By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Russell Kane is as dedicated to the success of the Texas wine industry as any winemaker or winery owner in the state. And it’s a safe bet that he knows as much, or more, about every Texas wine and winemaker than anybody else does. Although he has a PhD in engineering and spent over 30 years as a researcher and technical writer producing some 250 technical publications (two of which won awards for writing excellence), Russ says the transition to what he’s doing now was a smooth one.
As a researcher and technical writer, he was always a communicator between business and the consumer—translating the language of business into words consumers could relate to and understand. Now that he writes about Texas wine, only the subject matter is different. He communicates between the winemakers and the wine drinkers.
Russ is no newcomer to a love of wine. His father, who co-owned a family restaurant, taught him to cook at a very young age. By the time he was in college, Russ had learned to enjoy wine through its natural pairing with the foods he cooked. Of course, the wines he enjoyed during his college days were those that most college students could afford, but after graduating, Russ traveled extensively through Europe and began to explore the wines of each country he visited. Soon after, his business travels took him to Argentina, Australia, Canada and California, and again he learned about the wines in each region. He began to amass a wealth of knowledge about the wines of the world.
Eventually settling in Houston, Russ founded a consulting company. He joined the Wine Society of Texas, and in a moment that his wife Delia describes as a fine line between hobby and temporary insanity, founded the group’s Houston chapter. In 2008, he sold his business and retired. It was then that he became very serious about Texas wine with the launch of his blog, VintageTexas.com. The website was an instant hit with fellow fans of Texas wines from around the state and beyond. Russ’s popular blog has proven to wine enthusiasts far and wide that Texas does indeed have a legitimate wine industry, and that Russ Kane is the go-to guy for information about it.
One evening, Russ was blogging about a seemingly odd comparison between Texas and southern Australia. “Most wine aficionados,” he wrote, “know the Coonawarra region (also known by its terra rossa or red earth) as the most sought-after vineyard soil in Australia. Is it any wonder why our very own Texas High Plains ‘Tierra Roja’ produces rich, full-bodied Cabernets, and is now witnessing the emergence of rich red-black tempranillos and aromatic viogniers? How these particular soil conditions developed on the Texas High Plains and in the Coonawarra may differ, but the results are undeniably similar.” The following morning, he found a reply posted on the blog by fellow wine writer Philip White, an Australian living half a world away. The comment cited Russ’s obvious case of “Coonawarra envy,” questioned his sanity based on a preconceived notion of Texas’s affinity for cactus and not winegrowing and chalked up the rest of Russ’s argument to ranting and attitude. Then the blogger coined a name for Russ that, he says, “incorporates a bit of unique Texas lingo intermixed with its newfound wine culture, its wild and woolly past and its present emergence as a wine-producing region.” The name stuck, and now many of us know Russ as “Doc Russ, Texas Wineslinger.”
As Russ learned early on in his blogging about Texas wine, Texas is a big state. More than 200 wineries, plus numerous grape growers, are scattered around every single region. He covered a lot of miles seeking out subject material for the blog, and he encountered some fascinating characters and amazing theories on winemaking along the way. The seed for a book started to grow.
The Wineslinger Chronicles—Texas on the Vine, recently published by Texas Tech University Press, is a rollicking romp through the history of the Texas wine industry from its beginnings in the 15th century with vineyard plantings at Spanish missions. I knew I was going to love the book when I read the foreword by internationally known wine authority Doug Frost, who touted how much he’d enjoyed it. This is not in the wine-geek genre, although Russ does slip in some sound technical information about various Texas wines and wine in general. But he does so in a way that’s an entertaining part of the tales he spins. The book is written as a series of stories piecing together the story of wine in Texas—from Russ’s encounters with winemakers and grape growers to his search for the ghost vineyards of Texas to communicating with the spirit of T.V. Munson, “The Grape Man of Texas,” who saved the wine industry in Europe in the late 1800s. Russ introduces us to unique new varietals of grapes being planted in Texas, the moving tales of failures and vineyards destroyed by Pierce’s Disease and the dusting off of boots to begin again. There’s not a lot of swirling and sniffing, but there is a great cast of characters—the pioneers who believed they could do this enormous thing and just did it, creating the modern Texas wine industry: Spanish friars making sacramental wines; German immigrants seeking to make the wines of their homeland; Italian immigrants in the 1880s founding what is now the oldest continuously operating winery in the state.
Russ describes the book as his effort to preserve what the Texas wine experience really is, and to build links with other major wine-growing regions from the ground up. “I want to show that the Texas terroir can grow great wine grapes, and is certainly capable of making fine wines from them,” he says.
The book is a great read, even if you’re not a serious wine person. But if you’re a serious Texan, it’s a must-read book about an important element of the state’s history through chapters with compelling titles like “Chihuahuan Love,” “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” “Sun on the Skins,” “Younger, Dumber, Older, Smarter,” “Not My Granddaddy’s Cowboy Country,” “Bull Riding, Blues Guitar, and Blanc du Bois” and “Of Wine and Memories.” Russ connects it all, and he does it with an intense passion for the Texas wine industry, in a manner that will make you proud to be a Texas wine lover.
For an autographed copy of The Wineslinger Chronicles—Texas on the Vine, visit wineslinger.net
THE WINESLINGER CHRONICLES
THE WINESLINGER CHRONICLES—
TEXAS ON THE VINE
BY RUSSELL D. KANE,
COPYRIGHT © 2012
BY TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY PRESS
“Once inside the tasting room, Gabe sat down in an old rocking chair next to the bar. I positioned myself on a folding chair in front of him with window AC unit whirling at my backside. The room wasn’t fancy, with a décor based on worn barn wood and looking something like a small-town country store.“
Gabe said, ‘I’ve made wine for some time now. I started growing grapes in 1983 here in Ivanhoe on my family land. In ’89 I started the winery, but since this area’s dry, I opened tasting rooms in Denison and Grapevine, Texas. Those areas were wet for the sale of alcohol, but here, it’s all legal now.’”—Russ Kane talking to Gabe Parker, owner of Homestead Winery in Ivanhoe, Texas
“Ed Auler and I stood in the shade of an old live oak tree on the flat western bank of Lake Buchanan. The Colorado River once ran like a wild horse through westerly canyons before the dam was built and this lake was formed. Back then at this spot, the river slowed and deposited its load of sand and minerals where Ed’s Fall Creek Vineyards now resides.“
Ed said, ‘Russ, here’s the old oak tree I wanted you to see. It’s called the Proctor Tree. George Ray McEachern, who helped us start our vineyard, also helped size up this tree. According to George, it’s the second largest live oak left in Texas. It’s over a thousand years old and played an important role in history. The last two Indian treaties in Texas were signed under this tree.’”—Russ Kane talking to Ed Auler, co-owner with his wife Susan, of Fall Creek Vineyards“
As I walked out the door, Paul said, ‘Getting ready for this tasting, my dining room looked like the pre-set for a major international wine competition. I got to thinking that the wine retailers around here are probably wondering why I’ve developed such a penchant for other people’s high-end wines. I hope they’re not thinking that I’ve stopped drinking my own.’”—Russ Kane talking to Paul Bonarrigo, owner of Messina Hof Winery in Bryan, Texas, just after a Twitter wine tasting now known as “The Judgment of Bryan, Texas”
“He continued, ‘But ya know, about halfway through construction, I looked out the window of our house and stared at the big hole next door where the winery’s cellar was going to be. I looked over at Gladys and I said, ‘What’ve I done?’ Who am I to think that I can build a winery in the middle of nowhere, Santa Fe, Texas, of all places, and make it work?
’In a moment of Haak sincerity, Raymond said, ‘I started to tear up. I nearly lost it, big time. Then, I realized that there were five million people that live within a hundred miles of this place. At two gallons of wine consumed per person in Texas every year, that’s a lot of wine for us to sell. From that day, Gladys and I never looked back, and our winery’s grown every year. Now, that’s not to say it’s been easy; it’s actually been a wild ride, something like that bucking bull that put the fear of God in a much younger Raymond Haak.’”—Russ Kane talking to Raymond Haak, owner of Haak Vineyard and Winery, in Santa Fe, Texas