With new namesake winery, Texas wine veteran Yates finds his stride

10:20 a.m. Monday, Sept. 26, 2016 Austin360 Eats

Ron Yates wants more.

After buying Spicewood Vineyards from a pair of Texas wine pioneers in 2007, he’s ready for the rest of the world to recognize the big strides that winemakers around the state have made with the quality of their wines.

There is still a lot of work to be done to get Texas wine as good as it could be, of course, but at least he doesn’t have to worry as much about getting visitors out to the winery in Spicewood.

Droves of people, many of them younger crowds who aren’t yet swayed toward particular regions or varietals, have made the trip out to his winery and others and tasted for themselves the progress of Texas winemakers. For the boyish Yates, 37, the next step is to make Texas wine more visible outside the state.

“But how many people also live in the state who are never going to come to a winery?” he says. “We’re not at the point of people saying, ‘Oh, we’re at a midweek dinner at a casual bistro in Houston, and we had a $20 bottle of tempranillo from Texas that was amazing.’ Until that’s happening, Texas wine won’t see the real growth that we need.”

He’s taking a leap of faith in the hopes of getting closer to that point. Recently, he and his family opened his namesake winery, Ron Yates, in a very different part of the Hill Country: Ron Yates is located along U.S. 290 West, the wine road that leads into Fredericksburg and is dotted along the way with wineries like William Chris Vineyards, Pedernales Cellars and Grape Creek Vineyards. As a result, the new winery, sitting on nearly 16 acres, can draw a lot more attention.

It’s meant to fulfill something that Spicewood simply can’t.

“We had outgrown our size at Spicewood. We wanted a new challenge. We also wanted to create something that was ours,” Yates says as he sits on the winery’s shaded patio, a peaceful place that overlooks the wide-open land where he intends to build a stand-alone tasting room, a swimming pool next to a pavilion for the wine club, and additional grapevines.

He and Spicewood’s winemaker, Todd Crowell, relish the extra space Ron Yates gives them to make wine — with a new 6,000-square-foot facility built to Crowell’s exact specifications and prepared to hold more fermentation tanks and barrels.

At 28, Yates purchased Spicewood Vineyards from Ed and Madeleine Manigold, who had planted grapes there starting in 1992 as a retirement project. Yates had gone to law school, started up a record label and couldn’t forget the wines he’d tried in Spain during trips abroad in college. Although he’d always been exposed to wine — his parents are cousins of Susan and Ed Auler, who opened the Hill Country’s first winery, Fall Creek Vineyards, in 1975 — Spain swerved his life course.

“Spain was really the driver for opening a winery in Texas,” Yates says. “I love that lifestyle, that romanticism of the wine.”

The similarity in climates between Spain and Texas is largely the reason that Yates views tempranillo, a hardy, versatile Spanish grape, as the “red grape of Texas.” Spicewood Vineyards and Ron Yates winery both produce them from Texas vineyards in the High Plains, the Hill Country and their own estates.

But while Spicewood — which grows many of the grapes for its wines, rather than sourcing them from other vineyards — mostly sticks to producing tempranillo and other Spanish varietals that thrive in the heat, Ron Yates winery is the chance for Yates and Crowell to branch out. They’ve already been making Italian and Rhone varietals in addition to the tempranillo that will be available year-round.

Once Yates gets officially up and running (for now, the winery accepts visitors by appointment only), it’ll serve as an enticing destination on the Hill Country wine trail. Yates wants it to be the sort of place where people stay awhile.

For the Hill Country wineries to continue developing, he says, winery owners need to get creative. Yates wants to attract hotels, restaurants and other sites that will encourage day-trippers to make a long weekend of it.

“We’ve got to develop a ‘stay here’ scene,” he says. “That’s the idea behind the pool. You don’t have to go to 10 wineries in a day. Come out here and have a tasting by the pool. We’ll bring you some food. We’ll probably have wine from other wineries available. We’ll probably have the first lifeguard sommelier.”

Although the pool is still a couple of years away, Yates has long been attracting a key demographic to the Hill Country, a group integral in exposing the rest of the world to Texas wines: young people who are open-minded and willing to try “a crazy concept” like Texas wine. Spicewood Vineyards has been hosting eight years of the Pair It with Claret Chili Cook-Off, a competition and wine-and-food pairing event that draws increasingly larger crowds each year.

“We were able to get 350 people out for the first party. They were all probably under 30,” he says. “Then the next year, everybody that went to the party came back and brought friends. So it went from 350 to 700 to 1,200 to 2,000. I think we had almost 2,900 people this year. And the event drives a whole lot of traffic for the rest of the year as well.”

He says that older wine consumers are harder to attract because “they’ve already chosen France or California, and they like their wines.”

Because of winemakers like Crowell and Fall Creek’s Sergio Cuadra, however, Texas wines are only improving and slowly changing tougher customers’ minds as well. Crowell, who is the older brother of Garrett Crowell, the head brewer at lauded Hill Country brewery Jester King, joined Spicewood Vineyards in 2012. He brings a scientific approach and lots of experience to the job. Previously, he worked for several Sonoma Valley wineries.

“You have to understand your grapes to know what to do with them,” he says.

Tempranillo, for instance, is a malleable wine that can be big and full-bodied or something softer but still flavorful, which means the oak barrel treatment it gets can enhance or ruin the wine. Crowell seems to have an instinct about how much and what kinds of oak to apply to each of the grapes from all the different vineyards.

“Put a brunch of brand-new oak on this guy and it’ll taste like licking two-by-fours,” Yates says about the Ron Yates’ 2014 Tempranillo, made from Bayer Family Vineyards’ grapes in the Texas High Plains.

That’s the kind of nuance and insight that more and more Texas winemakers are bringing to the job. Now all they’ve got to do is make their wines more accessible for stores and restaurants to pick up and for consumers to buy them. Yates wants his wines at the new location, in particular a tempranillo blend, to one day find the sweet spot of the $18-$20 range.

The Texas wine industry isn’t “where we need to be,” Yates says. “That’s making more Texas wine, making better Texas wines. Making better Texas wines at a price point where more consumers can try it. But we’re making strides. I’m not the only one making serious investments in the business.”

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