Penny Adams

by David Alan • Photography by Knoxy

Penny Adams’ connection to the Texas soil began early in life, during the many hours spent visiting and helping out at her grandparents’ farm in Lubbock. The connection deepened just after high school, when she moved to College Station to pursue a degree in Texas A&M’s Horticultural Sciences program. There, she fell in love with the science and art of growing grapes, and though grapes had grown in Texas since time immemorial, they hadn’t been grown for commercial wine production since before Prohibition. The inchoate Texas wine industry proved alluring to Adams, and while looking for a summer work-study program, she received a fortuitous phone call from a University of Texas professor, Dale Bettis, whose fledgling Blanco County vineyard was in need of a steward. In the early ’80s, the small Hill Country planting became Cypress Valley Vineyards—the fifth winery in Texas—and Penny Adams, who later married Bettis, was at the helm.

Given the success of today’s Texas wine industry, it’s difficult to imagine what those frontier days were like. “My early career was definitely more challenging than today,” says Adams. “Texas wines weren’t taken seriously back in the early 1980s, and the industry faced many challenges that impacted our progress—mostly political and marketing challenges.” There was a good deal of gender-bias at that time, too, because the industry had traditionally been led by men. Yet, the essential skills required for the job are gender-neutral. “It is very physically demanding,” Adams says. “But I haven’t let that deter me in the least. Regardless of gender, the same skill set is required: a strong science background, mechanical skills, strategic management and organizational skills, a very strong work ethic, passion for the job and having a good palate.” And Adams relishes any opportunity to encourage and mentor other women wishing to enter the field. “Over the years, I’ve received many inquiries from young women wanting inspiration and direction as to how they might pursue this work,” she says. “What an honor to have others follow in my footsteps.”

Though Adams is known as the first female winemaker in Texas, she’s spent most of her career in viticulture (the study of grapes). Some winemakers have little or no experience in this area, because many of the winemakers in Texas don’t grow their own grapes. Much of the grapes used are grown in the high plains of West Texas—if they’re grown in Texas at all. In 1979, there were only five wineries in Texas; there are now more than 350. Yet, the total number of acres under cultivation for wine grapes is fewer than 5,000—statewide. Just the central valley of California has more than 300,000 acres “under vine,” and that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of acres grown elsewhere in the state. Even Texas wineries that have been in business since the 1970s are buying grapes from California. Adams believes that having her hands directly in the actual growing process has an impact on the finished product—in the same way that a passion for cooking can stem from a passion for gardening. “We go into it with a strategy that starts in the vineyards,” she explains. “You grow the wine in the field.” 

adams2She also believes that it’s vital to understand the modern wine consumer. “Customers come to the tasting room asking for pinot noir and cab because that’s what they’re familiar with,” Adams explains. “Then there are those who think viognier is like the chardonnay of Texas, or tempranillo is our red grape.” (Although Adams remains unconvinced.) “Educating the customer is a top priority—find out what type of wine they like to drink, how and when they like to drink it, then steer them towards one that makes sense for them.”

Adams’ approach to winemaking has paid off. Her latest venture is Wedding Oak Winery in San Saba, Texas. Founded in 2012 by local grape-grower Mike McHenry, the winery has won more than two dozen medals in its short existence—including a gold medal and “Best in Varietal” status for its 2013 sangiovese. And at the 35th annual San Francisco International Wine Competition, the winning streak continued. Wedding Oak’s 2013 albariño won “Best Albariño” and “double gold” status—meaning the judges were in unanimous agreement about the gold medal.

Though she’s been involved in the Texas wine industry almost since the beginning, it’s a mistake to speak of Adams’ “pioneering” days in the past tense, because the industry is still constantly evolving. “The Texas wine industry took a turn around 2000,” she says, “when young winemakers started getting into the business. For many years, it was a business for retired people.” Adams welcomes and delights in the “new blood” and in the innovation and fresh vision these young winemakers bring to the table. “I feel like the future will bring continued growth in the number of wineries and volume of grapes and wines produced,” she says, “but also, improvements in wine quality and wine styles resulting from growing grape varieties in the best locations—expressing true terroir in the finished wines. I’m blessed to love my job, work with wonderful people and to help contribute to the rise and recognition of Texas wines.”

For more, visit weddingoakwinery.com or call 325-372-4050.