Newsom Vineyards Grape Day (and The Light at the End of the Vineyard)
Not too long ago, I received a call from long-time winegrower Neal Newsom asking if I was going to make it to his Newsom Grape Day event in Plains, Texas, located southwest of Lubbock and about 14 miles east of the Texas – New Mexico border. Neal’s event is held annually in his a big white double-high “Barnery” that holds his tractor, harvester (that I call “Big Blue”) and equipment. I’ve been missing from this event a few years, which likely prompted Neal’s call.
Over the years that I’ve been attending Neal’s Grape Day, the meeting has become the gathering point for the high plains winegrowers and winery types from all over the state. It is a free educational event for anyone interested in grape growing or wine production especially if it involves Texas high plains grapes in any way, shape or form.
I arrived last Thursday afternoon flying from Houston to Midland and driving up to Plains. It was the first time I’d gone that route that felt like it was the less used “backdoor” to Texas’s high plains wine country. My arrival was just in time to take a drive through the vineyard with Neal. I was amazed how the shoots on the grapevines were extending out nearly a foot. Cluster upon cluster were in pre-bloom stage looking like they were ready at any moment to pop their cap and burst into action.
After a stop at the Newsom “Rock’n N” Bed & Breakfast, we carpooled over the Meadow (Texas) for a wine and BBQ reception at the new (and not yet completed) Texas Wine Works, a custom crush and winemaking facility started by grape grower Andy Timmons and investors. Striking to me was the large assemblage of winemakers and wine professionals, many old faces and even more new faces just entering the industry.
The Friday morning of the event, I entered Neal’s Barnery to see an incredible “sea” of long white tables, more than I recalled from previous meetings, and a long line of people signing-in. Answering my question, Neal thought that the crowd was going to be a record breaker. However, he said, “I won’t know for sure until lunch.” Evidently, they track the “official Grape Day attendance” by how many lunches are served. In these parts, nobody in attendance would dare pass up the opportunity to chow-down on a good BBQ lunch.
The program was a fact-filled day with presentations by Pierre Helwi and Ed Hellman from Texas AgriLife Extension, and Fritz Westover from Westover Vineyard Advising. They focused on the science, art and mysteries of vineyard irrigation. Texas’s own devotee of fermentation science Bob Young, owner Bending Branch Winery, presented his experiences with his new Flash Détente* set-up at Bending Branch. It was followed by a very enlightening “taste it and see” session [more on this in my following blog]. The Hoss Newsom Scholarship Awardees were also presented. Interspersed were networking periods where growers and winemakers from around the state were tasting wines made from high plains grapes while they were making connections (to buy or sell Texas grapes) and pondering the what the 2017 vintage may.
- Flash Détente – The process consists of heating grapes to a high temperature (175-185 F), the immediately pumping the fruit into a vacuum chamber. Once in the vacuum chamber, some of the water associated with the must, evaporates or “flashes” immediately into steam. This depressurization causes the vacuoles in the grapes skins to explode, releasing the tannins and color they contain.
The “800-pound gorilla” in the room at Neal’s Barnery was the following day’s weather. Forecasts were for near freezing temperatures Saturday night into Sunday morning. The concern was for frost losses in the area’s vineyards that are reported to hold up to 85% of our state’s grape production. The extent of vine growth I saw the previous day was due to the unusually warm temperature in the past couple months with even periods in the 80s. Surely, sub-freezing temperature at this point would lead to catastrophic losses for the grape growers that produce most of the Texas crop.
The good news was that temperatures around Plains, Brownfield, Meadow and Lubbock lingered above freezing, if only by a degree or two. A wind of more than 10 mph Saturday night provided a relief from radiative cooling that might have produced locally sub-freezing temperatures in lower spots. Best of all, a look at the ten-day forecast showed no periods of near-freezing temperature. Let’s pray that the weatherman if right, and we can move on into summer of good ripening. Let’s hope that Texas high plains winegrowers will find the light at the end of the vineyard in 2017 vintage.
— — — — —
Recalling back to my first trip to Newsom Vineyards, Neal picked me up in Lubbock. I remember asking him if he could take me to a place “in the middle of nowhere” so I could look up in the sky and see what the stars really looked like. Well, I later realized that he didn’t have to go any further than Plains where people take pride in the “middle of nowhere” moniker. In fact, Neal recalled this story while I was up there this visit, and said, “Plains is so much in the middle of nowhere that no matter which way you go you are going somewhere.” Nuff Said!