By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography by Bill Albrecht
When Gary and Kathy Gilstrap bought their land—on which they would plant their vineyard—in 1994, they brought a new perspective to the Texas wine industry. Both Gilstraps are pharmacists by trade, with well-established scientific backgrounds, so their methods and approach to the business of grape-growing and winemaking have often skirted tradition. And some of those methods have not only been heeded and applied by other winemakers following the Gilstraps’ example, but also have led to a new, more modern wave of traditions in the Texas industry.
Before their foray into winemaking, the Gilstraps owned a drugstore/pharmacy and a software company—both of which they sold in order to become semiretired. Looking for a way to invest their money and maintain a fairly active lifestyle, they agreed that starting a new business would result in a better return, on both accounts, than other traditional investments. They loved wine and had been closely following the growth of the wine industry in Texas, so it seemed that a logical next step would be to start a winery. “So much for semiretirement,” Gary says, as both he and Kathy shake their heads. “Neither of us had ever worked as hard as we have on the winery. It’s been a labor of love …and continues to be.”
Today, Gary and Kathy are joined by their son Dale Rassett, who manages the vineyard. Dale also operates their mobile bottling facility—a unique operation (which they developed) involving a bottling line fitted into a streamline trailer. The mobile unit travels to smaller wineries that don’t have their own bottling facilities, and, for a fee, bottles their wines on-site. Also part of the vineyard crew is Hilario Penalta-Moreno, who not only taught himself English, but has worked at Texas Hills from the beginning. Kathy says he’s become one of the family.
The Gilstraps planted the first 10 acres of their vineyard in 1995 and produced their first wines in 1997, though their production facility and tasting room were not yet completed. Instead, they had the first vintage produced at the late Ned Simes’s facilities at Grape Creek Vineyard. Since that first pressing, Texas Hills has produced distinctive wines.
Gary, a hands-on, blue-jeans kind of guy, works in the vineyards, as well as in the production room. His scientific approach to grape growing gives him the advantage of being able to manipulate the grapes. For example, he introduced the use of N-pHuric—a mixture of urea and sulfuric acid—as a stabilizer in his vineyard irrigation system. In doing so, he was able to get micronutrients into the vines and avoid the usual buildup of limestone in the vineyard soil.
When the harvested grapes are on their way to becoming wine, Gary employs modern techniques to achieve a good acid balance by using tannins to round out the wines. Once the wines are in the barrel, he uses micro-oxygenation—a process whereby a carefully calibrated amount of oxygen is injected into the wine—which results in a shorter barrel-aging time, and reduces the chance of bacterial contamination that can occur with extended barrel aging. Micro-oxygenation also enables more control over the fermentation process—maintaining the viability of the yeast and reducing the production of undesirable sulfides. Wines that are barrel aged using this technique taste as though they’ve been barrel aged for twice as long as they actually have.
Over the years, the Gilstraps, like most Texas winemakers, have experimented with different varietals. Gary says that if he had it to do all over again, he never would’ve planted pinot grigio. Although the Texas Hills pinot grigio is excellent—and one of the winery’s most popular wines—Gary says it’s the grape that gives him the greatest number of headaches with its low yields and tendency not to thrive. As for the hardiest grapes—he cites merlot, with chardonnay right behind it; the vineyard produced an excellent estate-bottled chardonnay in 2010.
In 2008, Texas Hills produced a 100 percent roussanne that is very good, though Gary laments the fact that he can’t produce enough grapes to do a cold fermentation, which would make the wine even better. Roussanne is an ideal warm-weather grape varietal that is gaining popularity in Texas, and is now being produced by several wineries.
From the inception of their winery, the Gilstraps have been committed to making only Texas appellation wines—meaning that the grapes they use are grown in Texas and the wines are produced at the Texas Hills production facility. For varietals other than those grown in the estate vineyard, the Gilstraps source fruit from growers in the Texas High Plains and the Hill Country. Gary is a winemaker who believes solidly in the concept of terroir, that sense of place that imparts its taste in the things grown there. If the grapes are grown in California, they certainly won’t make wine that tastes like Texas.
Chardonnay 2010 (Estate): Chardonnay was one of the first wines produced by Texas Hills Vineyard, and it was a good one. Gary used to age the chardonnay in both French and American oak, but the 2010 was aged exclusively in American oak. The buttery taste is gone, but you won’t miss it. The spice of the American oak doesn’t come close to overpowering the generous fruit flavor. This is a full-bodied white—dry and crisp, with an invigorating mouthfeel. It’s got the flavor profile of a California chardonnay—Honeycrisp apple, a faint hint of coconut and that nice, spicy hazelnut finish—but it’s also got the fine thread of minerality that marks a Texas chardonnay. Perfect for our warm Texas fall weather. Think rosemary-scented foods.
Syrah 2009 (Texas Hill Country): Gary refers to his 2009 Syrah as a FINE wine, and it is indeed. Syrah is one of the noble black grape varietals. Grapes for the 2009 vintage were sourced from Drew Tallent’s vineyards in Mason County. 2009 was not a great year for Texas grapes, due to a very late freeze that cut production drastically—but in some cases, fine wines resulted from the low yield, which had a large canopy of vine growth that supported the development of great flavor. This is a full-bodied wine with a rich, perfectly balanced flavor and soft, well-integrated tannins. Aromas of earth with dark, dusky berries start, then a rich berry flavor follows on the palate, ending with a big, jammy, plum-like finish. Good aging potential. It appears that syrah is destined to be a good varietal for Texas.
Kick Butt Cab (Texas High Plains): The Kick Butt Cab has been the most iconic wine produced by the winery since its original 2001 vintage. Although Gary had produced a cabernet sauvignon in previous years—even an award-winning one—the 2001 vintage was so outstanding that he began to refer to it as the “kick butt cab.” The name stuck with customers, so Gary made the name official, and the tradition continues. The Texas High Plains bottling is produced with fruit from Neal Newsome’s vineyard near Lubbock, where the cabernet sauvignon vines are now 22 years old and the fruit is showing a very nice maturity. This is a richly colored, supple wine for the serious red wine lover. Aromas of dark berries promise blackberry jam on the palate. Subtle tannins ease over into a long, rewarding finish.
Texas Hills Vineyard
878 Ranch Rd. 2766, Johnson City