Know the land. Respect the hands.
This simple statement, found on every bottle of wine from The Grower Project, pretty much says it all about the venture cofounded by respected Texas wine figures Rae Wilson and Andrew Sides. Not only are they committed to using 100 percent Texas grapes, but their mission is to work directly with growers to make quality wines from the grapes of a single vineyard. The hands and the land. Texas terroir in spades.
Wine grapes are the product of the soil, the weather, the elevation and the growers; wine is a collaboration between those who tend the vines and those who make the wine. “In most of the world, the important role of growers is recognized,” Wilson says. “And really great wines always begin with the grapes. We think that should be the case here in Texas, too. We’re trying to shine a light on where the fruit comes from and, with our wines, tell stories of what’s unique about each site.”
Wilson and Sides bring wide and varied experiences to The Grower Project. Wilson is an Austin-based, multi-tasking wine evangelist, sommelier, wine business consultant and winemaker. Sides is managing partner of Lost Draw Cellars in Fredericksburg and was raised on a West Texas High Plains farm, where he began tending to his family’s grapevines while still a teenager.
Wilson grew up in St. Louis and spent years working as a server and bartender in restaurants to support her music and art interests. Over time, the script flipped, and she developed such a love for wine that, in 2007, she began formal wine training. She’s earned a Level III advanced certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and is a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers.
After a few seasons working harvests and cellar jobs at Napa Valley’s Artesa Vinyards & Winery and in northern and southern wine regions in Portugal, Wilson turned her attention to the flourishing Texas wine industry and moved to Austin to join it. In 2010, she created Wine For the People, a multifaceted business with the goal of cultivating wine community and accessibility — teaching classes, leading tastings and consulting with restaurants and wine businesses. “I look at gaps in the Texas wine industry and strategize how they can be filled,” she says. She’s developing a permanent Austin home for Wine for the People — a cellar, bottle shop and gathering place to be called Citizen Wine. In addition, Wilson started her own small wine production in 2014; Dandy Rosé is a dry blend of 100 percent Texas-grown grapes. The fifth vintage was released in March 2019.
Sides found his place in the wine world via a different route, as a typical Texas farm kid — the kind that started driving a tractor at the age of 12. He grew up in Terry County, fittingly known as "The Grape Capital of Texas,” located southwest of Lubbock. Three generations of his family grew cotton, peanuts and corn on more than 1,000 acres. Then, at the instigation of his uncle Andy Timmons, they planted the first five acres of grapes in 2006, when Sides was in high school. He got into tending the vines as “something different,” found he enjoyed it and continued working at the expanding Lost Draw Vineyards during his summers at home while earning a civil engineering degree at Texas Tech.
Andy Timmons established a reputation for growing quality fruit at Lost Draw and now owns and manages 500 acres of vines in the High Plains. “We sold our grapes to wineries in the Hill Country,” says Sides. “Later, I linked up with young winemakers who were buying the grapes. We had similar perspectives; this gave me the incentive to open Lost Draw Cellars in Fredericksburg.”
Lost Draw Cellars is a collaboration with Sides, Timmons and Sides’ father-in-law, Troy Ottmers, a retired oil and gas distributor whose property near downtown Fredericksburg morphed beautifully into the winery. Since the first vintage of 400 cases of Tempranillo and Sangiovese in 2012, Sides jumped with both feet into the wine business, ultimately leaving engineering work and moving his family to Fredericksburg. In addition to managing Lost Draw Cellars and his work with The Grower Project, he’s the immediate past board president of Texas Hill Country Wineries, a nonprofit trade association of 50 wineries.
Wilson and Sides realized they shared common ideas about what they wanted to see in Texas wines, and The Grower Project was born in 2016 to reflect those values. “In general, there’s a lack of connection between growers and consumers in agriculture,” Sides says. “I didn’t see that connection, till I started working with wine. Our area [Brownfield, High Plains] has such a sense of place, and there’s so much attention paid to the land and the crops. Consumers should know about this.”
Community-minded Wilson agrees. “Wine connects the earth under our feet to the hands that make it and to those who share it,” she says. “The more familiar we are with the people and the places wine comes from, the more it will help build the Texas industry.”
Three wines compose The Grower Project’s current portfolio, and two are made from sangiovese grapes, an Italian varietal that’s adapted well to Texas conditions. The grapes for The Source Sangiovese and Grower Project Rosato grow at the Letkeman Family Vineyard near the West Texas town of Seminole, in Gaines County. Pedro and Sonja Letkeman tend a vineyard of just 10 acres planted in sandy, red clay and caliche at an elevation of 3,500 feet.
The Letkemans pick their vineyard twice, annually. The grapes harvested during first pick have lower sugars and higher acidity, resulting in a refreshing, dry Rosato with a lower alcohol content. The second harvest yields riper grape skins and seeds for The Source Sangiovese, a robust red wine containing some tannins and a sturdier fruit character. Sides says, “I grew up in the area and knew the Letkemans’ work; I was so impressed by what they were doing. Their grapes were right for Grower Project wines.” The first vintage of The Source Sangiovese was released in 2015; the first Rosato vintage was released in 2017.
The third wine that Sides and Wilson make is a dry, citrusy trebbiano from a white grape native to Italy but suited for Texas. These grapes grow at a 3,400-foot elevation in the 150-acre Paka Family Vineyard in Terry County, in a soil called Amarillo fine sandy loam. While the wine-loving Paka family lives in New Jersey, they were intrigued by the potential of Texas wines and wanted to participate in growing grapes for their development. The Grower Project’s first Trebbiano release was in 2017.
What’s next for The Grower Project? In the immediate future, Wilson and Sides say they’ll continue making their Sangiovese, Rosato and Trebbiano vintages. Going forward, however, they hope for additional single-vineyard sites and other suitable grape varieties. They’re interested in finding more growers and increasing the visibility of boutique wines made from Texas grapes. They want to connect growers to larger markets and raise consumer awareness about the unique qualities of individual vineyards. And, of course, they’ll continue spreading the word about the hands that tend the vines and the land that sustains it all.
For more information about The Grower Project and where to find the wines, see thegrowerproject.com
By MM Pack • Photography by Rae Wilson and Melanie Grizzel