Before there were hashtags, the brave souls who left the civilized world for the unknown wilds of Texas would carve the letters GTT on a sign, leaving it tacked to a door or fence post so that others would know they had “Gone to Texas”. The state’s wine industry is the latest to draw these tenacious spirits who will now have a place to call home with the opening of the Slate Mill Wine Collective in Fredericksburg offering budding winemakers the opportunity to step up their game.

From Crude to (di)Vine

Barrel room at Slate Mill Wine Collective, Fredericksburg, TX
Barrel room at Slate Mill Wine Collective, Fredericksburg, TX holds up to 1600 barrels. (Photo credit: Umami.Life)

The tremendous success and growth of the state’s wine industry is attracting those with the same entrepreneurial spirit that brought settlers to the Hill Country 170 years ago. This time the grit and determination comes from Randy and Carroll Jones and their seven offspring who have pivoted from their success in West Texas black gold to future hopes of purple gold. Building off the pioneering spirit that built a mill on the property near Fredericksburg in 1851, the family has purchased the esteemed 1851 Vineyards and have created Slate Mill Wine Collective as a full-service winery incubator. They’re teaming up with an all-star lineup of winemakers and professionals. “We have big plans and we’re just getting started,” said Chase Jones, Director of Vineyard Operations.

The evolution from boutique winery to winery incubator brought together a team of talented winemakers and industry professionals, expanded the facility’s crushpad, tank room and a barrel room to one that can store 1600 barrels, along with an upgrade to the tasting room to keep up with the offerings. Vineyard plantings are being expanded on site and in two more sites nearby to cover upwards of 150 acres — making Slate Mill among the top three growers in the HIll Country AVA. The historic homestead, barn and smokehouse are all being restored to their original 1800s conditions.

Umami.Life invited to the grand opening of Slate Mill for a tasting, tour and Q&A. With recent vintages in Texas more than meeting the needs of the state’s wineries, there is now a great opportunity for budding winemaker entrepreneurs to explore their dream of creating a label — taking baby steps without all the extreme overhead and long vineyard wait time to produce a first vintage. Many famous winemakers have started out this way building momentum along the way to rockstar status.

A Team of Ringers

The impressive team includes experienced innovative winemakers Tim Drake, Director of Winemaking, and Josh Fritsche. The first time we tasted through barrel samples with Drake was four years ago in his role as winemaker at Flat Creek Estate outside of Marble Falls. He pulled a sample of a reserve Montepulciano that showed beautiful component integration from the first sip and continued to impress us long after the glass was empty. “I view a bottle of wine as a single size serving. I want you to discover something new from the first sip to the last,” said Drake.

Drake enters his 20th year of winemaking with the opening of Slate Mill. He first fell in love with the art of winemaking at Washington state’s Chateau St. Michelle. He spent time with several of the area’s premier wineries before moving to Texas in 2010. He saw the opportunity to help the state’s wineries increase the quality of wines being produced and started Texas Wine Lab. In 2011, he took over as the winemaker and vineyard manager at Flat Creek and guided the wine program there for the next eight years while continuing his consulting efforts throughout the state. Speaking about the challenges of winemaking in Texas, Drake said, “I can take a copy of the ‘Compendium of Grape Diseases, Disorders, and Pests’, drop it on the floor and wherever it falls open, find something on that page somewhere in the state.”

Slate Mill Wine Collective team
Slate Mill Wine Collective team (from left to right): Emily Graff, Chase Jones, Time Drake, Josh Fritsche. (Photo credit: Umami.Life)

Winemaker Fritsche joins the team fresh from the ranks of one of the state’s most widely recognized wineries, William Chris Wines in Hye. In 2011, he made a departure from the restaurant industry and began working his way from cellar rat to assistant winemaker to winemaker with the opportunity to explore a wide range of techniques and technologies alongside WC’s Chris Brundrett. Fritsche brings his Tatum Rose label with him to this new operation.

Also on the team are Jennifer Beckmann, Director of Operations, and Emily Graff, Viticulturist. Beckmann’s inspiration for a move to Texas in 2009 from a career as sommelier in the Chicago fine dining scene came with a visit to Perissos Vineyard & Winery outside of Burnet near Inks Lake. Beckmann helps tasting room guests discover wines made from all areas of the state. “We’re excited to work with small brands that keep our menu fresh,” she said. She’s also heading up the opening of Rerooted 210, a wine bar soon to open in San Antonio’s revitalized Hemisfair Park. They’ll be featuring many wines from across the state.

Graff supervises the entire grape growing process in not only the Slate Mill estate’s 30 acre vineyard, but also the planting and management of an additional 150 acres of new vineyards in the Texas Hill Country AVA. She earned a Master of Science in viticulture from Texas Tech University and worked with the previous estate’s owners as vineyard manager.

Not Souvenir Wines

We tasted four stellar wines with limited quantities. These are not souvenir wines and all shined bright enough to have easily won silver or gold at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo Wine Competition, had we been judging them blind during the annual event.

1851 Vineyards: 2018 Viognier  $26 BTL
Variety: 100% Viognier
Appellation: Texas High Plains
Production: 400 cases
Description: Lemon and lime with minerality, crisp acidity with fragrant notes of jasmine, baked pear and almond skin.
Dale says: Very nice New World example of an Old World Rhone-style white, polished flavor integration.

Tatum Cellars: 2018 Roussanne $32 BTL
Variety: 97% Roussanne, 3% Vermentino
Appellation: Texas High Plains, La Prader Vineyards
Winemaker: Josh Fritsche
Production: 70 cases
Description: Tropical fruit, creme fraiche, vanilla bean and buttery rich mouthfeel and beautiful integration. Barrel fermented in neutral French oak.
Dale says: A shining star! This one truly knocked my socks off with a beautiful integration of flavors, acidity and creme brulee notes.

Wine for the People: 2018 Dandy Rose $20 BTL
Variety: 65% Mourvedre, 20% Counoise, 10% Picpoul, 5% Grenache
Appellation: Texas
Winemaker: Rae Wilson
Production 700 cases
Description: Red berry fruit with light savory herbal notes.
Dale says: We’ve been very impressed with Rae Wilson’s winemaking efforts as she improves her skills with each vintage. Look for her star to rise quickly as she works with the experienced team at Slate Mill Wine Collective.

C.L. Butaud: 2017 Tempranillo $48 BTL
Variety: 100% Tempranillo
Appellation: Texas High Plains
Winemaker: Randy Hester
Production 148 cases
Description: Notes of plum, dried fig, tobacco, and blackberry are married with rich cocoa tannins and a long lasting finish.
Dale says: Winemaker Randy Hester’s wines reflect his bold, robust and embracing personality. If you like cabernet sauvignon, this wine’s style will work for you.

~ by Dale Blankenship and Catherine Sansing