopeless situation,” said Newsom. “Put it all in one bin to get an official weight for insurance purposes. We took it to Llano and thought they would make rosé or dump it into a blend.”
Perhaps out of sheer sympathy, Llano Estacado assistant winemakers, Jason Centanni, and Chris Hull, decided to make wine with that paltry parcel of grapes.
“I’ve never had these things until I moved to Texas,” says Greg Bruni, Llano Estacado’s VP of Winemaking. “In California, we’d have a frost event, but it just reduces the tonnage. When it happens here, it can wipe you out. The production of the vineyard was almost non-existent. It’s really emotional.”
Bruni discussed the possibility of making wine from the Newsom’s grapes with Llano Estacado president and C.E.O., Mark Hyman, who agreed it was a good idea to make the wine. While the 2013 vintage certainly wouldn’t make any money, the Llano execs realized that the Newsom family were eager to start their own wine label. This was a great way to put a toe in the water and get ready for a bigger vintage in 2014.
“A couple months after I dropped off the grapes, Greg called me and told me, ‘You’ve got to come taste this. You’re not going to believe this.’ He’s right. It has great tannin and bright acid. We didn’t pick the grapes until almost November, so they had lots of hang-time, which is what winemakers like.”
“It came out tasting great,” says Bruni.
In late January, Llano Estacado and Newsom Family Vineyards introduced their joint collaboration, Inception. In its first release, there was only 25 cases, or 300 bottles, of Inception made. This unique Texas blend, will only be available to select restaurants in Lubbock and to wine club members.
“This is the rise of the phoenix from the ashes,” says Newsom. “That really can happen. This is the inception of our family label, and how we’re getting started. Here we go.”
2013 Inception, Newsom Vineyards
The wine is made from a field blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Sangiovese and 9% Tempranillo and the balance is Malbec. Brambly blackberry pie, ripe plum, black cherry, dust, and aged leather greet the nose. It smells like hard-fought victory. Sun-kissed black currant, baked blackberries, tobacco leaf, coffee and dark chocolate coat the palate in pleasingly medium bodied wine. It tastes like the comfort of a friend who has your back. It’s well-structured with just enough acidity to keep the fruit bright, just enough tannin to remind you it’s no push-over, and enough alcohol (12.2%) to give it a satisfying mouthfeel.
This wine is good enough to make even a tough Texan smile.
It’s priced around $28 to $34 and for sale only in restaurants in Lubbock, and maybe a few others around the state. Hand applied labels.
If you are not fortunate enough to find one of the 300 bottles made, don’t fret. Newsom reports that the 2014 vintage Inception is looking really good. The blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah will be, “Friggin nice,” according to Newsom. The 2015 Inception red blend will be predominantly Tempranillo and Syrah with other red grape varieties. Ratios will change each year.
Both Newsom and Llano Estacado report that this is likely going to be a long term engagement with Llano making private label Inception for Newsom. That’s great news for Texas wine drinkers.