Fall Creek Vineyards
Recently, I was on line with a Facebook friend of this wine blog who is an American in the wine business in Paris. We were discussing the lovely experience Donna and I had just the day before at Fall Creek Vineyards. His thoughtful response fit this story so well. “Behind every wine bottle is a story. Behind every story is a person whose hard work and passion made your enjoyment of that wine possible.” Our day at Fall Creek Vineyards was filled with enjoyment, wine, food and friendship; all the result of the passion Ed and Susan Auler have put into Fall Creek wines for the last 35 years.
Think about that. Thirty five years ago was 1975. A year before the Judgment of Paris (popularized by the great movie Bottle Shock) put Napa Valley wine and California on the world wine stage. More people visited Napa in 1975 for the hot springs than the wine. It was a big risk the Aulers took to buy 400 acres near Tow, Texas on the shores of Lake Buchanan to build a vineyard and winery. On a side note, like many towns in rural Texas, Tow is not pronounced as you might expect. Tow rhymes with cow not row.
Ed Auler and his young wife, Susan traveled to France in 1973. They noticed that the terrain and soil looked very much like the ranch land his family had owned for generations in the Texas Hill Country near Marble Falls; about 90 miles west of Austin. Ed and Susan came home very enthusiastic about wine and vine possibilities and soon purchased the 400 acres that is the site of Fall Creek Vineyards near the Auler family ranch. Ed and Susan knew their gamble in Texas wines was about to pay off in 1985 when the “Dean of American Winemakers” André Tchelistcheff tasted Ed’s Cabernet and Merlot. The story is that the diminutive Russian tasted the barreled wines then looked at Ed with cigarette in mouth, pointed to the vineyard and emphatically stated, “Plant More!” Ed enlisted Tchelistcheff many more times before André’s death in 1994. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised to hear that one of my idols, Tchelistcheff, put his imprint on Texas wine.
After a beautiful hour and a half drive through the Hill Country from Austin we entered a gated entrance and drove under a green canopy created by enormous cypress trees planted in the early days of the winery. Our day was arranged by Steve Buntrock who I’d describe as Fall Creek’s Renaissance Man – Jack of Many Trades. Steve met us in the beautifully appointed tasting room that in addition to Fall Creek wines offers a very nice selection of wine related goodies. When there, do not overlook the bookcase in the back corner filled with arrowheads and other stone artifacts dug up on the property. Some are possibly 10,000 years old. I guess we can assume the Aulers weren’t the first people to see the potential of this vineyard property.
Steve showed us around the winery operation. Harvest and crush were just beginning so much of the equipment was out on the crush pad ready for the next load of grapes. Fall Creek also acts as a custom crush facility for a few other area wine makers. Antique stable doors from Louis Pasteur’s Paris laboratory secure the barrel room, which can be reserved for private parties. There is a plaque on the door with Pasteur’s famed quote, “Wine can be considered with good reason as the most healthful and most hygienic of all beverages.” Outside these famous doors, Ed Auler met us and very soon Susan joined us. We had briefly become acquainted with the Aulers 20 years ago. By then they were already the rock stars of Texas wines and we were just kids who drank a lot of wine. It was fun to renew the acquaintance and share stories of mutual friends. We all moved into the guest quarters portion of the 20,000 square foot winery. Here we found a living area and dining room, beautifully appointed with early Texas, English and French antiques. Famous paintings and 19th century family heirloom tapestries cover the walls.
Its days like this when we are immersed in the beauty of the Hill Country and true Texas hospitality that we kick ourselves for ever leaving. We started our wine tasting with the Fall Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($10). Susan said “You may not like this style. It is very crisp. I like grapefruit for breakfast but not in my wine.” Donna and I could not agree more. This lovely wine took us back to Sauvignon Blancs from years ago before the grapefruit – green apple style became so popular. Crisp flavors of melon, citrus and honeysuckle prevail. We have had this wine twice since and really enjoy it, plus it is an excellent value. Also we were told it is a favorite of the Aulers’ daughters-in-law. And Susan, thanks for this quote…we will use it often.
Next, we moved onto the Chardonnay ($12), leading us into an interesting discussion about wine making style. This chard was very crisp with good tropical and citrus notes. Ed said it was a bit more austere than he liked to drink. He went on to say, that because of inconsistent Texas weather the grape crop varies from year to year (these grapes came from a very hot dry year). In his opinion, you must make the best wines with what the grape has to offer rather than trying to force a style that the grapes just can’t create. Twice in 35 years, Ed said, he was able to create big oaky-buttery chardonnays that were award winners. The grapes this year look like he may be able to do it again but regardless, Ed will make the best wine he can from what the grapes are willing to give. While this seems like a simple idea, some winemakers do try to force the same style every year with inconsistent results.
Before we were seated for lunch we moved into reds. The first was a personal favorite, Tempranillo with grapes grown by my friend Jay Knepp at Salt Lick Vineyards. The vineyards surround the famous Salt Lick Bar-B-Que in Driftwood Texas. OK, call me biased but this Temp did win our blind tasting which you can read about in Showdown at Salt Lick – A Tempranillo Tasting. I won’t go on here about how I believe this is THE GRAPE for Texas, but it is. The Fall Creek Tempranillo ($30) is one of the best coming from the Lone Star State and there are quite a few. This wine needs to be aerated and decanted for 15-20 minutes before it opens to its full potential. When it does, you’ll get some dark cherry and other dark fruits along with a hint of leather and tobacco. Check carefully for a satisfying hint of rose in the nose.
We then moved into the dining room where Susan served a delicious grilled chicken salad, perfect on a hot Texas afternoon. There we were served both the Granite Reserve Cabernet ($10) and the multi-award winning Meritus blend ($35). The Cab (85% Cab – 15% Merlot) is lighter than many so it does not over power lighter food. It still has nice berry fruit with soft tannins and did not have that sage mustiness I have been critical of in Texas Cabs. At $10 it is a great everyday drinking wine.
Meritus is Ed and Susan’s pride and joy. Ed is a firm believer in Bordeaux style grapes in Texas and apparently so was Tchelistcheff. Meritus is a blend of mainly Bordeaux grapes that has varied dramatically from year to year depending on as Ed says “what the grapes give him.” Some years it has been merlot dominant, other years cabernet is dominant with various parts, Syrah, Malbec and Petite Verdot. The current 2006 release is 74% Cab, 25% Merlot and 1% Syrah. This is a big yet graceful wine with nearly 16% alcohol. It is a beauty with most of the characteristics (dark cherry, dark berry, blackberry and spice) you’d expect from a Bordeaux blend. However, grapes grown in Texas terrior do have their own style, slightly different from California. Meritus is only produced in years when Ed and Susan feel the grapes are capable of producing great wine. Meritus was not produced in 2007 because of a poor weather year.
As our day was ending, we walked outside to take a few pictures. In the courtyard, was a group of about 20 tourists from Asia enjoying Fall Creek wines after their tour. I turned to Ed and Susan and said, “When you started this all 35 years ago would you have ever dreamed you would have guests enjoying your wine from the other side of the world?” Ed and Susan just smiled and said, “No, never.”
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