Forward-focused Wedding Oak Winery a draw in historic San Saba

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 Austin360

Although San Saba might call itself the pecan capital of the world, one resident of the small Hill Country town wants it to be known for wine, too.

Viticulturalist Mike McHenry — who retired to the area and started growing grapes here after buying 115 acres in the late 1990s — opened Wedding Oak Winery in downtown San Saba in 2012, hoping the tasting room and production facility would help revitalize the town.

Since then, he’s also brought another winery to life just down the street. Old Man Scary Cellars recently opened thanks to an incubator arrangement with founder Dr. Gabe Hisel and Wedding Oak Winery. This kind of partnership, McHenry says, is one of the next steps for the Texas wine industry to flourish. It’s also good for San Saba.

The incubator “is part of the development of making San Saba into a wine destination,” he says. “Other states have done it, and I think we’ll see more in Texas as we hit a critical mass of wineries.”

Close to the northern border of the Texas Hill Country American Viticultural Area, Wedding Oak Winery has been bringing visitors to San Saba who might not know of its small-town charm or its history. The winery gets its name from a regal 400-year-old oak tree that grows about 2 1/2 miles from the winery and has been the symbolic site of many a wedding, starting all the way back with the area’s Native Americans.

Making sure the winery, tucked into a restored 1926 stone building, stays in touch with San Saba’s historical side is important to McHenry — he’s learned all the local legends and stories that have been passed down over the years, including one about San Saba’s greatest unsolved mystery involving a shopkeeper named Marie.

Of course, Wedding Oak Winery wouldn’t be so successful today if it didn’t take a forward-looking approach to winemaking. That’s where Wedding Oak’s winemaker Penny Adams, a longtime force in the Texas wine industry, comes in. She’s been growing grapes off and on since 1979, even before graduating with a horticulture degree from Texas A&M, and was the Hill Country’s viticulture adviser with the Texas AgriLife Extension until state budget cuts eliminated her job.

A Texan who spent childhood summers at her grandfather’s farm north of Lubbock, Adams knows her deep love of plants is in her blood.

“My granddad had five rows of grapevines planted along with his cherry trees, apple trees, peaches and apricots and other things, although he was actually more into raising hogs,” she says. “So I was always influenced by the farming mentality and the sight of nice, neat rows. I spent so much time under this beautiful arbor of grapevines that was kind of hidden away on the side of the house.”

She found a summer job in college at a ranch in the Hill Country and, there, found her calling, helping a University of Texas professor, Dale Bettis, to plant his first grapes at Cypress Valley Winery in 1979. (They later married and had two boys.)

Her work at the now-defunct Cypress Valley Winery gives her the distinguishing title of being the first female winemaker in the state of Texas. And her time with the Texas AgriLife Extension means she knows where all of Texas’ best grapes are. That’s a big help for Wedding Oak Winery, which relies on her to produce award-winning wines sourced from McHenry’s vines and beyond.

The Texas wine industry is at a crucial turning point, she says.

“We’re determining what varietals are going to be growing here in 25 years. What are these soils and this climate going to best grow; what is Texas going to be most known for? A lot of people want to say it’s tempranillo and viognier, and I’m not too keen on that.”

Instead, Adams is putting her faith in lesser recognized grapes like sangiovese, roussanne and tannat. Not that she’s completely abandoned the other varietals: Tempranillo is the dominant grape in the 2013 Tioja, a medium-bodied red blend full of black cherries, plums and licorice. That one stood out at a tasting at Wedding Oak Winery.

So did the fragrant 2013 Sangiovese Hill Country made from locally sourced fruits — a counterpart to the 2013 Sangiovese Texas made from High Plains grapes in the upper part of the state. Isolating wines to specific vineyards, rather than blending together one varietal from all over Texas, has been an important step winemakers, including Adams, have been taking to show “consumers the differences between the grapes grown from this area and that one, letting them become more educated,” she says. (We decided the sangiovese with Hill Country grapes was more fruit-forward.)

If you’re looking to try Wedding Oak wines, you’ll have to visit the San Saba tasting room or join the wine club. McHenry isn’t interested in getting the bottles into retail stores or restaurants, although a couple of places have them.

“We’re a direct-to-consumer model,” he says.

A few doors down from Wedding Oak Winery is Old Man Scary Cellars, the startup winery that Wedding Oak is taking under its wing, providing Hisel with tasting room space and making his wine until the time when Old Man Scary has grown enough to go out on its own. You’ll want to stop into this tasting room as well.

McHenry says the wineries, though closely connected, don’t look the same, and their wines are also very different. That’s intentional, he says — Old Man Scary Cellars is “much more contemporary than Wedding Oak’s tasting room. I think it’s very cool. What does it do for the consumers? It gives them a choice. Two different wineries with different wines.”

The arrangement, he says, is “a win-win for us and for the town of San Saba.”

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