I’d driven four cold, wintery hours in 2009. I crossed the near-barren desert from El Paso to the remote winery location about twenty minutes east of Fort Stockton. When I arrived, on the south side of I-10, what I found was a large square corporate building looking a bit worse for wear. Around back was the largest contiguous patch planted in grapevines in Texas that I’d ever seen; once a thousand acres of grapevines and then still at about 600 acres.
This was my introduction to the Ste. Genevieve winery and its adjoining vineyards. They were originally set up in 1983 by an American-French partnership that involved the University of Texas Lands group that’s responsible for managing the Permanent University Fund and their investments.
Ste. Gen, as many have called it for short, was as big inside as the vineyard was outside. It had a remarkable seventy thousand square feet of floor space much of it tiled with the working floor’s insets coming all the way from France. It had huge jacketed stainless steel and glass-lined tanks, with a rumored capacity to store a million gallons of wine. Ste. Gen had all this at a time before it even have a brand in the Texas marketplace and in a state that wasn’t even recognized as a wine-producing region.
These were my reflections as I plunged the needle of my Coravin through the cork in the bottle whose label read:
The University of Texas System Experimental Winery
1995 Pecos County, Cabernet Sauvignon
Bottled by The University of Texas System Experimental Winery
This bottle was gifted to me by Jim Evans. When? Neither of us could actually remember, but likely at a growers meeting we both attended.
Jim Evans is likely a name you recognize from his exploits and accolades as winemaker at Lost Oak Winery in Burleson, Texas. However, you may not know that Evans’s experience with grape growing and winemaking goes way back into the deep depths of Texas wine history, converging with the Ste. Gen project and its experimental vineyards in Culbertson and Pecos Counties. These vineyards help sort out how and where the Ste. Gen vineyards needed to be planted and continued to produce wine grapes, vine cuttings and finished wine up until the mid-1990s. According to Evans, the wine that I was ready to transfer into my glass today came from grapes grown at the Bakersfield experimental vineyard site in Pecos County, about five miles east of Ste. Gen, but on the northside of I-10.
Evans said, “I believe that the vineyard near Van Horn, Texas, in Culbertson County, was planted in 1975, with the Bakersfield vineyard in Pecos County planted in 1976. There was actually a third one, just south of Fort Stockton near the Ste. Genevieve vineyard. The experimental vineyards were all going at once, while they were active. 1987 was the first year they made wine at the experimental winery in Midland next to where I lived in Odessa. I started working for the project in 1981, working summers while in college, then working full time after graduating Texas A&M in 1985. At that time, we worked with Dr. Charles McKinney who was in charge of the UT grapes-to-wine research program.”
With that introduction, Evans started to recount the story of this wine that he admitted in advance was a going be a bit long and involved, but interesting, nevertheless.
Evans said, “In the Bakersfield experimental vineyard, we had one-acre blocks of grapevines that included, to name a few, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and such. We were growing by the ‘old-look’ California method, ya know. It was 8 feet between vines and 12 feet between rows. We tried to do an acre of Cabernet using a cane pruning system and it was really vigorous. I remember walking down the center of the rows – a cabernet plant to the right 6-feet away and one 6-feet to my left – and I was walking on the shoots that were hanging down on the vineyard floor.”
The way he described it, the grapes were hanging under this out-of-control canopy getting just about no sunlight. During harvest, the grape could not fully ripen. Evans says, “They were orange in color with a pH in excess of four. After fermentation and the aroma of the wine was kind of like canned tuna fish not exactly what you would be looking for in a wine.”
Evans continued, “In about 1991, just to the north, we decided to start a foundation plant material vineyard of about seven or eight acres of grapes so that we could sell cuttings. Since we were growing the vines for wood and not grapes, we put the trellis wire up to 72 inches high rather than the 42 inches that we normally used. The vines were trained on cordons that were closely spaced at about four feet apart. The buds were trained to produce a curtain of cane that hung straight down so that we could take our cuttings. We actually had a good business selling these cuttings.”
Evans claims he had 90% of the available clones of Cabernet Sauvignon growing in this experimental vineyard along with clones of several other grape varieties. This is where, as he related, “things got interesting.”
Evans said, “ Because grape vines being grape vines, they started to put on clusters of grapes at the very top of the 72-inch trellis wire with the shoots hanging below them. The grapes were completely exposed to the sun. They spent their whole life cycle in the sun, but surprisingly didn’t get sun burnt. In 1995, I told Charles McKinney, ‘There is enough fruit up there, why don’t we make some wine.’ What makes the wine that I gave you so special is that it was the only year that we did this. We made wines from each of the Cabernet clones to make 15 gallons of wine from each and documented everything. After that, we had enough wine left over to blend together to make this wine. There was enough to fill two barrels.”
Evans gladly admits today that, at harvest, those grapes were beautiful. They were “like something that might come from Bordeaux. I guess because of all the sun, the anthocyanins came on strong giving the wine great intensity of color. The pHs were picture perfect, in the 3.5 to 3.6 range.”
Fast forward 25 years later to today near the end of 2020, the question was… How would the wine hold up after so long in the bottle? Frankly, I didn’t expect much. Man alive was I ever wrong.
As the wine started to be pushed out of the bottle through my Coravin with argon gas, it was immediately obvious that this wine WAS special. The color was deep garnet red with only a hint of brick red on the rim. It had high opacity. In the glass, it was like something you might find in well-aged Bordeaux, Amarone or Barolo, evidencing its longstanding age of two and a half decades since its sundrenched vintage.
The UT Experimental Winery’s 1995 Cabernet was mature but not overly so, as I expected it might be. The wine yielded a primary aroma of macerated blackberries, with secondary aromas of leather and cedar. The aromas were followed by crisp acidity on the palate with essences of black cherry, plum, pipe tobacco and finally limestone minerals on the finish. I was reminded that one of the unsung heroes of wine agability that I learned many years ago is acidity. I feel that the low pHs referenced by Evans at the time the grapes came into the winery certainly gave this wine a fighting chance on its long and time-consuming path it took getting into my glass today.
This tasting also says something to me about the agability of Texas wines – a subject that its often debated mostly by people that have no experience with the subject. While not every Texas wine is tooled up for 25 years of aging; however, given the right growing conditions, a watchful eye in the vineyard, and a mindful hand in the winery, great age-worthy Texas wines are within reach… without a doubt. Based on my previous retrospective tastings (for examples: click here and click here), the success of this wine was not a one-off occurrence. It did, however, surpass my other pleasant experiences by a good eight to ten years.
Jim Evans, many thanks for sharing this “taste of time” with me. May you have a few more bottles like this that you’ve hidden away in the back of your cellar (or closet) just about forgotten, but hopefully not quite. You, your early Texas wine colleagues, and your collective exploits need to be remembered, acknowledged and savored. In what better way could this be done than with a glass of old and well-aged Texas wine in hand.