A Sunny Sunday Afternoon at Bending Branch Vineyards
I’d met winery owner and winemaker, Bob Young, before. It was at the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association meeting this past February. He was seated next to me on a bus as it navigated its way to our dinner destination at Crosstimbers Winery in Grapevine, Texas.
Bob peeked my interest when he mentioned that he and his wife had moved from Atlanta to San Antonio so that he could fulfill a lifetime dream. He said that they started a vineyard and were going to open a winery near Comfort, Texas. As he explained its location I realized that it was only a stone’s throw (on a Texas scale) from my cottage in the Texas hill country. When he mentioned the grape varieties he’s working with in his winery, my interest was elevated further to the point of salivation.
Later, in June, I was a judge in the Lone Star Wine Competition. This vineyard and winery operation hit my radar screen again when I found out that Bob garnered an array of gold and silver melds for wines made from what some might still consider unusual grape varieties for Texas, including Petite Sirah, Picpoul Blanc, and Tannat.
After an extended period of summertime travel around the state for my book project, I finally couldn’t wait any longer to see Bob’s vineyard and taste his wines. So, I made an appointment to stop by and visit the Bending Branch Winery tasting room.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, when I arrived at the boutique vineyard and winery scenically situated on fifty-six acres of the Texas hill country, only a short drive outside Comfort, Texas. As I entered the winery and sat down at the tasting room bar, it was obvious that Bob and his family are very passionate about their endeavor.
On six and a half acres of land at an altitude of 1,600 feet, they started with 5,500 vines of twelve different grape varietals that they’ve carefully selected to properly suit their “Texas terroir”. The grape varieties not only included Petite Sirah, Picpoul Blanc, and Tannat, but also other reds such as Tempranillo, Malbec, Mourvedre, Grenache Noir, and Aglianico, with Vermentino, and Roussanne as their whites. The coming year they plan to add Sagrantino and Alicante Bouschet.
Bob is especially interested in what has become his wineries signature red grape, Tannat. He’s made it into a thick, near-black wine that’s bold in flavor and hardy by its Pyrenees-to-Texas lineage. During my visit, Bob summed it up best when he said, “Tannat’s just a natural for the Lone Star State. It just seems to want to grow here. We think that this will be a superstar used in both for single varietal wines and also in blends with other red grapes.”
He later showed me his hill-top vineyard. He pointed out the vigor that his Tannat and Vermentino vines were showing. The Tannat vines had a canopy of leaves, dark green and thick. The Vermentino was putting out tendrils like a weed.
The Bending Branch estate vineyard, what the Young’s refer to as the “Horseshoe Vineyard”, has been in grape cultivation for only two years and is just about to enter commercial production. The vineyard’s name came from the horseshoes they’ve found in the field when preparing it for the vineyard.
While Bob’s been awaiting his vineyard’s first commercial harvest, he’s been getting experience making wine using similar grape varieties grown from other Texas vineyards and those in Temecula and Lodi, California, that have similar growing conditions as found in Texas. He’s purchased Mourvedre from high plains grower Neal Newsom and Tannat from Vijay Reddy. Bob summed up his views about these grapes by calling them “simply fantastic stuff”.
I tasted a flight a Bending Branch wines that included wines made from both Texas and California grapes. All wines were well made, structurally sound and offered a pleasing wine tasting experience. Consequently, I wasn’t surprised when Bob offered that he’d successfully completed an extension program of study in winemaking from University of California at Davis, that offers one of the leading enology degree programs. He is serious about making outstanding wines and passionate about doing it with Texas fruit.
Another reason for the early success of this operation is John Rivenburgh, a native of San Antonio and Bob’s son-in-law. He seems to be a natural in the vineyard and have a host of other skills that perfectly interface with the vineyard and winery operations. John is currently enrolled in Texas Tech’s professional Viticulture management program.
The Vermentino had a notably light and citrusy character, while the Picpoul Blanc had a crisp, acidic quality true to it’s name, a French idiom that translates to “lip stinger”. I also tasted the Roussanne that had a wonderful silky soft feel, that managed to deliver a crisp and aromatic experience, as well. While these wines are made mostly from California grapes, Bob is gaining valuable experience that he soon hopes to utilize on his own estate-grown grapes and those that interest him from other vineyard in Texas.
The Young’s do their fermentation and aging in a separate winery building up on a hill near the vineyard. They also bottle their wines on the estate. Bob mentioned that it was a semi-automatic process that took five people to operate, that sounded more “semi” than “automatic” to me. However, it means that he’s serious about taking on the whole business of growing, making and selling quality wines.
I also had a side-by-side tasting of two red wines from Bending Branch that were both based on Tannat; one from California grapes and the other from Vijay Reddy’s Texas high plains vineyard. Both were dark, rich and full-bodied, a set of characteristics that people in the wine business commonly call “teeth stainers”. It’s been a descriptor used on California Red Zinfandels, but now it may be aptly applied to describe Texas-made Tannat. The wine made from young-vine Reddy Vineyard fruit was dark but with soft tannins. It was characteristic of the new world styled Tannat that I’d previously tasted in South America. By comparison, the Tannat made from older-vine grapes from California, was more like the French old world Madiran that I’d experienced at a tasting at French Country Wines in Houston.
Bob and the Young family have spent a lot of time planning this venture. They placed their vineyard at a high spot on the property that will help it fend off freezes during episodes of cold weather. They also tried to stay as far away as possible from riparian areas around rivers and creeks for fear of Pierce’s Disease (also referred to as PD). Bob realizes that they will still have to keep a close eye on their estate vineyard as there is the persistent danger of PD in the Texas hill country. While they have chosen to grow their grapes as organically as possible, they have chosen to apply Admire, which was developed to kill the glassy-winged sharpshooters, the insect in these parts that spreadPD. There was just too much of what Bob called “risk of losing it all to PD” for the meager goal of organic farming.
Bob mentioned that he was glad that I stopped by on the Sunday rather than the day before. He said, “It was one f those crazy busy here yesterday that are becoming more common than not. The tasting room, our patio and the sitting area by the oak tree were all full. People really seem to like our wines, which I think is awesome.”
After my tasting, the high level of activity was no surprise to me as Bending Branch Winery is making first-class wines. They are also involved in the local wine trail, and getting recognition through wine competition awards and articles in the San Antonio paper. This is good formula for success.
Stop by Bending Branch Winery for a taste of what could well be the future of the Texas wine industry.
Bending Branch Winery
142 Lindner Branch Trail, Comfort, TX 78013
Phone: (830) 995-2948
Web site: www.bendingbranchwinery.com
Russ…..I am delighted that you had an opportunity to visit Bending Branch Estates to sample Dr. Bob Young and John Rivenburgh’s wonderful array of world-class wines. My wife Kelly and I were honored to have had the unique opportunity to barrel taste the “fruits of their labors” in early-August just before the Grand Opening. It was that experience that I strongly sensed that there is yet one more “notch in the barrel” toward truly defining the unique qualities that Texas Wines can offer. Keep it up, Dr. Bob and John!