Today's guests are Nikhila Narra Davis and Greg Davis of Kalasi Cellars. They’ve got a major presence as both High Plains grape growers and as winery owners in Fredericksburg. You’ll hear from Nikhila, who handles wines and vines, and Greg, who handles the rest.
In the news, you’ll find out who’s receiving the Doc McPherson Award, why you should attend the Texas Wine Auction, and Valley Mills Vineyards’ Sarah Holder joins me to talk about Rootstock and the ins and outs of planning a wine festival.
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Shelly: [00:00:00] You spent part of your childhood in India and part on the Texas High Plains, and I'm sure both of those things have shaped the person you are and the winemaker and business owner you are.
So can you talk a little bit about both places and what impact each one had on you?
Nikhila: Sure. Well, yes, you're absolutely correct. I was born in the States, but I lived with my grandparents for my formative years, I would say. Where I grew up in India is very rural. We lived kind of in a compound with every single family member who could live there, live there, so I got to know everyone really well.
I remember my grandfather would wake up really early in the mornings and go to the farms. And so I got to tag along sometimes, and sometimes I stayed back, but I stayed back to help my grandmother. We still had like chicken coops and so we got to run around with the chickens, pick eggs, milk the cows.
It was a great experience and being hands on and just really family oriented. When I moved to the US I didn't know English. I grew [00:01:00] up speaking Telugu and so when I moved back my parents were actually in New York, in Queens both trying to get careers going and so I had babysitters a lot of the time, but to learn English, I would hang out with kids outside on the steps and just watch them play. And that's kind of how I really picked up learning English. My parents moved down to the High Plains, like you mentioned in 1996. So I remember when I was leaving New York, people were telling me I'm gonna be riding horses to school and wearing cowboy boots and they don't have school buses in West Texas.
And I believed all of it because I'd never been. And it was, it was very different going from very rural to city to back to being a little bit more rural. , but it was all the same dynamic. , everyone knew each other. , I mean a lot of people in this industry actually I went to high school with. It's very family oriented out there as well. And same thing, you got your hands dirty. My mom always had a garden in the backyard, wherever we were and so I got to grow things [00:02:00] all my life and that's what really excited me about getting into the grape business.
Shelly: You got to the High Plains in '96, you said. So were your parents immediately starting a grape growing business at that point?
Nikhila: They were not. We just heard a lot about grapes coming in. I remember going to Llano Estacado with my dad and taking the tour with him on a day that he had off, just to learn the dynamics of winemaking. My dad doesn't even drink. He just really was always interested , in how things work and learning as much as you can about the industries that were around us.
And so Llano , it was big already back then, and they allowed kids to come in and go through the cellar and that was a really neat experience that I remember. My cousins would come visit during the holidays and that's what we did. We went to different wineries out there and saw how they ran. So farming and getting into grape growing did not come into play till 2013 for us. We always [00:03:00] followed the industries, kind of heard about it through the Lubbock Avalanche, the newspaper out there. You'd hear a lot about Fredericksburg as well. I actually went to boarding school in Austin, so when my parents would come up to visit me, they'd always talk about this town called Fredericksburg, but I had never been able to go . They would come up see me for the weekend and they'd hop over here to come stay in a b and b and explore. And so it, it was always talked about the industry that was growing, but never it being something that we would get into.
We had some family history go on with my father and he really debated retiring. He is not retired. But he's doing good things. And he asked at the time, if I retire, would you come back to West Texas? And we started business together and I said, sure. Not thinking what it would be or anything. We just figured we'd figure it out. And he brought up grapes again and I was like, well, I love drinking wine. I love [00:04:00] all about the history of wine. Why don't we just see if we could talk to someone about it, who's in the industry? And he said, why don't you reach out to tech? They have a great program they started. So I cold emailed Dr. Hellman, and next thing you know, we were in an office for four hours with him and he helped us.
We'd send him places that we were thinking about and he would check out the soil for us, do the soil study for us. And it really just spun out of control it felt like at the time. We bought land in '13 and started growing grapes.
Shelly: That's an interesting story because I know so many of the grape growers in the high plains were growing something else and then transitioned into growing grapes. And you started with grapes?
Nikhila: We did. Very fortunately the person we were buying the land from was in row crops, but he had heard about grapes coming in as well, and he said, " what would you like for me to plant, you know, before you put those vines in the ground?" And we said "peanuts" because of the nitrogen level.
And he laid it [00:05:00] out for us and got things going. Like I said, it just spun out of control, it felt like. But there were a lot of people around us that were willing to help and teach us everything . And not just in West Texas, in the Hill country. There's a lot of education that we could get hands on and learn.
Shelly: So tell me about Narra Vineyards.
Nikhila: So, Narra Vineyards, like I mentioned, we started in 2013. Dr. Hellman did tell us, start with one acre and then see how it goes. Our family doesn't do things slowly, so we planted 20 acres to start and then planted another 117 there. And then we've grown since. So right now we have 140 acres under vine, 160 acres total.
And we are at the point now, we are really focusing on clones and varietals that do really well with our soil as well as how we grow. So as of last year, we now have eight different clones of Cab [00:06:00] and so we are really focused on clonal Cabernet programs. .
Excellent. And you do have some unique varieties that I wanna get into talking about in a little bit. But in the process of discovering what you wanted to have in the vineyard, were there things that you tried that you didn't like?
So when we first got into it, a lot of the advice was traditional spray programs, nutrition programs, and I already was kind of in the organic thought of things and how can we make things more sustainable.
And also how can we change the way we grow. Like you mentioned, I think back then we did grow a lot of yield because we thought that's what would make really good wine. And as soon as we planted, I got a job out in California out in Napa to really learn how I could be different in Texas and hit my goals.
I had no intention of making wine at the time, but I wanted to give our clients, our customers, the wineries, the best grape I could give them . So they had the [00:07:00] opportunity to make the best wine for their program. And what I learned is canopy management, like really thinning out the canopy to where we have fewer clusters on the vine.
And I remember when I came back and I said that out loud, the only person who've really looked at me and said, I understand what you're saying is my father. A lot of people looked at me like, that's nuts. You're trying to build a business, you're trying to sell your fruit, and if you're cutting off all that fruit, you're losing money.
And it even came down to our , farm hands when I was teaching them kind of how to manage the canopy and what I wanted taken off certain times. I clearly remember. And they were so sweet about it. They were like, you can't cut that off. That's money. Like, that's, that's you're, you're gonna lose profits.
And I kept telling them, no, it's okay. It's okay. It's gonna make a better crop and it's gonna keep this vine healthier in the long run. So it was a little bit of a learning curve on both sides.
Shelly: You're maybe just a little ahead of your [00:08:00] time, but, but now that's the common knowledge, right?
Shelly: Tell me a little bit more about your interest in sustainable viticulture. What does that mean for you out there?
Nikhila: Putting as little harmful things I can in the environment. So we are herbicide free, pesticide free. You could say we're organic, we're not certified.
And I keep it open because I know we, in Texas, you don't know what the weather's gonna do tomorrow and there may be some event that it causes us to get a product to where we do have to use it. Luckily, this is year 10 and we've been getting away with it for a few years. So sustainability to me is taking care of the earth as much as I can.
We've tried different things. Everything from putting in really good cow manure post harvest to now mom's really getting into using sulfur burners to really work on our water system and our phs out there [00:09:00] in as much as a natural way as we can.
Shelly: I don't even know what that is. Sulfur burners.
Nikhila: Yeah, it has to do with changing the pH of our water to where we're not getting all this buildup. And there's also, it's for magnesium and then it leads into calcium as well. And so it's to just get our alkalinity down.
Shelly: Oh, interesting. And somewhere along the way you met Greg?
Greg: Yep. So I am the one that I think dragged her into the wine making side of the business. So she was completely on the vineyard side back in 2015 when we met. But she clearly had an interest in making wine but no desire to be in the business of making wine and having a winery. Whereas I didn't have any of the winemaking knowledge or vineyard knowledge.
I came from management consulting, so I had a lot of interest in running business, making processes, et cetera. And so we decided to, kind of join forces where she takes on vines and wines and then I have the rest, more or less.
Shelly: [00:10:00] I have to imagine that there was a very thorough business plan put together before you embarked upon the winery operations side of things.
Greg: There definitely was. It was a lot of nights and weekends, . And then when we presented our business plan to banks when we were looking for construction loan for our land and the taste room and everything, we definitely got a lot of feedback that it was the most detailed business plan they had ever seen.
Shelly: That's awesome. In the past, I know some growers felt like in order to optimize their profits that they should have their own wine label. But now with so many new wineries coming into Texas and the demand for Texas grapes is higher, I wonder if there are still as many growers thinking that it makes sense to have a wine label.
Greg: To me, it seems like there's this kind of seasaw back and forth where some years it feels like there are tons of vineyards coming in and oh my gosh, why would you ever plant more vineyard? There's, you know, tons of stuff coming in and then a couple [00:11:00] years later it's tons of wineries opening up and it's like, oh my gosh, where are they gonna get all this fruit?
And it seems to kind of just seasaw back and forth . We still think it's a good decision to be on the winemaking side. I think there's some appeals of the winemaking side in terms of you know, if you're on the vineyard side, all your sales come in, you know, one period of the year. Whereas winemaking, it spread out a bit throughout the year. I think it's beneficial for us to have both though.
Nikhila: I think it's also beneficial as a grower starting off in growing to see the winemaking side as well. Whether you do it full-time or you jump headfirst and do it like we did, I think it's made us better growers.
We really understand more of what we need to do not just, you know, not just about dropping fruit, but at the end goal of like what acid we wanna hit and what sugar we wanna hit and what kind of wine we wanna make. Because that answer is different for everyone and it all ends up for me, it's about what kind of wine I want in my glass in the end is [00:12:00] very different from the winemaker next to me and the grower next to me.
But the only way you really understand it is going through different vintages from end to end, from growing to bottling.
Shelly: That makes sense. Tell me about the decision to open a winery and to purchase this property and tell the listener a little bit about where we're sitting today.
Nikhila: I'll start this one off a little bit , and then Greg can take over. It's kind crazy. We started looking for a land at the end of 2017. Greg and I had just gotten married. We just had the holidays and we decided to embark on this journey of trying to find land. We wanted to be in the Hill country because two of our mentors, Dan Gatlin as well as Ben Calais, they both started in Dallas, but they both said get out to Fredericksburg.
They're for a few different reasons. One, especially because they're close by. If we need anything, they're around the corner and not just a phone call away. But we had a budget in mind and we didn't know if it would [00:13:00] happen out here for us, and especially back then. Most everything was right on two 90.
So we kept looking, we kept looking, and it was actually Father's Day weekend of 2018. I get a call from our realtor and bless his heart, like he worked with us with our budget. And I know he has big clientele, but he really believed in us, I think, and our story. And he kept telling me to come out and look at this piece of property.
And I was doing barrel work out here and I just kept saying, that's not that, just I've driven by it. It's so overgrown. Like there's not even a gate where we are. And I called Greg, I said, he keeps bugging me to go look and Greg's like, go look. Go look. And he really pushed me into coming out, taking a chance on this property.
Greg: Yeah. So the land we ended up purchasing used to be Itz Gardens. It's just over 16 acres right next to downtown Fredericksburg. It's literally two properties removed from being within city limits. And the first time [00:14:00] we actually came out onto the property, rather than just being on Goehmann Lane. We were shocked that it felt like you were in the middle of the Hill Country, even though you're right next to town.
And so we fell in love with it. It was within budget, which was huge for us because even, you know, end of 2017, beginning of 2018, prices had already gotten, , pretty high to the point that it wouldn't have , left us money to build a tasting room and kind of achieve what we were hoping to achieve.
And so we got really lucky. It was kind of, it felt like it was kind of at the tail end of when we needed to find land, otherwise we were gonna have to really put off opening for longer than we had hoped for. It all worked out.
Nikhila: I remember that weekend too, cuz I looked at it and then I was like, Greg, , you gotta get out here. He was flying in from his client in DC at the time and his parents were meeting us in Austin to have Father's Day all together. And we had some time on that Sunday and we were talking about his parents were like, let's go, let's drive out there and see what it is. And I think we all just were [00:15:00] like, it's beautiful out here.
My parents came soon after that to look at it too. As you can tell, we're very into our parents and families. And that's when I realized I, I do believe in certain signs in life. And this property actually had Jujubes. I had never seen Jujubes in the US. I thought they only existed in Asia. And my mom pointed it out and so I was like, you know what? This has to be it. This, this is awesome.
Shelly: Super cool.
Greg: And the couple that owned this before was Melvin and Matilda. Itz. We met them soon after , we purchased the property and they were both extremely nice. Melvin's no longer here but Matilda is still a complete sweetheart. She came by the tasting room, I think it was last summer. Yeah.
Shelly: How did they use the land?
Greg: It was a farm. So we see little handwritten notes on. Old walk-in fridges and stuff that are on property. But there was some okra, , tomatoes, blackberries, I believe, eggplant. Eggplant. And then habaneros, [00:16:00] one of the cool things is when we were under contract we were driving down from Dallas a lot on our weekends and we'd always stay in Austin because it just made it a little bit easier to drive down to Austin Friday night and then come over Saturday and we were waiting in line at a taco deli.
And Nikila turns to the side and sees this picture of a guy holding a bunch of habaneros. And we look at the bottom right and it says Itz Gardens Fredericksburg. And we're like, oh wait, that's the guy we're buying the land from. That's our property. Which was really cool. And then they didn't have habanero salsa for a while and I was worried it was my fault.
Shelly: But they had to find a new, new source.
Greg: This property used to be on the maps at all the Taco Delis, where they'd say, you know, where all their food vendors came from which was really cool. It's no longer there.
Nikhila: When we lived in Dallas, we went to Taco Deli at least every Saturday morning after a run on the Katy Trail. like it was a part of us. .
Shelly: That's super cool. So how did you anticipate using these 16 acres? I know you've got a small vineyard as you drive in.
Greg: Yeah. So [00:17:00] I don't know. , we knew we wanted the tasting room. We knew we were gonna eventually put in a production building.
We originally thought it was gonna be at the back of where the tasting room is. But then, I don't know, just more and more time spent at the property, you kind of realize where things should naturally go. And so we knew the vineyard was gonna go up front. Everyone wants to see a vineyard when they're coming to a winery.
And so that was kind of a natural place. And it's a nice acre that we have there. And then over time, after we had the vineyard and we had the tasting room and we're looking at putting in the winery, it's like, you know what? It belongs right next to that vineyard when you're coming in. Makes sense logistically for getting trucks in and out and
Nikhila: Yeah, I think our future plans is definitely putting walkways.
We actually hit the creek, Baron's Creek. This property dog legs and that has beautiful live oak trees down there. But Greg and I did a lot of the cleanup and the work ourselves. Not the construction work, but outside landscaping. And so we've talked about maybe doing [00:18:00] walking trails and having seating in different areas as we grow.
And also just kind of figuring out if we can , we say these things, but it also depends how our industry grows and changes. I've talked about wanting a little garden and a compost pile but that may be a little selfish of me. .
Greg: Yeah. And we're working with a landscaper now to hopefully get some more fruit and nut trees in. So they're a bunch on property from years and years ago, but we want to do a little bit more so we can have more stuff featured on our charcuterie boards or you know, elevated tastings that we do that can come off our own property. The criminal thing though, as kind of Nikhila was alluding to is the prettiest part of our property is actually, you know, the back left side that goes down to the creek.
It's gorgeous. It just needs a lot of work, to be cleaned up and reach its potential. But yeah, we have some trees back there that are a couple hundred years old or. Enormous and just beautiful.
Nikhila: In due time.
Shelly: Never knew. Yeah. You've got, you've got a lifetime ahead of you. A lifetime of [00:19:00] work and, and pleasure here.
Shelly: So, but you're through grow planting grapes to grow here, you think , TBD tbd
Nikhila: Never say never.
Shelly: Yeah. What's in the vineyard? What do you have planted up there?
Nikhila: It's Cab clone four.
Greg: Yeah. So we did a really high end planting of Cabernet for this vineyard. So the, the vines are spaced pretty close to each other and we're gonna do a really low yield on there.
So it may be one cluster per vine for a higher end label that we have. It's more French style out there. It's a meter spacing, so lot more nutrition going into a smaller amount of space, but still the same number of wines per acre.
Shelly: Interesting. I am curious to talk to you about Cabernet Sauvignon because it is the number one grown grape in Texas and some people don't believe in Cab in Texas, and I heard a winemaker recently say just because the winemakers don't know what to do with it, doesn't mean that it's not the right grape for Texas.
So , I'd love to hear you talk about what you think about Cab and, and your [00:20:00] thoughts on growing it and making wine from Texas Cabernet Sauvignon.
Nikhila: So when I first got my start, that's what I was making out in Napa Valley or helping make is Cabernet ,Malbec a little bit of white wine, but not much.
And I love drinking 'em for sure. When we planted though we didn't plant much Cabernet, we planted a lot of different varietals. I think Texas is still kind of in in some ways the same space where we're all trying to figure out what's great here. But I think a lot of things do well out here.
We have consumers that love, like you mentioned, we grow some rare varietals like to go. I think it makes a beautiful wine for sure. It's a big Italian grape for us. But as time went on, our Cabernet blocks were doing really well in the heat stress or in times where we have bad freezes. The vines recovered really nicely and when we started getting on the winemaking side and seeing what it does on in winemaking. I think it does beautiful.
But it all comes back to canopy management. [00:21:00] I've seen us grow cabernet at four tenths of the acre all the way down quarter ton to the acre. And not because of weather events, because we intentionally did it, and it, I think when you pull back Cabernet, it can do really well. Now when I say like clear out canopy management, I'm not just talking about shoot thinning to where you're gonna expose the berries to where they get heat stress, you're still using that canopy in your favor to create shade at the right times of the year. But, , like I mentioned, this time has gone on I think there is room for Cabernet in Texas
Greg: And we actually just released our first cabernet under a Kalasi Cellars. So we did a Cabernet clone eight, it was released to Wine Club last month and it is almost sold out and it's been extremely popular. It may be our quickest selling wine.
Is that right date? Oh yeah. It's interesting cuz a lot of our wine club members as well as customers that come in, are coming in for that Teroldogo and Merlot things that either you don't see a lot of, or we're the [00:22:00] first ones to grow in Texas and put out a wine. So it makes, it, makes it catch their eye.
But then they have the Cabernet and it. they enjoy it. So I think there's something for everyone for sure, but there's something to be said if they're still going back to that Cabernet.
I've been to your vineyard in the High Plains. Can you remind, is it in Brownfield?
Nikhila: It is. We are about half a mile from the main road. We're off of FM 4 0 3. Take a left right past Terry County Tractor and go about a half a mile and you'll see us .
Shelly: That's right. I remember that was the, the landmark that we were supposed to look for and we were heading out your way.
What does estate grown mean for this winery?
Nikhila: So estate grown to us is the fact that we do own every single acre of our grapes. We fully outright own it, but we don't make the wine out in Brownfield. We make the wine in Fredericksburg. And so , that's why we're not "estate", we're not in a estate winery. We're "estate grown".. So we are fully growing the grapes ourselves, but we are transporting it to a different [00:23:00] AVA to produce it. So we technically are not estate.
Shelly: Let's talk a little bit more specifically about a couple of grape varieties that I am not sure are grown anywhere else in Texas. You mentioned Teroldogo and the other is Carmenere. Two really unique choices. What about those grapes were intriguing to you and how have people responded to them?
Nikhila: I'll start with Teroldogo first. Teroldogo comes from Trentino -Alto Adige, super northern Italy. When you look at the map, it looks like you're almost to Switzerland.
They make a very different Teroldogo than what I've discovered that we can make in Texas. Ours are a lot darker, inkier, bigger bodied. Teroldogo intrigued me because of the size of grape it is, but the color extraction that you can get from that large of a berry but still a very tight cluster, small cluster.
And when Greg and I first started dating, he was working, he had a workshop out in Prague and so I met up with him post-workshop and we went into Italy and I [00:24:00] wanted to try this varietal and just fell in love with it, fell in love with the story of how it became popular because of a female winemaker in northern Italy.
And so it just kind of spurred my interest in it to begin with. 2015 is when we first planted Teroldogo at Nara Vineyards to see what it would do. We planted it five acres at the time and it did beautifully. , for a varietal that's Italian we were worried about vigor or what the fruit would do.
Could it handle the Texas heat? Barely had to worry about it. We did our normal passes like everything else. Maybe did an extra pass just to remove a few suckers in late June and then it was harvest. It's been so hands off compared to a Sangiovese, for example. And so that's what really kept it going in the vineyard.
And then we got some interest from Pedernales' David Kuhlken. So we sell a little bit off to him and then we keep most of [00:25:00] it for our program here. It's becoming more popular. It's actually been planted at least probably three or four other places that I know of. I think part of that is the nurseries are starting to get more more graphs going of it to be able to get it out to to vineyards for purchase.
And then the other one, Carménère. So Carménère intrigued me because of the pepperiness and the story of Carménère. It was kind of a lost grape for a long time. Merlot was the popular one in Chile, but the Chileans , did not know they weren't growing Merlot. It was Carménère that they had in the ground and it was doing really well.
So again, it's grown at high elevation down there, dry climate. So I think it was a perfect fit for us also going back to wanting to grow Cabernet and possibly putting in more Cabernet Vines over time and clones. Well, Carménère is a great pick with Cabernet to make Bordeaux blends in a year that we may want a little bit [00:26:00] more spice out of our wines.
So I think carer has done well. I know there is a planting out in the hill country of it. But. , I think it does really well out there. Same thing. It's very similar to Teroldogo for us, and it could just be where it's planted sitewise in our vineyard. Again, very little management. Other than the basic passes, Carménère sets fruit evenly and in the right fruiting zone for us and does not get too vigorous out there for us on that side of the vineyard.
Shelly: I know that it can tend to have an herbal characteristic or a green characteristic if it's not ripe. Do you have any trouble getting it ripe?
Nikhila: We do not have trouble getting it ripe, but we have discovered carer is so finicky in the fact that if you miss your pick window by a few hours, you may lose all those beautiful purines that are characteristic of Carménère. And the only way we learn that is by experience [00:27:00] vintage to vintage differences, making wine. And we can definitely attribute it to maybe not picking it at the right time.
Shelly: Hard, hard lessons to learn. I'm sure.
Shelly: So I learned to love wine through pinot noir and in the Pinot Noir world, people talk about clones a lot
I haven't heard people talk as much about clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. Why is that? And how did you choose the clones that you did?
Nikhila: I think I do have to definitely give credit to Dan Gatlin on this one. And also Ben. When they first started buying from us, the first things they asked me were clones.
And I was, you know, this. Young kid and was very confused of why they were asking about clones, why it meant so much. So it made me look it up and start reading about these clones and why they are so important. Every single clone, I can say, has a different attribute to make a Cabernet. So if you do wanna get into more blending [00:28:00] and Cabernets and you want more of a dark fruit versus a herbal character or spice character, it is clonal driven.
I think you're seeing it more and more in California. Winemakers are talking about clones and what clones they are planting and making, and it's starting to come to Texas. I know when I've gone and done tastings, there have been one or two times we have heard about clones. But I I definitely think it's important on the grape growing side and the wine making side as a grape grower. It does make a difference what clone you plant in the environment you're growing in. Mm-hmm. . .
Shelly: So you must be juggling a lot of different clients for your viticulture business that's in the High Plains several hours away. That sounds like a big task because you're managing the winery here and the grapes out in the high plains, traveling back and forth a good amount, as well as fielding questions from winemakers who wanna know how things are coming along, right? Mm-hmm. .
Greg: Yeah. Yeah. Nikhila manages most of the sales of grapes, so she has that side.
I helped [00:29:00] build some of the infrastructure to track all that, but.
Nikhila: Definitely, I think that's mostly Greg. Greg's not giving enough credit to himself, but I think he's made me a better business person on the vineyard side. Made me think more about varietals and pricing and contracts. He's made me a little bit stronger and speaking my mind and believing in what I'm doing.
But I think this wouldn't work without both of us. We also have a two year old now , and so we juggle things. Well, we, we travel as a unit. We do things as a unit. And so it's, it's nice too because it keeps my mind fresh. I'm not just talking about viticulture and I'm going into sales on the vineyard side or coming in here and getting trained on how to introduce, you know, what we're doing out in the field into the tasting room.
But , I think it's important , for both of us to be on both sides because Greg, yes, he's mentioned, he does everything else but [00:30:00] growing grapes and and , is a seller hand in the winery for me. But he does a lot of the research on wine making as well, and what other people are doing in different parts of the world to make their vineyard more successful. And I'm trying to implement those slowly, he reminds me a lot. .
Shelly: Greg, I have to imagine that you're maybe the worrier in this family and I think that growing grapes and having a winery is probably filled with like sleepless nights over a lot of different things. Because it's risky to grow grapes or any agricultural product, frankly. You're at the mercy of the weather and then, you know, the tourism business selling wine, you, you have to have a tremendous skillset in many different areas that you wouldn't expect like one [00:31:00] person to, have all these different skills. So how do you manage all the things you're trying to manage as a business person?
Greg: So, I would say in consulting you get thrown into the most unusual circumstances that you would've ever predicted. I mean, you'll get thrown on a project and told you need to fly out today and go and solve x, y, and z problems.
I got thrown onto a payroll project where my client had over 150,000 employees and they needed me to fix the process. I had never done anything with payroll before. So, You know, through doing that, you learn a lot of the logic that you want to use when you're solving a problem. How to figure out, you know, what your blind spots are, what do you need to go research, et cetera.
And so I'd say for running a business now, consulting really helped teach me how to look out for problems, understand where I may have blind spots that I need to be aware of and, you know, maybe put some things in place to avoid some of the risk. And so, yes, there were a lot of sleepless nights, I would say [00:32:00] mostly when we were trying to get the tasting room built.
There was a lot of stress when so we bought the land in 2018, took us a while to get construction financing in place. So we started construction July of 2019 and didn't get our tasting room open until August of 2020. And covid kicked off and was kind of a, a lot of hoops and other things and unknowns to jump through as a business owner.
And so back then there were definitely a lot of sleepless nights, especially since I left my job in end of 2019 to focus on this . So it was a lot of unknowns of, hey, are we ever gonna be able to open? Are we ever gonna be able to sell a bottle of wine ? But now that the tasting room is open, we have the winery, we have you know, strong customer base built up and everything is a lot less stressful than it was a couple years ago.
Nikhila: It's also been nice because we've started to build our own team here at the winery and the tasting room and so Greg can finally start handing off some of the tasks that he has kept him up at night. Mm-hmm. And , we are very [00:33:00] lucky to be able to employ people.
Greg: Yes. That's, I think, been a game changer for us just adding stability. I mean, whenever, when we first opened and everything was really on the two of us, and then maybe some part-time people working in the tasting room, there's not much room for error or anything. Whereas a child , yeah, that was the I joked. Our first full-time employee hire I used to call 'em our paternity leave program because it was the only way that Nik and I would get some time away from the tasting room is if we had actually hired someone.
And so that was what spurred, you know, the first hiring. But that was a very good thing to do. And, you know, we built on that. And We're gonna have four full-time employees very shortly, so that's nice.
Shelly: You made a big commitment to building your own production facility here, and one of the things that you've just recently made news on is your purchase of an optical sorter.
Can you explain what that is and what it does?
Nikhila: Yeah, so my first experience [00:34:00] with an optical sorter was back in Napa at the winery I worked for. They would rent it for their highest end cabernet off of Howell Mountain. And it reminds me of a machine out of a Dr. Seuss book . Now, now that I look back, so we are doing passes throughout the season in the vineyard to try to get the best grapes we can out of that block, that acreage.
Then we have a mechanical harvester that does somewhat sort out in the field for us to where we get dsem grapes into the winery, but we still wanna take another path. And the optical sorter there's three different stages to it. The first one is just a massive hopper that we drop the bins into that de juices everything.
And then just the grape berries go up the elevator onto this vibe table. It just shakes really, really fast levels everything out. And some of the trash gets taken out. Then some of the rachis that may have broken off or leaves, and then it goes [00:35:00] onto the optical belt. The optical belt has a camera, and we put in our parameters on, unlike an iPad like screen, we select the hue, the color, the density maceration of the berry, and also how many air jets we want to use and how finite we wanna make the final bin look.
And so it goes onto the optical belt. These parameters are set, the air jets are going off as the camera's seeing what's passing through. It has a trash shoot, so anything we don't want goes into this other bin, and then the good stuff goes into a separate bin. And then we have the best of the best berries ending up in that bin.
So it's kind of like, I love Lucy style, but you don't have human error at that point. It is relying on technology. When we started the vineyard, we relied heavily on technology throughout the years. And so we wanted to also bring that on the winemaking side. We worked so hard throughout the year that to make the best wine possible, and we've seen it in the regions of the [00:36:00] world where they have these optical sorters are making very high end wine, and that's where we want our program to be.
Greg: Yeah. And so the optical sort can remove 97% of the material we want it to remove. So really the resulting fruit that ends up in. You know, acceptable bin or whatever we wanna call it, the the sorted bin. It looks flawless.
We had been looking at it for a couple years talking about it. Greg went out to Napa, I couldn't go at the time.
Nikhila: And went to different wineries out there to see it for himself and see if this was the right decision for our program. And we pulled, we pulled the trigger after his trip.
Greg: Yeah. There were some sleepless nights leading up to harvest. Our optical sorter ended up taking a vacation to The Bahamas because it didn't get unloaded in Houston like it was supposed to.
So anyways, we ended up getting , our optical order in time for harvest. But there were some stressful times of wondering if everything was gonna work out.
Shelly: I bet. Do you use it for all [00:37:00] varieties?
Nikhila: This past year we used it on all our reds. We got it when season already started, cuz again we started July 26th picking grapes last year, which is unheard of And so we didn't use it on our whites, but we have talked about it starting this year on using it on everything that comes through this winery.
Shelly: That's interesting. I first heard of optical sorters, like you guys probably in Napa for the high-end cabs. And the only criticism I've ever heard of it , was from a winery in Sonoma who is kind of more like old style field blends.
And they were saying that, that they want to keep , the less ripe berries, for instance, because it gives complexity and that if you, you know, optimize all your grapes or an optical sorter, that perhaps you're getting a wine that is more, one dimensional than they would prefer.
Greg: I think every wine maker has their own preferences on what plant material they want to be in the bins.
I think [00:38:00] generally it's viewed as a very positive thing to have, you know, the ripest berries. make into wine. That's from what we see typically done at. Many of the highest in wineries around the world. But yes, there, there are winemakers around that, you know, want all sorts of different things.
And so it, I mean, we have what we believe makes what we, prefer in wine. But other people have their own preferences
Nikhila: And there are certain varietals that we will, like I said, we set the parameters. We don't set the same parameters for every pass, every varietal that goes through there. So there's certain ones we do wanna see those complexities and a little bit of nuance, so those may be a little bit different, but there are certain other ones that we wanna put everything to the highest level possible.
Shelly: And is it a fast process?
Greg: Oh yeah, really quickly. It can process, I think it's 12 or 14 tons per hour. And so our bins are half ton bins, so could you imagine dumping over 20 of those in the hopper an hour? Faster speed than we need. So the main [00:39:00] thing is when we're pulling fruit off the truck, we can basically go straight into the optical sorter, dump the next bin without hesitating But it can process far faster than we need as a boutique winery.
Shelly: I know You've been working with Dan Gatlin, who is consulting with you on winemaking issues. Tell me about your collaboration.
Greg: Yeah, so when we built our production winery in 2021 that was done in alignment with bringing Dan on as a winemaking consultant along with his son, Spencer Gatlin. And they've worked with us on all our bottling of our reserve wines from 2017 onward.
And yeah, they're just fantastic. Dan probably has the best palate of anyone I've ever come across. It's truly absurd. It'll taste 10 wines alongside each other, one ounce pours of each, and then six months later, it feels like he knows how to describe every single wine he tasted in perfect detail. Better than anyone else in the room is able to .
Nikhila: I think also Dan's [00:40:00] always been a mentor since the day I met him. I got an email from him soon after the Capitol, a 100% Texas Bill was getting presented and I told Greg, I said, there's a Dan Gatlin reaching out to me from Inwood and he wants to come look at our fruit.
And Greg said, you show up to that vineyard, whatever time at that red barn that he wants. And it was July. It was hot, and Dan wanted to meet in the middle of the afternoon. And at that time of year, we usually work really early in the morning till about noon . And then we're, we're fried. But he showed up. And if you've never seen Dan, he is very tall and I'm very small and he can be a little intimidating.
And the first thing he told me was, just so you know, I haven't bought anything out in Terry County in a long time. So I'm thinking, okay, this is gonna be an interesting conversation. And we went and sat down for probably a half hour and went through everything we grow, our growing style, what we're doing in the vineyard at the [00:41:00] time.
And then he said, okay, go show me your grapes. And I said, okay. We hopped on into the little Kubota ATV and went out. I remember we were in Cab Franc and he saw a little green clusters and the rest of the fruit was going through verasion. And he said, Nikhila, the first thing you need to do tomorrow is come through here and cut off all of these right away.
And he said, you think you have time, but you don't. This is the time to do it. But the way he approached it and went through the reasoning behind it and taught me, I knew it's someone that I wanted to get a relationship going with self fruit to, but also learn from. I remember calling Greg and telling him about my time with him and was like, he, he makes sense. I, I wanna know more. And from then on I think we went to the tasting room pretty soon after together and we were floored by the wines he was making and you know, as a grower, , you want your grapes in his bottle, and figuring [00:42:00] out what we could do to get it there. And then when we started making wine, it was, it was an easy call as far as saying who we would love to bring on, but Dan doesn't mentor people usually or consult for other wineries. And so we bugged them for a good bit of time and, you know, we laid out what we were looking for and it's been a great relationship, I think both ways.
Greg: Yeah, I think him and Spencer too have enjoyed working alongside us because they have a very well established wine program of the wines that they're making. They make some changes from time to time. But, you know, coming over and working with us in our wine program that's very focused on single varietals and some different varietals and they're used to working with, I think has been a, a good exercise for them to have a little bit more creativity probably, or solve some new problems.
Shelly: A new challenge.
Has anything surprised you about what people respond to in the tasting room? And has that changed what kind of wines you're making?
Nikhila: Teroldogo was the [00:43:00] start of us being talked about. And it's a very happy start, very great start for us. But as we've developed more, I think customers have come in and said, we can totally, we know when it's your wine, we can tell your style, wine to wine no matter what the varietal is, which is a really nice compliment to get this early on in wine making. But I think we're going more into not only showcasing what the fruit tastes like, because right now a lot of our wines are single varietal. So when we say you're having a Merlot reserve, it is a hundred percent Merlot, the best barrels we have in the cellar that we're putting into that reserve Merlot.
Whereas we're not blending anything else into that Merlot. We do have a couple blends that have been really popular. Italian Blend, Teraldego, Sagrantino, and Sangiovese. As well as a more of a Bordeaux style blend. But I think consumers have surprised me [00:44:00] in that they do wanna see more Bordeaux and Italian varietals that are a little bit bigger and pushing the envelope on rightness.
Shelly: Do you still have the llama and the sheep?
Greg: We do. So the sheep, we have a, I'm probably gonna mix up the order of their names, but Old English South Down babydoll sheep. It's a breed of sheep that's really small and they're great to have for vineyards because they're so short they can't eat the grapes and other things off the vines, but they can eat all the weeds around the vines.
So we'll move those sheep to the vineyard at times of the year that we want weeding done so we don't have to spray as much. And then the llama is a guard llama, so predators will try and get in and attack the sheep, but the llama is there to protect them. So llamas hate all canines. So a stray dog, a coyote, anything, the llama's gonna go and confront that. and make sure to keep the sheep as safe as possible.
Nikhila: Greg has also experienced this straight on from our llama. His name is Dolly.
Shelly: Oh, he just walked [00:45:00] into the picture window he's behind that tree.
Greg: So what was it? Christmas of 2020. We were in Dallas for Christmas and we made it back to Fredericksburg that day.
And I needed to go put out hay for the animals and was already pitch black. I didn't see the sheep or llama or anything, but I did see some deer and I was worried that...city slicker. I don't know, I don't know if deer go after the hay or not, but I was worried they were gonna steal the sheep's hay. And so I started like clapping and whistling to try and scare them away.
And then sure enough, our llama comes charging at me, . Oh. And then I decided to google how fast the llama can run, and it's like 35 to 40 miles an hour. But I knew when he was running at me that there was no hope of me running away. He's fast, he weighs like 400 pounds. But fortunately when he was around 20 feet away from me, he stopped because he realized it was me.
Shelly: Goodness. He's taking a dust bath out there, . , I see the dust flying. He was just on his back. Speaking of dust, my goodness. What about the High Plains weather in the [00:46:00] past week or so?
Nikhila: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Everything from flurries to dust bowls. We need rain. We desperately need rain. I know everywhere we're all kind of saying the same thing, but it really just helps keep the dust down to where we can get through the vines.
Our crews have been working on getting our hail netting set up and it's so hard for them when it's blowing winds and. The dust just, it gets everywhere in you. If you haven't experienced West Texas, you can tell yourself, just keep your mouth closed, just walk straight as fast as you can into that door. You get inside and then you realize you have a mouth full of dust and you don't even know how ,
Greg: It's not always that bad .
Nikhila: It isn't, but I'm saying in these dust bowl situations.
Shelly: Yeah. The the week, or so prior was really rough. Yeah. Looked like. From photos, I also saw a vineyard owner that had done a before and after picture. And, and the before they had some really nice cover crops. And then in the [00:47:00] after it was just blown to bits. Oh. And it's like you try to do the right thing. Right. And that's sad. You know, you think that maybe that'll help you out and keep things tamped down a little bit. But yeah, it was rough. Yeah.
Last question is kind of a big one and you can answer it however you see fit. What excites you about the future of Texas Wine and, and what makes you excited to be a part of it as , both a vineyard owner and a winery owner?
Greg: It's changing so much. From when we started making wine back in 2017 and started looking for land and everything to now it's almost completely different than it was back then. I would say that there are a number of changes. I think from the consumer side, you have more people that are taking Texas wine seriously and appreciate really good wine.
And so that has some effects throughout the industry when, you know, customers are willing to invest in really good quality wine, then wineries can justify making that. And then vineyards [00:48:00] can grow higher and higher quality fruit. And so that's just night and day change from you know, the historical stereotype of Texas wine.
So that's something that's really great. But there's so many new entrants to the, area. So a lot of new wineries, a lot of hotels are coming in, distilleries, other things. And so it's really changing Fredericksburg pretty quickly into more of a seven day week destination. And I think it's opening up a lot of other doors for Texas wineries to grow.
Maybe it's to elevated tastings, maybe it's to distribution. So there are a lot of other avenues that. Or, or doors that are opening up because of the changes to the industry. And I think that's gonna be a lot of fun for us as business owners to kind of navigate all of those.
Nikhila: Yeah, it's fun to be in a area of the industry where people are excited to see what's gonna happen and are talking about us, this industry as comparing us to other regions that have been growing grapes for a long time and the [00:49:00] similarities.
And Greg came on also when the 100% Texas movement was going on, which was really exciting. And at that time we were just growing grapes and starting to make wine but didn't have a tasting room. And we kept hearing, well, does a consumer. understand what you're trying to push for? And I went to the capital and listened to everything. And when we opened this tasting room, I had that kind of thought in the back of my head, what are customers looking for? What are consumers looking for? And it made us very happy to hear when people would ask us, where do our grapes come from? What's in this bottle? So customers do care.
It is a very much farm to table industry, and it's been exciting to see. I think we also challenge each other in this industry in a positive way. As Greg mentioned, Fredericksburg growing the businesses around us that are coming in to help support the wine industry. We [00:50:00] wouldn't be here without the BnB's.
They were the originals in this area that brought tourism as well as antique shops. The German history, the museum here. Without them, the wineries wouldn't be here.
Shelly: And the peaches.
Nikhila: And peaches, absolutely. The peaches and the farmers. And you fast forward to wineries coming in. Well now it opens up doors , for people to open boutique hotels and restaurants.
And I think we all have to work together to help this industry thrive.
Greg: One fun story, it wasn't necessarily fun at the time, but, but back when we had bought the land and we were looking for a construction loan, we had presented our business plan to a bank and we were worried that our budget was gonna be too small.
They were gonna think we were building something too small because we saw some other wineries that were coming in and we knew that we weren't competing with them on a price point and other things. But then their feedback actually to us was, oh, aren't all the tasting rooms out there just in mobile homes or [00:51:00] RVs?
And we go, have you been to Fredericksburg ? It was very eye-opening to us, but for some people that, you know, maybe don't come out here all the time, that probably wasn't too far removed for them. Maybe, you know, when they came five years before, maybe that was what a lot of Fredericksburg was or was the reality for a lot of new wineries. And I don't think anyone would make that comment again if they made it out here because. It's crazy what's happening.
Shelly: It's an exciting time. For sure. I love what you're doing. I hear you have some really fun parties and Indian themed events and it looks like a great time.
Nikhila: We do, we try to bring in Indian influences throughout our tastings, whether it's by food or even like what we serve our water in are actually traditional chai cups back home. And so there'll be little nuances throughout. But yes, we do have a few Indian snacks, samosas... and then our big events. What people really [00:52:00] do come out for especially our members, is Divali and our anniversary dinners, our harvest dinners, and they will. hopefully always have an Indian or Italian. Greg's half Italian, so twist to them. .
Greg: Yeah. But we like working with a chef out of Houston a lot. Chef Roshni Gurnani. She's fantastic at coming up with really, I don't know, creative Indian inspired dishes that people love. And so we feature her in a lot of our events.
Shelly: Well, thanks for giving me a little glimpse into your life.
Nikhila: Well, thank you for having us. Anything that I didn't ask you that you wanna be sure and mention?
Greg: We're working with Southern Glazer's now for distribution.
Shelly: Oh, that's great. Across Texas.
Greg: Across Texas. Across Texas, yes. Wonderful.
Nikhila: Yeah, for on-premise. So restaurants...
Greg: And in the future off-premise too. I'm sure
Shelly: Well, so start looking for your wines and restaurants [00:53:00] all around the state, I guess.
Nikhila: Hope so. I hope more Texas restaurants believe in Texas wine and carry us on their wine list.
Greg: Yeah. So that's something that we think is important for the growth of the industry, is to put more and more good Texas wine on the shelves that people can try it and realize that it, it is worth buying. It is worth visiting, you know, Fredericksburg tasting rooms or tasting rooms throughout the state. And so we wanna be a part of that growth of the industry.
Nikhila: We do. I think it's very important too. It was really interesting. Covid wasn't a happy time for many. But the interesting side on the tasting room is I can't tell you how many people we serve that would say, I had no idea Texas made wine. And I hope that never really gets said again because they're seeing it out in the market and being able to get a great bottle of Texas wine in their hands.
Shelly: For sure. Do you know yet what wines you're gonna have in distribution?
Greg: So Southern Glazer's, so far they've picked up our 2017 non reserve Malbec, our 2017 non reserve [00:54:00] Tannat. And then we have a second label called Anima Cellars that they've picked up.
Shelly: Wonderful. I'll have to look for those. Congrats.
Greg: Thank you. Thank you.
Shelly: Well, thank you so much for your time. Thank you. Thank you.