Ben Calais of Calais Winery doesn’t particularly care what you think, as long as you think it while drinking his cabernet/merlot/malbec/cabernet franc blend, the 2013 La Cuvee d’Elme. It’s a gentle jest, but he’ll tell you he’s dead serious about the business of making exceptional wine. A recent transplant from Dallas, he’s brought his winemaking acumen to Hye, Texas, and has since been intensely focused on making the area a hotbed for high-end Texas wines.
Calais grew up in the region of Calais, France, and moved to Texas to pursue a career in engineering. After making wine part-time and loving it, though, he committed himself to the craft and opened a small winery/storefront in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas. But after some frustrating zoning and permitting snafus with the City of Dallas, he packed up and moved his operation to Hye.
He says that the tight, established and supportive community of craft winemakers in the area was enticing and played an integral role in his move; it continues to support his business in ways he wouldn’t be able to rely on otherwise. “There are so many winemakers in the area,” he says. “I never have to buy equipment; I just borrow it from two miles down the road! We share customers and similar philosophies when it comes to making wine.”
It’s true, the area’s winemakers function as family. “When someone in Hye wins, we all win,” says Calais. It’s not uncommon, for example, for Calais to send his customers down the street before his wine tasting begins to visit friend Doug Lewis of Lewis Wines. “Ben’s general philosophy has had a great impact on my winemaking,” notes Lewis. “I’d say that he makes the best wine possible, and really puts in effort that very few producers in Texas match.”
For his craft, Calais relies on simple fundamentals: Time and 100-percent Texas-grown grapes sourced predominantly from the High Plains region. The wines cellared in Calais Winery are crafted with primarily wild yeast and ferment up to 40 months in his cellar. “We have one of the longest cellaring programs in Texas,” boasts Calais—noting that he’s only interested in producing a limited number of bottles a year, or at least as many as he can without compromising his core values. “I want to do ONE thing and be the best at it. I’ve run big businesses, and I don’t want to be a big business. When you reach a certain scale, you don’t have the same amount of attention to detail and you can’t make the same decisions,” he says.
This “keep it small” vision means that visiting the winery requires a scheduled appointment and an hour drive west of Austin. But Calais invites patrons to meet him at his cozy cellar/tasting room built into a hillside, a cave-like environment that’s ideal for keeping wines—and visitors—cool in the hot Texas sun. His reds currently include a couple of tempranillos, two cabernets, a port-style dessert wine and the aforementioned blend. He also produces a dry rosé and two white wines made from roussanne grapes. Calais leads the hour-long tastings himself, and limits attendance to 10 people—guaranteeing a more intimate experience with ample time for savoring wines and answering questions. He even makes the accompanying artisan bread for all his tastings. It’s this attention to detail and simplicity that defines his style and allows him to make noteworthy wines. “Everything is designed on my palate,” he says. “I don’t care what’s cool and what’s not, because by the time you make it, it’s not cool anymore. You have to do something that you feel strongly about.”
For more information or to make reservations, visit calaiswinery.com or call 830-213-2124.
by Rachel Johnson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel