In the 1970s, Texas’ cattle ranching industry wasn’t so hot.
Fourth-generation Texan Ed Auler, who’d taken over his family’s Fall Creek cattle ranch in 1970, was looking for supplementary income. Growing peaches, perhaps? He wanted something the state already grew or had.
“Then along came this idea of grapes,” he says.
He and his wife, Susan, who he’d met while attending the University of Texas in the 1960s, discovered their next great love on accident. They traveled to France in the hopes of crossing foreign cattle breeds with their Angus herd. Ed, visiting Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, noticed that the limestone cliffs and sandy soil looked an awful lot like the terrain of his home state.
That sparked a then-revolutionary idea: How about Texas wines? The Aulers became the torch-bearers of a fledgling new industry in Texas by starting up Fall Creek Vineyards, the Hill Country’s very first winery, in 1975.
Forty years later, Fall Creek wines have been enjoyed by U.S. presidents, turned naysayers of Texas-made wine into supporters and helped to establish the Texas Hill Country American Viticultural Area appellation, turning some 9 million acres here into a recognized winemaking region. Fall Creek Vineyards, which started as a test plot on the Aulers’ historic ranch on the banks of Lake Buchanan in the small town of Tow, opened a second location in Driftwood earlier this year.
The Aulers’ accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering the derisive attitudes toward Texas wine, attitudes that have largely become more positive in the past 10 years.
“Growing grapes in Texas? Oh, it’s too hot to do that,” Susan Auler says is the comment she’s heard the most since co-founding the winery.
Once, that perception used to be shared by Sergio Cuadra, an Argentine winemaker with 20 years’ experience who came to Texas a couple years ago dubious about the state of the grape crop here. “I expected to see wilting plants, to tell you the truth,” he says.
He became Fall Creek Vineyards’ head winemaker in 2013, determined in his mission of further bringing Fall Creek wines to the world stage. He also wanted to find out the scientific answer behind why grapes thrive in such a hot climate so different from other wine regions like California. His efforts, Ed Auler says, make him a valuable contributor, taking Fall Creek to the next chapter of Texas winemaking.
“We didn’t bring Sergio here to perpetuate what we’d already been doing; we brought him here to establish a future,” Ed Auler says. “He’s going to turn this industry upside down or right-side up, depending on how you look at it.”
Although he’ll tell you there’s always something more to learn when it comes to growing grapes, Cuadra has already gotten a lot of the answers he was seeking when he took the job, moving his family of six to the U.S. and finding an extended family in the Aulers.
For one, he says, he’s certain that grapes are at home in Texas because it’s got a similar climate to the place where they originated thousands of years ago — the Middle East. There, the vines developed heat shock genes “that are triggered by high temperatures” — meaning they adapt easily to warmer spots like the Hill Country and the Mediterranean and might even prefer them.
Couple that with earlier harvests, limestone soil and other factors prevalent in Texas and Cuadra has a ready-made argument, backed up with science, for people who doubt the quality of grapes and wine from this state. But he’s having to use it less and less. “Texas wine is in a good place,” he says.
He’ll even argue that just about any grape — even pinot noir, the darling of California vineyards — can thrive here. Right now, he and Ed Auler are setting up the vines at the new Driftwood location of the winery, readying it for a debut harvest in the coming years that will include the lesser-known Carignan, a tough, drought-tolerant red varietal from Spain. They aren’t sure how it will take, but Ed Auler, for his part, can’t wait to find out.
“I guess if it’s something that makes me feel like a little kid after all these years, it’s something I should be doing,” he says.