By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Angela Moench had a romantic notion about planting a vineyard in the Texas Hill Country back in 1996. Land prices hadn’t yet skyrocketed, and many scenic properties were still available for reasonable sums. So when Angela and her husband, Howard, a Houston physician, found a choice parcel situated on a high bluff overlooking Lake Travis, they purchased it and began planning their vineyard. The couple saw the vineyard as a natural complement to their passion for good wine and food, and an opportunity to become a part of the growing, evolving Texas wine industry.
Angela was no novice to the winery business. She was born in Australia’s Barossa Valley to a winery-owning family that was also heavily involved in politics. Her paternal grandfather was among the three distinguished gentlemen who penned the constitution of Australia. Her father was a cabinet member, and later became the Australian ambassador to the United Kingdom, where the family moved when Angela was 14. And her brother returned to Australia to become the foreign minister. On the maternal side of the family, Angela’s great-great-grandfather was one of the early explorers of Australia and discovered the famed Ayres Rock.
Before planting their 7-acre vineyard, the Moenchs agreed that they wanted to select the best varietal for the soil and microclimate of the vineyard’s location. The bluff-top spot benefits from the moderating cool breezes emanating from the waters of Lake Travis. The soil is very lean—a thin layer of red clay and sandy loam over decomposed limestone. The varietal selected would have to be tough enough to compete vigorously for moisture and nutrients and send roots deep into the soil to reach its moist, cool depths through each season. Another consideration in selecting a varietal was the fact that growing grapes in the Hill Country poses great risks. The weather is unpredictable and often brings late-spring killing freezes, devastating hail, extended periods of heavy rains during flowering and generally drought-prone summers. And, of course, the traditional Vitis vinifera varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, etc., are susceptible to the dreaded Pierce’s disease that has devastated many Hill Country vineyards.
The Moenchs selected the Norton grape—a native North American grape, which was first identified in Virginia in 1770 by Philadelphia botanist John Bartram. The grape, belonging to the species Vitis aestivalis, is resilient and disease resistant. It’s a smallish varietal that resembles clusters of blueberries on the vine and produces rich, inky blue-purple, medium- to full-bodied wines with zesty aromas of spice and elderberry. Wines made from the Norton grape are also known for their excellent aging potential.
In 1999, after establishing their irrigation system and trellis structure, the couple purchased Norton root stock from the Missouri River Valley and planted the vineyard. Angela is completely in charge of the vineyards—hand nurturing each vine to produce the highest quality grapes. She jokingly says that “Howard is allowed to walk through the rows and admire.”
By 2002, Angela’s grapes were of excellent quality, and she hired an Australian winemaker to help produce the first vintage. Designed by Howard, who considers himself a frustrated architect, and constructed from massive limestone blocks each weighing well over a ton, the Stone House Vineyard tasting room opened in 2003.
The first vintage wine, named Claros, was released in 2004. On a whim, Angela entered the wine in the prestigious Pacific Rim International Wine Competition. To her amazement, the wine won a Gold Medal and Best of Class in the competition. Angela was elated.
By 2005, there were many successes with Claros, and Angela felt that the winery was firmly established. So in that year, she added a port wine made from the Norton grape to the winery’s portfolio, as well as several excellent wines from her family’s Stone House Vintners in the Barossa Valley of South Australia. She and Howard tossed around several possible names for the new port. Then one weekend, while Howard was driving back to work in Houston, he called with a stunning suggestion for a name. Although it could be construed as a very clever play on words around the name of Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle Winery, the Moenchs have every right to their selected name: Scheming Beagle Port. Their beloved beagle was the official mascot-in-residence at their tasting room until his demise this past year. In training is Scheming Beagle II.
During 2006 and 2007, the winery was expanded to incorporate a new, larger barrel room and a large tank room where the open-top fermenters reside. The barrel room is atmospherically controlled at 58 degrees year-round to maintain the quality maturation of the wines during their 18 months of aging in premium French oak barrels.
Angela confided that she was terrified of the winemaking process in the beginning, fearing that she “wouldn’t get it right.” Her process is very labor-intensive and very much hands-on. After reaching the perfect point of ripeness, the grapes are hand harvested early in the morning to retain the maximum intensity of flavor, then taken to the winery to be stemmed and gently crushed. The resulting must is cold soaked for several days. When the fermentation process begins, the cap of crushed grapes is hand plunged by paddles three to four times a day to help extract color, flavor and tannins, as well as to ensure that the cap doesn’t dry out and develop unwanted bacteria. From the small fermenters, the wine is basket pressed into the barrels. After 18 months of barrel aging, the wines are bottled, unfiltered, in antique green Burgundian punted bottles.
Until a little over a year ago, Angela did all of the labor associated with producing the wines herself. She now has a full-time person to do the heavy work. And in 2008 the Moenchs contracted with a new consulting winemaker who was also born in the Barossa Valley. (For contractual reasons, the winemaker must remain anonymous.) He graduated from the Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia, and worked extensively in Australia and California, where he lives now, in senior winemaking positions. Angela feels that he shares her commitment to producing innovative wines of the highest quality—always taking into consideration the viticultural and oenological attributes unique to Stone House Vineyard. With several years of success to her credit, Angela has become confident enough to actually enjoy the harvest and winemaking process without quite as many fears.
The Moenchs don’t consider their winery to be an “event center.” Rather, they are dedicated to promoting the pairing of fine wines with fine foods. As a young woman living in England, Angela attended Le Cordon Bleu London, training as a fine cook. The winery holds special vintner’s dinners each month, along with private dinners that pair Angela’s culinary talents with the wines she produces.
When asked what projects she has in mind for the future, she mentions that she and Howard have discussed the possibility of building a separate facility on the property to produce, perhaps, a unique distilled spirit. Should they decide to do so, it will
surely be an excellent product, given her attention to the smallest of details in the making of her wines.
Claros 2008: The wine exhibits an alluring purple-garnet color and bright to brilliant clarity with medium depth. Acidity is lively and offset by ripe fruit characteristics, creating a harmoniously balanced wine. The 2008 vintage is a medium-bodied wine with rich consistency and a nice, smooth medium length. The wine exhibits the varietal intensity of the Vitis aestivalis species with elderberry, grapey notes. The structure is elegant, not heavy, with warm alcohol. Tannins are fine, though bottle aging will improve the overall structure further. Sweet spices are apparent—cinnamon and licorice, with subtle hints of allspice showing. The overall palate is almost Burgundian in some aspects—black cherry, lavender, raspberry, plum and violets. It pairs well with a broad range of foods, but as it develops in the bottle it will also stand alone as a well-balanced and unique style of wine suitable for any occasion.
Special Reserve Sticky 2008: This wine is produced at Angela’s family vineyard in Australia’s Barossa Valley. It is the result of a difficult vintage in South Australia, when the early fruit was some of the best seen in living memory. Then, a heat wave struck, sending daytime temperatures to 110 degrees and above—the nights only slightly cooler—for a period of two and a half weeks. The upside of these unbelievable conditions is captured in this bottling of late-harvest riesling. At harvest, the wine had a Brix of 29.7.
The color is a rich straw gold with a hint of green clinging to the edges. The wine has a nose of lovely ripe nashi pear with hints of cinnamon and vanilla pie crust complexity over echoes of limes and lemons. The mouthfeel (being riesling) has a natural acidity that belies the sweetness of the wine and gives a balance often lacking in the more over-the-top stickies (the Australian term for dessert wines). The palate has rich ripe raisined apple and pear over notes of lemon zest and bready yeast characteristics, further enhanced by the barrel fermentation and extended five-day skin contact. The wine has a firm and cleansing finish that goes on and on.