Texas – Just As I Imagined
When Tom and I started WINEormous, I wanted to add a woman’s perspective to the blog. I was interested in meeting all kinds of women from aficionados to professional tasters, sommeliers, winery staff and owners and the most obvious of interest – winemakers who happen to be women. To pique your interest, Women constitute 15-20% of winemakers in California alone.
As Tom promised several months ago, here is my first post for Women On Wine. Let’s begin in the Old West near the beginning of the legendary Chisholm Trail in beautiful Texas Hill Country. The setting is fitting of a western novel and fits right into my imagined Texas landscape – longhorns and cows grazing alongside a country road, other critters roaming free. We pulled up to what can only be described as a “Texas-sized tasting room” with Wild West déecor.
This is the intention and result of the big imagination of Paula K. Williamson, owner and winemaker and sometimes saloon proprietor of Chisholm Trail Winery. This certainly appeared to be a unique adventure we were on.
Upon meeting Paula Williamson, the first words that came to mind were spunky, vivacious and smart. That may be because Paula didn’t start out to be a winemaker; she made the switch from big-city (San Antonio) litigation attorney to becoming one of only a handful of winemakers who happen to be women in Texas. Incongruous? Not really as Paula explained, “In law, I learned by deposition, by listening. That’s what I had to do to learn about wine.”
After acquiring the land west of Fredericksburg, Texas for Chisholm Trail, Williamson sought out a local vineyard pioneer, Vernon Gold – and she listened, and listened, and listened. For several years, she would go to visit Vernon with a lot of questions, mostly about the basics of starting a winery. When Gold retired, she hired him as a consultant. Then he came to her law office where they sat down with a court reporter who transcribed volumes and volumes for her to study. Unfortunately Vernon Gold dies in 1999, right before Paula’s first release of wine.
Guided by the transcripts but not the day-to-day instincts of Gold, Williamson knew she was still lacking some basic knowledge so she traveled to U.C. Davis to take supplemental classes. She studied and worked at wineries there and then even hired a consultant from Napa through 2001 to come to Texas to help her integrate all she had learned.
And what has Paula learned? First of all she knows what Texans like to drink. She is determined to make Texas-style wines using Texas grown grapes This means featuring a sweeter wine without so much wood aging. “If you don’t offer a sweet wine, you’re not going to initially attract a wide audience. You just can’t run out of the sweets at a festival”
Then she knows what Texans like to eat – “It gets really hot here and we like our spicy food, so a lighter, sweeter wine just seems to go with it.” By appealing to the Texas palate she is now seeing more requests for her dry wines which she loves to make.
Williamson is also unique in some of the grapes she has chosen to feature and blend to make big Texas flavors. Two varietals were unfamiliar to me. The crisp white Blanc Du Bois grape, developed in Florida and resistant to Pierce’s Disease.. And the most unusual and flavorful of all, Lenoir, or Black Spanish, actually boasts red juice. Most winemakers who have grown Lenoir, turn it into a port. But Paula calls the Lenoir her “secret weapon.” You can taste it alone in her ruby port style “Almegres” and bursting with flavor in the unique dry red “Lone Wolf.” You’ll also find this yummy grape blended in several other selections at Chisholm Trail.
Paula has also learned, or better yet, perceived that winemaking is a creative challenge and she definitely puts her own unique stamp on the creative process. She selected a Wild West theme for her wine names and their labels, but doesn’t stop there. Each wine is woven around a western tale – everyday people, bigger than life heroes and even anti-heroes grace the labels with short, compelling stories attached to each one.
Spirited names like “Ghost Rider”, “Lone Wolf”, “Desperado”, “Belle Starr” and “Lil’s Red Satin” conjure up images of freedom, gallantry, waywardness and romance – all a part of the Spirit of the Old West. The names and story ideas sometimes come to her in dreams or through quiet contemplations as she develops a wine and observes its characteristics.
The next chapter in the saga will represent a soon to be released Zinfandel- a tale of a border-town saloon girl. Hmmm…Paula’s got me imagining who she is and what her story will reveal right now.