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Tannic Panic! Issue #8: Alright, Alright, Alright
Texas Wine On The Rise & A Chat With Mike Batek
What’s up you unrealistically respectable winos? This past week Zach thought it would be “cute” to spend his time returning from a family trip to Spain (more on that another time), so I figured I’d take it upon myself to make this issue about something a little closer to home: WINE FROM LONE STAR STATE.
“Our motto is serious wine, fun people. Because it should be – you know, we're serious on making it, but you should enjoy wine. It's not something that should be mystified.”
-Mike Batek, winemaker, Hye Meadow Winery & Vineyard
DON’T PANIC: This issue is a slight divergence from our typical format, so it doesn’t include tasting notes. What it does include is a shallow dive into the rising Texas wine scene, and excerpts from an interview I did last weekend with Mike Batek, the Texas-born winemaker behind my favorite local winery Hye Meadow Winery & Vineyard.
~ We will return to our regularly scheduled programming next week ~
Now for a lot of you, Texas might not come to mind when you think of fermented juice from the humble grape. Don’t cry – you’re not alone. If you had told me even just a few years ago that I had to check out a Texas producer cranking out world class wines, I probably would have thought you were joking. But the reality is that there are incredible wines coming out of Texas and they are only getting better. The state is constantly evolving and ramping up its offerings, as the fruit grown here improves in quality, and the pool of knowledge and years of experience stack up for the winemakers in the area.
Like everyone else in California, when the pandemic hit, I moved to Austin, Texas (to those who did not welcome the invasion — sorry y’all). Just before moving, my now-wife-then-girlfriend Victoria and I decided to make a final visit to one of our old favorite wineries in Sonoma, Jacuzzi Family Vineyards — a beautiful, family run vineyard and winery just a stones throw from the Golden Gate Bridge. We got to chatting with the fine fellow pouring us our tasting samples, informed him about our upcoming move, and he told us about a magical land called Fredericksburg — a region not too far outside of Austin that was *allegedly* producing some great wines.
Well given that our net-total knowledge of the Texas wine scene was exactly zero, we had our doubts — after all, California has it handled, what business do other states have making wine? But being the insatiable winos slash nerds slash trailblazers that we are, we knew we had to check it out.
Hop to milestone 2 — we fly out to Austin for a visit before the move and drop in at Vino Volo. If you are unawares of what that is, it’s a chain that has weaseled its way into pretty much every major airport out there, and one of the great features of the joint is the local tasting flights they offer. These will generally be a trio of wines from local producers, a rotating sampler of the regional terroir, if you will. It was there that I got my first taste of the goods.
Flash forward to my 30th birthday, I decided to wrangle up my degenerate friends for a group trip to Fredericksburg to check out these new discoveries from the Vino Volo tasting (among others), and we were not disappointed. It was on that trip that I first visited Hye Meadow, which sits about an hour and a half west of the place I hang my shoes up (Austin, babyyy!)
This past weekend I was lucky enough to get some time in the cellar with Mike Batek — the Texas-born winemaker who founded Hye Meadow — to chat about his foray into the world of wine, the rising Texas wine scene, the challenges of producing wine in the unpredictable and sometimes unforgiving Texas climate, and more. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.
In the Cellar with Mike Batek
[NOTE: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity]
Isaac: So my brother and I do a wine blog and newsletter, and he’s away in Spain right now actually, so I figured while he’s gone I’d do a feature on Texas wine.
Mike: Oh well it’s pretty funny because our 2018 Tempranillo, at the last contest it was in, beat out like 30 Rioja.
I’m not surprised — every vintage of Tempranillo I’ve tasted from Hye Meadow has been fuegooo, and I think express similar qualities to the flavorful Tintos of northern Spain.
Isaac: So what sparked your interest in wine?
Mike: When I was growing up in South Texas, my parents, you know my dad drank maybe like Miller Lite or whatever. Mom didn’t drink, but somehow wine always fascinated me. And I used to, when I was a junior in high school, go out on dates with girls, go to a different restaurant, see who would sell me wine, which didn’t happen very often, but this one place did. The Limp Noodle - not in business anymore. Italian place. So then I started going there on a regular basis, and one night they’re like, ‘Hey, you want to just hang out? We’re just going to be drinking wine from the open stuff.’ And I was like, really? And they’re like, ‘Yeah,’ so I just said, hand me a broom! You know? So we hung out and that’s why I kind of started on Italian stuff because I cut my teeth on it. And then when I was at A&M, the guy who used to cater all of the alumni parties, the big football ones, he did wine education courses. So I did that for two years and he used to pull back amazing wines. Not a lot of them, but I mean, I got to taste wines from the $300-$500 range. Most expensive wine I think was around $5000.
Isaac: Crazy, do you remember what the bottle was?
Mike: Oh, it was Chateau d’Yquem, the dessert wine out of France. I still remember that we all got like about a half ounce. And then I graduated and it was like, you know, I’m from South Texas, I had no idea you could actually be in the wine business. And then, you know, a couple of decades later, both my wife and I are unemployed at the same time, and it’s like — okay, what are we going to do? We had one kid going into college, two in high school still, and it was like, they’re going to be gone soon. So I went back to school for a couple of years for viticulture. And then everything just kind of rolled into place.
Hye Meadow opened in 2013, a year that Mike explained to me was particularly rough for entering the business due to the extremity of the weather and its impact on the growing season. As a result, that first year was the only vintage that Hye Meadow sourced grapes from out of state — since 2014 Mike has sourced 100% of his grapes from Texas.
I asked Mike about what makes producing wine in Texas unique, and what challenges it presents.
Mike: Texas, you know we're behind as far as just – like anything, if you're a basketball player and you're a rookie, you go up against somebody who's got five, six years on you, they're going to score. You can be the best player, but they just played more hours. They're just going to be better. And then so we have our growers and probably like the last five years, the learning curve has been exponential. So the fruit is really upped in just the quality. But the hard thing about Texas, we're unique because every year is different. We'll have a freeze in October. Who has freezes in October? Nobody.
Mike: Maybe Snake River, you know, over in Idaho. But it's just a really tough growing environment. Last year, I mean, it was so hot in the spring, so dry. And the fruit, I mean, it was just – our fruit that we get from here, normally we get about three tons to an acre. Last year we were measuring in about 300 pounds, 400 pounds.
Isaac: And does that have a significant impact on quality?
Mike: I mean, it’s going to be good quality, you just don’t have a lot of it. The year following the Halloween freeze of ‘19, there were no whites. We didn’t have whites in our tasting room for almost two years. Those are the kinds of things that most growing regions don’t have to contend with. And the weather this year? Lahey probably lost like 400-500 acres due to hail. Another vineyard not to far from em lost another 100 acres.
Isaac: I’ve heard some of the vineyards are starting to use specialized netting to catch hail.
Mike: Oh I mean, we have hail netting. But the hail can be the size of golf balls, so even with netting, it’s doing serious damage. Really bad.
Isaac (poignantly): Like a meteor shower of ice.
Mike: Just imagine someone throwing golf balls at you, you know, and you’re just standing there. You can’t move, you’re going to lose some teeth. You’re going to have a broken nose. You’re not going to be in good shape, you know?
Isaac: And does that just do seasonal damage to the vines, or does it sometimes destroy the plants altogether?
Mike: They’ll still put out leaves and store carbs and stuff for the following year. But at that point, all your growing season is just trying to make them as healthy as possible so that next year they come out better.
Aside from the challenges posed by the harsh growing conditions, there are other challenges faced by producers in Texas tied to the industry. It is still in its early years, relatively speaking, and so marketing is one major hindrance — it’s hard to sell wines in places where there isn’t much demand for it, and until Texas wines breach the broader horizon in terms of awareness, it’s going to be harder to find out of state. But they have made their way onto grocery store shelves within Texas.
Mike: H-E-B carries a certain amount of Texas wines and we have one in there. The Junkyard Red, that was our number one seller every weekend, and we told the wine club, ‘okay, this is now your mid-week wine.’ It’s not going to sell for $37, it’s going to be $19 and some change at H-E-B. We don’t make a lot of money going through H-E-B. You sell it at a certain price point. The distributor gets a big percentage, H-E-B gets their percentage, right? So we basically look at that as our marketing line.
I told Mike about the feature we wrote up on mass market wines and how it can often be difficult to sift through the swill when searching for value at the grocery store, but that I think the best value you can get is often from what they carry from local producers because they are smaller production and aren’t cutting the corners mass market producers do when upscaling.
Mike: Yeah, so like Junkyard Red, we have not changed the barrel format. Time in barrel, still gets 2 years in barrel. It gets at least 6 months to a year of bottle rest before we send it out. So it hasn’t been dumbed down. It hasn’t been cheapened.
The Junkyard Red (branded as Collo Rosso when bought directly from the winery) is a great bottle of wine for the price, and is a regular get for me when grocery shopping.
Mike: We’ve stayed this size for a reason. I run the vineyard, I touch everything in the winery building. You know, my wife and I get to do pretty much everything. And then everybody that works over there. I mean, it's important that we all are kind of like the same mind. So if you go anywhere else other than California, wine is a simple thing. It's not put up on a pedestal. It's just a fact of daily life. You know, you go to a co-op, you know, you fill up a container, you take it home to drink. It's just simple. I hate going to a tasting room and it's like, well, you know, this is what you're going to smell, this is what you're going to taste. And it's like, I can smell and taste on my own. Our motto is serious wine, fun people. Because it should be – you know, we're serious on making it, but you should enjoy wine. It's not something that should be mystified.
I couldn’t agree more, and the de-mystification, de-bullshittification, etc. etc. of wine is one of our core missions with the Tannic Panic! blog and newsletter.
Now for a number of reasons, Hye Meadow is my favorite local winery — not only are the libations bangin’, the people there make every visit feel like home. We sought out specific things when looking for a local club to join (great wine obviously), but also a place that is dog friendly, representative of the regional terroir, and one that makes us want to stay longer every time we visit.
If you ever find yourself in out in Texas, do yourself a favor and find yourself at one of the local wineries tasting what this state has to offer. You won’t regret it.
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