From Defender of Wily Politicians, Serial Killers and Drug Dealers to Texas Winemaker

On Friday afternoon, I snapped the above photo in the gorgeous Texas Hill Country where I was among the first guests at my friend Lewis Dickson’s new tasting room (on his La Cruz de Comal estate, where he grows Blanc du Bois and Black Spanish).

Here’s my profile of Lewis — criminal defense attorney turned Natural winemaker — over at the Houston Press today.

Natural wine and LSD

Yesterday, when Lewis Dickson poured me a glass of his recently bottled 2010 Du Petit Lait, a saignée of estate-grown Merlot and Black Spanish, I couldn’t help but be reminded what my friend downtown Michael told me the other day, as we sat in his office overlooking the San Diego Harbor and chatted about the vicissitudes of Natural wine.

“When you taste Natural wine,” he said, “it’s like you taste the fruit in technicolor.”

There was a pause. We looked at each and I think we both knew the thought that was going through the other’s mind.

“It’s like you’re high on LSD,” he said, beating me to the punch.

Here’s my tasting note for Lewis’s juicy, technicolor, and super delicious rosé:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she’s gone.

Lewis, who grows and makes Natural wine about an hour and a half’s drive south of where Tracie P and I live in Central Texas, had come to town to partake in Pink Fest 2011 (a rosé wine tasting at our fav local wine bar and my client Vino Vino) and he brought a bottle for us to taste with him. Lewis, the inimitable Bill Head , and I also really loved the Zoë rosé by Skouras (Greece), made from mostly Agiorgitiko with a smaller amount of Moschofilero.

Tasting Lewis’s rosé reminded me of those countless times that we’ve offered a glass of a Natural wine to someone who’s never tasted one before. It’s always followed by a wow, I’ve never tasted anything like that before, that’s DELICIOUS

As I headed back to my desk and the piles of work that awaited me on an otherwise gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Austin, I couldn’t help but ponder the notion that Natural wine may not be for everyone… Maybe it’s only for those of us who are ready to open their minds and walk through the the doors of perception

Buona domenica, yall!

Orange Macabeo and inky Sumoll from Spain and Alice Feiring bids Texas adieu

Above: My super good friend Joe Pat Clayton (right) was as geeked as me and Tracie P to taste natural Spanish wines last night with Alice Feiring (right).

Alice Feiring hit the Groover’s Paradise like a Texas tornado. The few days she spent her with us were filled with honkytonking, two-stepping, great parties and great friends and lovers of natural wine, and a superb fish dinner prepared by Chef Esteban Escobar paired with a flight of Spanish natural wines last night at Vino Vino (the best little wine bar in Texas).

The two wines that impressed me the most were the Laureano Serres 2009 Abeurador Macabeo (above, 100% Macabeo grown in clay soils, vinified with 2 days of skin contact, no added sulfite [note by importer José Pastor]) and the Els Jelipins 2004 Sumoll (Sumoll with a small amount of Garnacha, grown in clay and limestone soils, whole-cluster fermentation in open-topped barrels, no added sulfite).

The Macabeo was rich and unctuous, tannic and chewy in the mouth and unbelievably delicious.

The Jelipins 2004 Sumoll was mind-boggling good. Impenetrably inky and viscous on the palate, a stilnovo sonnet with alternating rhymes of earth and fruit.

Chef Esteban’s excellent cooking has been reaching new heights lately but last night he took it over the top (especially considering the Herculean effort necessary to create a wine dinner using only Kosher fish and vegetables).

Kim and SO Alfonso also came down from Dallas expressly for the event.

Above, from left: Alice, Lewis Dickson (Texas Hill Country natural winemaker), Tracie P, Jeff Courington (owner Vino Vino), and Russ Kane (author of Vintage Texas, the top Texas wine blog).

And so this morning we took Alice to the airport (she stayed with us, of course). It was a great visit and we were sad to see her go. She certainly made a profound impression on the Texans she met. And I’d like to think that they also impressed her with the Texas-sized welcome they gave her.

We’ll miss her but somehow I think she’ll back sooner than later. Once you’ve danced to the rhythms of Dale Watson at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, there’s no turning back…

Picking grapes with Tony Coturri in Texas

Above: The cowboy hat that Melvin Croaker gave me isn’t just for show. I can probably do more damage at computer keyboard than I can with pruning shears in the vineyards but this singing cowboy managed to fill a crate or two with Blanc du Bois in the Texas sun yesterday.

There are many mysteries in this big ol’ world and many of them leave me scratching my head. But one of the ones I find the hardest to fathom is why every single wine professional in central Texas doesn’t head down to Comal County to get a glimpse of natural winemaker Tony Coturri, who arrives promptly each year to harvest grapes and make wine with maverick winemaker Lewis Dickson of La Cruz de Comal winery. (For a recent and truly wonderful interview with Tony, please see this excellent post by my friend and blogging colleague and fellow Californian-Texan Amy Atwood. And for a profile of Lewis and his wines, please see this post I did for the 32 Days of Natural Wine.)

Above: No, that’s not Billy Gibbons, it’s Tony on “the Gator.”

It was a thrill for me and Tracie P to get to “rub shoulders” with Tony in the vineyards and the thought of getting to hang with him even got us out of bed on a Sunday morning at the crack of dawn (can you believe that?). Harvest of Lewis’s Blanc du Bois grapes began yesterday at daybreak in Comal County on the southern side of Canyon Lake (about an hour and half from our place in Austin).

cruz de comal

Above: Tony and Lewis destemming the Blanc du Bois harvest. From the quality and quantity of grapes, it appears that Cruz de Comal will have one of its best vintages of Blanc du Bois, which is used to make the winery’s Pétard Blanc, one of my favorites and white with remarkable aging potential.

In case you don’t already know Tony, he’s a leading Californian grape grower and winemaker and a pioneer of natural winemaking in the Golden State… AND he makes killer wines. I love what he said to Amy in the interview she did:

    The basic principles and procedures of my winemaking haven’t changed over the years. I have remained a believer in natural, and traditional and additive free winemaking. If anything, refining the natural process has been the change. As my understanding of the development of all aspects the vineyards through the use of organic and biodynamic practices deepens I realize that I’m not so much a “winemaker’ but a custodian of grapes. The wine is made in the vineyard. My job is to take care of it. The magic is in the vineyard not the winery.

O mamma, you’re speaking my language!

cruz de comal

Above: A little grape porn for ya’ll.

Tracie P and I are both a little sore from picking those grapes yesterday but we’re no worse for the wear. And what a good night sleep you get after a day of working in the vineyards in the sunshine and fresh air! Man, I can’t wait to taste that wine…

I’d rather trust a man who works with his hands,
He looks at you once, you know he understands,
Don’t need any shield,
When you’re out in the field.

—Peter Gabriel (can anyone name the tune? Thor, I’m counting on you!)

My 32 Days of Natural Wine post (and a note on the accompanying Latin motto on grape growing)

Why is there a photo of spiders on my blog today? You’ll have to visit my contribution to the 32 Days of Natural Wine, day 2 to find out. I wrote my post on Lewis Dickson, the only natural winemaker — to my knowledge — in Texas. Those spiders live above his cave.

In case you aren’t already hip to the 32 Days of Natural Wine, it’s one of the coolest happenings in the enoblogosphere (now in its second year) and it’s run by one of the nicest dudes in this wacky world of wine blogging, Cory Cartwright.

Cory is a friend and a greatly admired blogging colleague of mine and his writing is among the best on the internets when it comes to wine. I’ve drawn much inspiration and guidance from his blog, especially when it comes to Loire and Jura wines.

I was thrilled that he asked me to be part of the project again this year.

Please check out my post The Wild West of Natural Wine: the Texas Hill Country on winemaker Lewis Dickson and his incredible estate, Cruz de Comal.

A note on the Latin motto that opens the post

You’ll see that the post begins with a Latin motto:

    Uva uvam vivendo videndo varia fit.

    —Juvenal 2.81 (Hat Creek Cattle Company)

The strike-through is a reference to the novel by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove. In the novel, a 1985 Pulitzer-prize-winning narrative that Texans have embraced as the state’s “Gone with the Wind,” a work that “forever changed the image of Texas,” according to Texas Monthly magazine, one of the cattlemen adopts the motto as his own, even though he doesn’t know what it means. And he transcribes it erroneously (hence my strike-through).

Above: The sign used in the TV mini-series version of the novel now resides in a museum collection devoted to the book and its legacy. “It was his view that Latin was mostly for looks anyway, and he devoted himself to the mottoes in order to find one with the best look. The one he settled on was Uva uvam vivendo varia fit, which seemed to him a beautiful motto, whatever it meant. One day when nobody was around he went out and lettered it onto the bottom of the sign.” (Lonesome Dove, p. 91)

The motto itself means when one grape sees another grape [change], it changes [color]. The aphorism is akin to the contemporary saying one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch.

It comes to us via a commentator of Juvenal’s Satires (2.81).

In the second Satire, Juvenal warns Creticus about the decay of morals in Rome: “This plague has come upon us by infection, and it will spread still further, just as in the fields the scab of one sheep, or the mange of one pig, destroys an entire herd; just as one bunch of grapes takes on its sickly colour from the aspect of its neighbour.”

The author of a gloss on this passage (a commentary probably written around the 4th century B.C.E., a few hundred years after Juvenal died) points to the Latin motto uva uvam videndo varia fit as a source for the line in the satire.

Anyone who has observed the vegetative cycle of a vine knows that the grapes do not ripen all of sudden nor at the same pace. A few berries will begin to ripen and then, as if the other berries are watching their riper counterparts, the entire bunch will begin to ripen more rapidly. The same thing happens as the grapes begin to rot, hence the line in Juvenal.

I wanted to make a reference to Lonesome Dove in my post about Lewis not only because June marks the 25th anniversary of this landmark novel but because like the characters in the book, Lewis has embraced the frontier spirit: he has courageously raised the Natural Wine flag for the first time in the state.

I also liked the motto because I hope that Lewis’s “bad example” will lead and inspire other Texas winemakers to revisit (or visit for the first time) the notion of place in wine. It only takes one bad apple like Lewis to ruin the whole bunch!

Chapeau bas, Lewis!

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy my post over at the 32 Days of Natural Wine, day 2.

Natural wine in Texas and the woman man behind Charlie Wilson’s war

cruz de comal

Last week I spent an afternoon and evening with maverick grape-grower and owner of La Cruz de Comal winery Lewis Dickson, who, together with winemaker Tony Coturri, who oversees vineyard management and flies out to Texas Hill Country every summer to vinify the harvest (since 2001), may very well be the only natural winemaker in Texas.

I can’t talk about the wines (yet) because my post on our visit, our conversation, and our conference call with Tony will be part of the second edition of 31 32 Days of Natural Wine, which begins on June 19. I can’t reveal (yet) what Tony said to me about how he is able to make these wines with no addition of sulfur whatsoever.

But I can share the below photo of one of Lewis’s super-cool nineteenth-century hand-wound French rotisseries.


And in the spirit of “it’s almost lunchtime here in Texas,” I’ll share our tasty repast that night, leg of lamb that had been marinated for 3 days in wine must, roast potatoes, and freshly wilted spinach topped with mozzarella di bufala and cayenne pepper:

cruz de comal

Hungry yet?

In other news…

Yesterday, at cousin Alexis’s graduation party, I had the chance to sit down and chat with a Texas icon, Charlie Schnabel.

jeremy parzen

As per an age-old Hollywood convention, Charlie was played by a woman in the Mike Nichols movie Charlie Wilson’s War. Charlie was Wilson’s right-hand-man in Washington during the congressman’s covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During that time, he traveled more than a dozen times to the region. “Read the book,” he said joking about the fact that he’s played by a woman on screen, “it’s better than the movie.”

jeremy parzen

Charlie had stopped by to help celebrate Alexis’s graduation: Texas barbecue (chicken, ribs, and brisket), all the fixings (including sweet creamed corn), iced tea (sweetened and unsweetened), and — get this — homemade ice cream.

We talked about the dandelion wine he makes at home and his love of Lambrusco, and I asked he why he thought Texas has played such an important role in the iconography of the U.S. “Because of size of our state, it’s really five different states,” he said. “It’s really a country… with a wide range of climates and people, from the Spanish settlers to the Indian culture that was already here. We’ve never lost the independent spirit.”

He also told me what really caused the 1983 fire in the iconic Texas state capitol, where Charlie served as the secretary of the senate for more than 30 years. But I’ll have to share that with ya’ll a voce… ;-)

Check out this cool profile of Charlie, a Texas icon.