Dan McLaughlin and his son Blake came to Houston a couple of months ago with his wines in the back of his truck, nine bottles to a carton, still unlabeled. We met up in Houston’s Montrose district at Camerata Wine Bar next to Paulie’s Restaurant. The following day was their big test. They were taking their Robert Clay Vineyards (RCV) wines for a tasting with Chris Shepard’s wine guy, Matt Pridgen. This was a prerequisite for them to be put on his wine list at Chris’s new restaurant, Wild Oaks at the Houston Farmers Market on Airline Drive.
After our Montrose meet-up, Dan and Blake pulled up out front of my house (yes, with the wine still in the back) from which selected two wines to feature in this story that are manifestations of Dan’s winemaking philosophy: Robert Clay Vineyards 2018 Barbara Pétillant Naturel sparkling wine, and it’s 2015 Sangiovese, Mandola Vineyards.
I first met Dan McLaughlin, the man many of us now call ”Winegrower Dan”, in the dead of winter at a gathering in Mason County in 2014. As I recall, I was enamored with his silvering chin whiskers, which became my inspiration to grow them, too. Immediately thereafter, I was drawn into his intense almost dreamlike passion for resurrecting the grapevines in nearby Robert Clay Vineyards. The vineyard was originally planted in 1996 by Paul and Nancy Buist, naming it after their 2 sons, Robert and Clay. The Buist’s ran the vineyard for 16 years before Dan and his wife Jeanie McLaughlin arrived in early 2012.
Dan says, “The Buists were experiencing health issues, making it difficult for them to care for the vines.” With the Buist’s vineyard in disarray and decline, serendipitously, Dan McLaughlin, an IT developer living in the Austin area, was seriously thinking about making a major, mid-life career change. He was becoming less enamored with being behind a keyboard and more interested in the idea of spending his time in his boots in the vineyard or on a tractor. The bottom line was Dan wanted to grow something, and now Dan, Jeanie and their son Blake are all working together as a family to make this a reality.
After consulting with several growers and friends established in the Texas wine community, Dan learned his first lesson in tough vineyard love. Their recommendation was that the only way he could restore the vineyard was to start fresh by cutting back every single vine in the vineyard. The root systems of the vines were well-established and they would provide the strength for the vines to come back better than ever under the care of a very patient, detail-oriented, and mission-driven man like Dan.
Fast forward nearly a decade later following Dan’s entry into Texas winegrowing to my recent tasting with him at Camerata…
His Robert Clay Vineyards 2018 Barbara Pétillant Naturel sparkling wine showed its lively effervescence overlaid on its red-pink color. This wine was aged in bottle for 31 months, but disgorged and re-bottled only the day before as evidenced by the gritty pale-pink film of yeast sediment still on the outside of the bottle. Dan asked me if I wanted it cleaned before putting his label on it. But, I responded quickly by telling him to just slap on the label. It isn’t every day that I get a bottle of wine with the terroir on both inside and outside of it. Dan later admitted that this wine went through a difficult period after it’s initial bottling, but it finally “turned the corner” evolving into a wonderful wine experience in my glass. This PetNat exemplifies Dan’s patient and sometimes unconventional approach to winemaking. The wine was not filtered or fined. It was the product of a spontaneous ferment with native yeast and finished with extended bottle aging before disgorgement. Many other winemakers may not be that brave considering the challenges and risks that Dan imposed on this wine. All I can say is that it was worth it!
Likewise, Dan’s Robert Clay Vineyards 2015 Sangiovese also presented an interesting background story. It is so far the only wine Dan has made that originated from grapes not taken from RCV’s estate vineyard. The grapes were obtained in a swap with William Chris Vineyards’ Chris Brundrett, Chris’s Sangiovese for Dan’s RCV Touriga Nacional. Dan said, “Never having worked with Texas Sangiovese before, I was a little concerned when after crush, it was very light in color. But, I realized that I still had the skins from a pressing of our color-rich estate Ruby Cabernet. After including them in the ferment, the wine came out with this rich deep purple color.” Again, Dan’s patience ruled as he barrel-aged the Sangiovese for between 36 and 65 months. With the uncommon combination of the Ruby Cab skins to deepen the wine’s color and long-term oak aging to add to its tannic structure, this unfiltered wine was perhaps the best Texas Sangiovese that I’ve tasted, bar none.
As Dan himself relates, “Since taking over Robert Clay Vineyards, it has been an exciting and almost overwhelming journey of learning and discovery. Our RCV wine-growing philosophy is all about quality. I’ve chosen to experiment and sometimes go with the unconventional, but always with this goal in mind.”
Dan devotes patient attention to his vineyard management aiming to be an organic farmer if and when the conditions are right. This combined with his gentle, minimal-intervention winemaking has created special wines with an authenticity that offers a sensual expression given by his Mason County terroir.
If you want to try some of Winemaker Dan’s Robert Clay Vineyards wines, you have a couple of options. Stop by Wild Oaks at the Houston Farmers Market, where Matt Pridgen has the RCV Touriga Nacional on this wine list, and may have another one in the near future. Or, you can make a weekend trip to Fredericksburg, Texas, out of it. After an overnight stay in the center of the Texas Hill Country wine region, drive another 45 minutes northwest to Mason where you can schedule a tasting of RCV wines. Click here for more information.